Career Management

Career decision-making styles

We make a huge number of decisions on a daily basis, from the trivial, such as deciding whether to press snooze on the alarm and have ten more minutes in bed, through to the life-changing, such as deciding whether to have a child.

We make these decisions regularly without really considering the mechanism behind them. One of the advantages of coaching is that clients are often encouraged to take a “meta” position. This means that, on occasion, you don’t simply focus on what you are doing, but how you are doing it. It is a fascinating human trait to be able to step outside of the process itself and observe our actions as if looking at them as a third party.

For career decisions it can be helpful to know your personal style. Clients often think that they “should” make decisions a certain way (“having a five year plan”) when in fact their history reveals that they have had a successful career making decisions another way (“using their intuition”).

In this article I’m going to introduce two different models of career decision-making styles. There is no single “true” model, but I hope that the combination gives you some insight into your own style.

Satisficer or Maximiser?

A satisficer sets their minimum criteria and takes the first option that fulfils all of them. For example, for a job the criteria may be:

  • less than a 45 minute commute
  • able to leave by 5:30
  • a friendly team
  • a minimum salary of £x.

They may not be as explicitly stated, but the theoretical satisficer would take the first job that ticked all of these boxes.

The theoretical maximiser would have the same criteria but would seek to maximise each of them. Against their list of jobs they would have the time of the commute, leaving time, friendliness of team and salary. They would also apply some weighting so they could come up with an overall score. This need not be on paper; in fact it may be largely subconscious. The key is that they will spend time comparing options rather than taking the first acceptable one.

Even in this simple example, you can see that there is more “decision-making effort” with the maximiser than the satisficer. Some parts of the calculations are “soft” and take into account subjective things like “friendliness of team”. In job search terms there is often an element of time as well, in that you have limited time to apply for roles and a limited time to accept if successful. The options are blinking on and off fairly rapidly.

The evidence suggests that people are disposed to either satisficing or maximising. For your own career history, have a think about which you are.

  • Do you tend to say “yes” to the first good offer or hold out and compare?
  • Whether you are a satisficer or maximiser, can you be explicit about what the criteria for a new job would be?
  • Money is likely to be in there somewhere, but is it as a minimum amount or the most you can get?
  • What other things are on your list?

It may be worth jotting them down or dropping them into a document.

Evaluative, Strategic, Aspirational or Opportunistic Careerist?

Jenny Bimrose and Sally-Anne Barnes, from the Warwick Institute of Employment Research, undertook a five-year qualitative research study into the role of guidance in the process of career development and progression*. As an aside from its primary purpose, they noticed four different ways in which people make decisions about their career. Characteristics of people with these styles are set out in the following table.


  • Use self-appraisal to decide on career direction
  • Are comfortable reflecting on their own needs, values and abilities and working out what sort of work is going to fulfil them
  • Take into account practical considerations, such as money, but balance them against less tangible considerations
  • Can manage a degree of ambiguity as they are aware that their needs may change over time and that the process of reflection will potentially throw up things that will alter their career path.


  • Take a much more rational decision-making approach to their careers - laying out options, weighing them up and then implementing plans to achieve their goals
  • Take a “classic” approach to career planning, focusing on matching and benefits rather than emotion or wider needs
  • Will move roles and organisations based on achieving the next step in the ladder rather than considerations about culture, relationships with peers or other “softer” factors.


  • Have a very clear aspirational goal, often quite different from where they are now, and which is closely linked with their personal priorities
  • May take a number of different roles to make ends meet, but are clear about where they want to get to. An example might be an actor, who is sure that they want to be famous, but is happy working in a call centre in the interim. The aspirational goal is usually very tough.


  • Grab what is in front of them based on a chance conversation or an opportunity that crops up unexpectedly.
  • Are flexible, and may not even seem to make a conscious choice as to what to do next
  • Are likely to be vague if asked about their career
  • Can turn their hand to lots of things
  • Have an “ideal job” that is a bit of a fantasy.

Do you recognise your own career from any of these descriptions?


I hope you have found these two models helpful. Remember that it is OK if your decision-making style and career are different from other people. The key with any “style” model is to play to the strengths of your own style rather than berate yourself for its weaknesses. And if you are feeling brave you may want to be playful and try out a different style. It can only be a learning opportunity.

* The full paper is available from publications/2008/ or Google: “Adult Career Progression & Advancement: A five year study of the effectiveness of guidance”. Chapter 3 gives a full description of the styles.

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