What is career success

Subjective and objective career success

News12.06.2020Science for Practitioners
Prof. Dr. Torsten Biemann
Chair of Human Resource Management and Leadership at the University of Mannheim

For employees, success is not only expressed in terms of salary, the number of promotions or the hierarchical position in the company. Professor Torsten Biemann and Professor Heiko Weckmüller discussed how companies can positively influence the subjective career success of their employees.

A few decades ago, chimney careers were quite common with an employer. Clear title designations such as “Director” also made it possible to objectively classify individual status and career success. As early as the 1980s and 1990s, this picture was partially dissolved by the flattening of hierarchies in the context of new concepts such as "lean management". A change in status thinking in the context of the change in values ​​also led to the extensive abolition of title hierarchies. Specialist careers for specialists appeared alongside the classic management careers and cross-company development paths spread, in which career steps between companies can no longer be clearly interpreted as promotion or relegation. “Boundaryless Careers” is the new buzzword in career research (Arthur / Rousseau, 1996). As a result of these changes, it is assumed that it has become increasingly difficult to measure career success against objective criteria. Rather, individual feelings, subjective career success, come to the fore.

This year's survey of executives in German-speaking countries, "Manager Barometer 2015/16", also provides indications of this. Almost 50 percent of those surveyed indicated that they would like to move up the hierarchy, if possible to top management. Almost 10 percent would like to step back and about 40 percent of those surveyed are satisfied with their hierarchical position (Odgers Berndtson, 2016, p. 23). The reasons for this restriction are varied, but they show across the board that the subjective assessment of personal success can deviate from the objective measures such as status, hierarchical level or income. Various career advisors have similar headlines (e.g. "Measurable criteria are not everything") and urge you to be clear about your personal definition of a career and not to make yourself dependent on formal ascriptions.

Against the background of these first impressions, we would like to focus on the following two questions: (1) Which factors determine subjective and objective career success? and (2) What is the relationship between subjective and objective career success? In doing so, we particularly look at the meta-studies by Thomas W. Ng and colleagues from 2005 and the updated study by Thomas W. Ng and Daniel C. Feldman from 2014. In addition, we would like to finally present individual results on careers in German personnel management against the background of the readership of this journal. But first we want to turn to the distinction between subjective and objective career success.

Subjective and objective career success

In personnel research, careers are generally used to describe career paths. Only through the connection with career success or failure does the term acquire an evaluative meaning. The objective career success is based on a social understanding and is linked to visible indicators that are operationalized via hierarchical position in the company, the salary or the number of promotions. Objective career success can also be assessed by outside third parties. In contrast, the subjective career success relates to the individual attitude, is not immediately visible and is operationalized through surveys, e.g. with regard to career satisfaction. A distinction is made between an affective and a cognitive component. The former relates to emotional responses to career success, while the cognitive component depicts a more rational assessment of usefulness (See et al., 2008). Another distinction concerns the reference point of the subjective career assessment. The comparison between opportunities and career goals actually achieved can be made by referring to one's own expectations or by comparing it with an external career standard or the career success of other peers (Heslin, 2003). Accordingly, subjective career success is usually recorded through surveys.

Connections between objective and subjective career success

There are different theoretical approaches to explaining how subjective and objective career success relate to one another. First of all, it is a question of whether there are different constructs at all or whether rather subjective and objective career success coincide and there are only different measurement concepts. In their metanalysis, Ng et al. (2005, p. 388) prove that the constructs involved are different, which surprisingly are not strongly correlated with one another (see Figure 1). There is only a correlation of 0.22 between subjective career success and the objective measure of “promotions”, which depicts the hierarchical position (Dette et al., 2004 also achieve similar results).

Against this background, the question arises as to what causal relationship exists between subjective and objective measures of success. Here the thesis that objective career success results in the subjective component “career satisfaction” seems plausible. On the other hand, (experimental) studies also show that positive expectations lead to objective success. The assessment of causal relationships is not possible on the basis of the correlation considerations cited in the previous section; rather, longitudinal studies are required here. Andrea E. Abele and Daniel Spurk (2009) examine the career progressions and attitudes of around 1,300 university graduates in Germany at a total of 5 points in time over a 10-year horizon. The result shows that subjective factors have a significant influence on subsequent objective career success. However, this finding allows for different interpretations. On the one hand, in the sense of positive psychology, it is conceivable that optimism about one's own professional progress increases later objective career success. On the other hand, a method-oriented interpretation is possible: the individual employee is satisfied with his or her career success because positive feedback has already been received about his performance, e.g. in the context of performance and potential assessments. His satisfaction thus results from the expectation of a later transport, which can actually be realized by the next measurement time.

Influencing factors differ

Subjective career success is not just the by-product of objective career success. This raises the question of the specific influencing factors in each case. In a meta-analysis, Thomas G. Ng and colleagues (2005) examined the determinants of career success. It showed that promotions as an indicator of objective career success are comparatively difficult to predict: The correlations with educational level, demographic factors such as gender, personality traits or organizational variables (e.g. support from the supervisor) are only low, i.e. usually below 0.1. Only further training opportunities show a slightly higher correlation with objective career success with a correlation of 0.23 (Ng et al., 2005, p. 385).

In contrast, when explaining subjective career success, the connections are clearer. In particular, the support from the company (career advancement r = 0.44 and supervisor support r = 0.46) influences individual personality traits as well as individual satisfaction with one's own career, including, for example, emotional stability (r = 0.36), proactivity (r = 0.38) and internal control belief, that is, the extent to which I see events as the result of my own actions (r = 0.47). In contrast, demographic variables such as gender and age do not have a strong influence on subjective career success.

In an update and expansion of this meta-study, Thomas W. Ng and Daniel Feldman (2014) examine the factors influencing (subjective) career hurdles (see Figure 2). It also shows that factors that are widely discussed politically, such as educational background, marital status or gender, are viewed by employees as rather insignificant factors that hinder their subjective career success. Strong connections are again evident in the support provided by the organization. Overall, the results show that subjective career success is less attributed to social and personal circumstances. Rather, the causes of insufficient career satisfaction are associated with the organizational framework and the direct superior. The effect that failures are more likely to be attributed to external factors, while successes are interpreted as the result of one's own performance, can be explained with the attribution theory (Weiner, 1984) and can also be demonstrated in other areas of human resource management.

Career success in personnel management

The results presented above relate to international interdisciplinary studies. Only individual studies are available for the national context and for individual occupational groups, three of which are presented here with reference to personnel management in Germany. Thomas Armbrüster and Katharina Schüller (2014) examine the objective career success on the basis of a survey of executives in personnel management in cooperation with the Federal Association for Personnel Management (BPM), in which there are 5,200 evaluable returns. Career success is primarily operationalized through the dependent variable “income”. In particular, there is a positive connection between strategically working personnel areas and strategically oriented positions in the sense of the business partner model with the income level. Experience outside of HR is largely insignificant for a high income in HR management. Sascha Armutat (2011) comes to the same conclusion on the basis of a survey of DGFP members on their subjective career success: Experiences outside of personnel management have no significant influence on this variable. Gerhard Blickle and Mohamed Boujataoui (2005) confirm, on the basis of a questionnaire with 325 executives in personnel management, the overarching empirical finding (e.g. Wolf / Moser, 2009) that mentors contribute to career success, whereby the network effect of the mentor is particularly emphasized.

What can companies do?

We have described the objective career success via salary, hierarchy levels and the number of subordinate employees above. All of this can be influenced by companies, but of course they have a very limited interest in promoting all employees and increasing their salaries. Objective career success is therefore usually a zero-sum game. If an employee is promoted, you cannot give the other employees this opportunity. In their own interest, companies select employees who appear to be best suited for the position. In addition, influencing objective career success is hardly relevant for companies. Rather, there are opportunities for companies to target the subjective career success of their employees, precisely because there is no very great correlation to objective career success here. Employees can be satisfied with their career without it having to be reflected in objective success. This is where companies can start and provide employees with career prospects. Maria L. Kraimer and colleagues (2011) showed, for example, that employees leave the company less often if they recognize career prospects in the company for themselves. Self-efficacy in one's own career, i.e. the perception of the extent to which one can control one's own career, is a possible starting point for companies. This can be achieved, for example, through appropriate leadership styles (Biemann et al., 2015) as well as through personnel policy measures that enable employees to achieve their individual career goals, which do not always have to mean hierarchical advancement. Similar to what we already described for job satisfaction (Biemann / Weckmüller, 2013), it is important to weigh up the costs and the expected benefits for the company.


  • Subjective and objective career success are correlated, but different constructs that are influenced by different factors.
  • Career satisfaction is primarily influenced by the organizational framework and the relationship with superiors. Sociodemographic variables such as gender or marital status have little influence.
  • In German personnel management, experience in other functions does not have any significant influence on objective and subjective career success.
  • Companies can positively influence the subjective career success of employees, for example by jointly developing career prospects and by supporting leadership.


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Published in PERSONALquarterly 3/2016.

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