"I wanted a new challenge" – Cross-cultural differences in workers’ thoughts about their career changes

It’s not many generations ago that workers expected to have a job for life, most probably one that followed in the footsteps of their father, and his father before that. In many of today’s richer societies, it’s all different. Longer education and greater individual choice mixed with mergers, take-overs and bankruptcies mean that people’s careers are typically punctuated by a series of distinct transitions or chapters. But how do people perceive these transitions and do such perceptions vary between cultures? To find out, Katharina Chudzikowski and her colleagues interviewed a mix of over a hundred nurses and blue- and white-collar workers from five countries – Austria, Serbia, Spain, USA and China.

Their stand-out finding? Workers in the United States didn’t ever attribute a career transition to an external cause, such as conflict with a boss. Not once. Instead they tended to mention internal factors, such as their desire for a fresh challenge. By contrast, workers in China almost exclusively stressed the role played by external factors. Meanwhile, workers in the the European nations were more of a mix, attributing their career transitions to both internal and external factors.

The researchers said a lot of the transitions reported by the participants, especially in the USA and Europe, were positive. Generally-speaking, people are known to be biased towards attributing positive events to themselves, and so it’s perhaps little wonder that many workers attributed all these positive career transitions to internal causes. “In addition,” the researchers said, “in many cultures ‘being in charge’ of one’s life is positively valued. Conversely, reconstructing crucial career transitions as purely triggered by external circumstances does not convey a great amount of competence.”

Where workers showed a greater tendency to attribute their career transitions to external causes, this seemed to be related to the influence of a collectivist culture and an economy in flux. “Countries with more dynamic economic change show a stronger emphasis on organisational and macro factors,” the researchers said.

Apart from the value of its findings, the study also provides a useful demonstration of the difficulties involved in conducting cross-cultural research. For example, whilst interviews were conducted in the participants’ native languages, the transcripts were translated into English for qualitative analysis, which raised some interesting problems. For example, some German-speaking interviewees cited “Wirtschaft” as an influencing factor – a word that can mean economy, industry, commerce or business world, but which also has mythical-religious undertones. There’s no real direct equivalent in English.

ResearchBlogging.orgChudzikowski, K., Demel, B., Mayrhofer, W., Briscoe, J., Unite, J., Bogićević Milikić, B., Hall, D., Las Heras, M., Shen, Y., & Zikic, J. (2009). Career transitions and their causes: A country-comparative perspective Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology, 82 (4), 825-849 DOI: 10.1348/096317909X474786

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

3 thoughts on “"I wanted a new challenge" – Cross-cultural differences in workers’ thoughts about their career changes”

  1. I doubt the results of this study, at least from the perspective of the US. I work a lot with people who file employment discrimination complaints. They all feel that the adverse event that happened to them on the job was due to external causes, namely the nasty action of others, such as their supervisors. Not a single one attributed what happened to them to internal factors. Perhaps something happened in culturally translating the research factors, or the researchers misunderstood the interviewees, or the researchers asked the wrong people.
    Marc Brenman

  2. I personally think that you are getting people filing employment discrimination complaints because why would people with internal causes report to you? They would have no reason to file employment discrimination because they don't have one to talk about. They change jobs because it is internal and typically can find jobs elsewhere.

  3. As I understand the post, it talks about the reasons why people shift careers. Now it makes me think why Marc and Anonymous talk about discrimination complaints largely. But agreeing with Marc, this study could have been more thorough in its methodology. It could have come up with a more detailed demographics for readers to see the framework of the study and analyze it better, particularly that this one is about psychology.

    In most cases, lack in opportunity in a particular industry really makes one shift to a different career. People need to work to have sustenance for living such as the basic food, shelter and clothing; that's why people keep on looking for a job even if it means changing his work-role. It is one thing when people transfer from one workplace to another, or even to another kind of work because of discrimination. In our place in Ottawa though, the people are in accord with their employers because aside from the good employment conditions, we also have skilled Ottawa employment lawyers to handle employee-related cases should there arise any problems.

Comments are closed.