Making sense of our career choices – are you out of your natural comfort zone?

Geoff Trickey, MD of Psychological Consultancy Ltd, discusses the public sector’s values and organisational culture that set it apart from the private sector.

Our brains are programmed to make sense of our life experiences. When reflecting, we can build even the most serendipitous of events into a coherent and plausible narrative. No more so than when considering our career.

If you ask a colleague, “How did you come to be doing the job you do now?” it is likely that the account of career development provided will be massaged by this ‘sense making’ part of the brain. The result is a greater emphasis on careful planning and astute decision making than may really be warranted.

Career paths are frequently erratic and fortuitous; often owing as much to luck as to careful planning. It may be true for a tiny minority that “I wanted to do this for as long as I can remember”, but many will have been constrained by what opportunities were available at critical points in their education and training and the pure chance lottery of openings on offer when they first entered the job market.

Another factor in career decision-making is that there is an ‘attraction factor’; particular roles, professions and organisations attract people with particular personalities. In a recent police recruitment project, for example, in spite of the fact that there were four distinct routes or pipelines for applications, the pool of applicants was uncanny in the similarity of its personality profiles.

Values also exert some influence over who is attracted to what. The decision of a distinctly altruistic person between joining a ruthlessly thrusting sales-oriented business and a role in one of the caring professions would not be difficult. But similar dynamics operate at a more subtle level in all career decisions.

Personality and values will certainly play a part in whether someone opts for the public or private sector.

Of course, the public sector includes an extremely wide range of job opportunities but there are distinctive features of values and organisational culture that set it apart from the private sector. These not only serve to attract like-minded people, but they can also make the transition between public and private sectors more challenging.

Although the competencies required across the public sector will be very diverse, research already carried out by Psychological Consultancy Ltd indicates that there are distinctive personnel trends.

The public sector seems overall to have a bias towards being more risk-averse, less optimistic, more likely to control than to trust and to have a greater focus on long-term strategy than their private sector counterparts. In addition, they can be more conventional, less flexible and have a preference for working to clear routines and procedures over spontaneity. So how might this affect the individuals working within the public sector?

We know that it’s not just the skills required to do a job that create success. Personality plays a large part in aiding or impeding performance. Through psychometric assessments we have the ability to map the primary colours of personality – extroversion, agreeability, conscientiousness, neuroticism, openness –onto competencies in order to estimate how well-suited someone is for a particular role. We know that the fit between organisation and employee is what leads to engagement and job satisfaction. This means that people who aren’t a natural fit in their role may often find themselves out of their comfort zone. When you are fighting your own natural dispositions, you have to work harder at it.

Knowing how suited you are to a role in the public sector can help an individual understand more about where they might need to develop further and why they may find some aspects of their job harder than others.

Some may find that even though they were attracted by what a particular career could offer them, the organisation or the sector isn’t actually best suited to their underlying personality.

In these circumstances, even the ‘sense making’ part of the brain may be stretched to the limit in its attempts to paper over the cracks and provide us with a comforting rationalisation of our circumstances. We are all distinctive in our nature and our individuality. That doesn’t by any means imply that we cannot adapt and make ourselves effective towards the limits of our comfort zone. However, limits are limits and it is the capacity to feel fulfilled, excited and motivated by our work that is at stake.

Public Sector Executive has teamed up with Psychological Consultancy Ltd to offer readers the opportunity to understand their personality better, through the use of a psychometric assessment. You will receive a Personal Development Report that describes your personality in depth and helps you to consider its implications for your work and your career. Visit

 About the author

Geoff Trickey is a Chartered Psychologist with a BSc in Psychology and an MSc in Educational Psychology from UCL. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts and an Associate Fellow of the British Psychological Society.

GeoffTrickey MD of PCL portraits 010


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