Excited or disillusioned? Where are you in the 4 emotional stages of professional careers?

BATH, United Kingdom — Just starting your professional career? Be ready to go through a rollercoaster of emotions. Researchers from the University of Bath’s School of Management have uncovered a distinct emotional progression that professionals (specifically lawyers) undergo on their path toward securing a coveted partnership role.

The study, focusing on legal professionals in the United Kingdom, outlined four emotional stages in their career trajectory. It revealed a journey from initial excitement and anticipation at the career’s outset, followed by fear and anxiety during the pursuit of promotion, leading to pride and joy upon securing a senior post. However, this journey culminated in disillusionment and disappointment at the perceived lack of further change.

“There is a lot of literature around individual career management strategies and organizational promotion practices but we were interested in the ‘felt’ experiences and exploring the emotional aspects of employment,” says study co-author Dr. Stefanie Gustaffsson, from Bath’s School of Management, in a media release. “Professionals’ careers are suffused with emotions — some of the lawyers we interviewed used phrases like ‘love’ when talking about partnership and felt great pride when being promoted.”

The study aimed to explore the emotional facets of employment, emphasizing the importance of understanding professionals’ “felt” experiences throughout their careers.

“Our research focused on lawyers but we believe the learnings could apply equally to any top professions,” explains Dr. Gustafsson. “Such employees go through a rollercoaster of challenging emotions, positive and negative, that HR [human resources] and line managers should consider and understand, particularly to develop coping skills and provide support in cultures where success is celebrated but failure is frequently stigmatized.”

Stressed man at work, suffering from headache at office
(© Prostock-studio – stock.adobe.com)

Dr. Gustafsson encouraged creating a culture where open discussions about career setbacks are accepted and embraced.

Career conversations such as appraisals or reviews should create a space for talking not just about nuts-and-bolts performance but also about emotions and finding meaningful ways forward, particularly when employees suffer career setbacks when they are emotionally invested,” says Dr. Gustafsson. “One encouraging development is that we are increasingly seeing people openly discuss their career setbacks on social media and it may be helpful to create a culture and safe space where this is common and accepted.”

The study revealed a deeply entrenched system of valuing and emotionally investing in achieving partnership roles, potentially hindering alternative career paths. Dr. Gustafsson emphasized the importance of providing options and support for those exploring unconventional routes, aiming to eliminate any sense of devaluation for pursuing different career trajectories.

“Managers should challenge the negative perceptions around alternative career paths and engage in positive cultural change to create more diverse and accepting thinking about careers outside the defined train tracks. People should be given options and not feel devalued for taking them,” says Dr. Gustafsson.

The study is published in the Human Resource Management Journal.

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