What's the Story? Using Narrative in Career Management

By Mike Ballard and Lisa Severy


The role of narrative and constructivist thought in career development continues to be the subject of healthy debate and discussion. As career practitioners, what are the best tools to use? There is no right answer. Different tools can be effective for different clients. So, while traditional assessments continue to be useful, no career practice is complete without the use of narrative. Our challenge as practitioners is to integrate the power of narrative into our service delivery tool kit.

First, it is important to point out that narrative is not just an assessment tool. Stories are in fact useful throughout the career process. Our career stories play a role in assessing personal mission, developing branding and becoming a skilled interviewer.

The basic elements of stories are plot and theme. Narratives help to identify common themes as well as detect plot, subplot and an overarching ‘grand narrative'. As we compile and think about our personal narratives (subplots), which can also include such things as qualities, values, skills, interests, and experiences, we then use these subplots to figure out personal mission and the professional narrative that is our career. All of these elements put together comprise the Grand Narrative that becomes our life story.

We might say that traditional norm-referenced assessments compile common stories (norms) and use comparison to help discover which pieces inform our Grand Narrative. In the post-modern narrative approach, we employ personal subplots to create our own Grand Narrative. These elements are all important, but the key distinction is this: Every story is unique, and each client has different themes and plot lines. Unlike traditional assessments, the power of story is the ability to help clients discover unique, unpredictable, unconscious, and intuitive elements they can use to author their narratives.

Resist Temptation: Don't interpret - Some critics of the narrative approach dislike the idea that counselors should interpret client stories by identifying themes they hear. While there is no doubt that everyone who listens to stories attaches meaning, themes identified by the counselor reflect the counselor's story, and not the client's. The client should be empowered, through the use of clarifying questions, to identify and embrace his or her own themes.

Personal Mission - As Stephen Covey (2005) said, much of employee dissatisfaction in the US is caused by a misalignment between corporate mission and employees' personal mission. Mission is a key aspect of self-assessment, and can be discovered through our stories.

Branding & Behavioral Interviewing - Stories are key tools as we market ourselves. The behavioral approach to interviewing is especially geared towards stories, as employers try their best to anticipate employee behavior. A well-prepared candidate should have at least 4 or 5 stories prepared that effectively express their branding. This applies in informational and networking situations as well.

Trust the Process - The most important thing to remember when using narrative with clients is to trust yourself and the client. Sometimes you'll ask the perfect question and other times you won't, but ultimately the client must discover the answers for themselves.

Stories can be used as powerful assessment, branding and interview tools. As career counselors, we can help our clients find clarity and direction through the use of stories. If you are working with a student or client that is not responding to traditional interventions, try narrative as an effective intervention tool for those "falling through the cracks". Our stories are available to us as a valuable resource. All that remains is to ask the right questions - and trust ourselves to serve clients the best way we can.


References and Bibliography

Bright, J.E.H. & Pryor, R.G.L. (2005). The chaos theory of careers: A user's guide. Career Development Quarterly, 53(4), 291-305.

Bujold, C. (2004). Constructing career through narrative. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 64(3), 470-484.

Covey, Stephen L. (2005). The 8th Habit - From Effectiveness to Greatness, Free Press,  110-116

Hermans, H.J.M. (1992). Telling and retelling one's self-narrative: A contextual approach to life-span development. Human Development, 35, 361-375.

Winslade, J. (2005). Governing the self through the construction of a career narrative. Perspectives in Education, 23(2), 1-8.

Lisa Severy, Ph.D., is Director of Career Services for the University of Colorado at Boulder. She received her doctorate from the University of Florida in 2007. Lisa has served as past president of the Colorado Career Development Association, and has edited and co-authored numerous books. Her most recent publication is entitled Turning Points - Managing Career Transitions with Meaning & Purpose (www.TurningPointsResearch.org). To contact Lisa: lisa.severy@colorado.edu.


Mike Ballard is a Senior Outplacement Consultant with IMPACT Group, and serves as Executive Director of Turning Points Research Institute, a non-profit social enterprise dedicated to research and education in the field of human transition. During his tenure with Turning Points, Mike designed and developed the True PathTM career management tool, which was launched in 2008. (www.TurningPointsResearch.org). To contact Mike: mike@turningpointsresearch.org

Printer-Friendly Version