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This article was first published in the January 2020 International edition of Accounting and Business magazine.

How do you feel about your level of career attainment? Business researchers often differentiate between two career outcomes. Objective career success is assessed by measures such as pay and hierarchical progression. Subjective success is based purely on people’s opinions about their own careers.

The relationship between objective and subjective success is perhaps somewhat unexpected. Researchers Andrea Abele and Daniel Spurk at the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg tracked both objective and subjective success in 1,336 professionals over 10 years. They found that growth in objective success actually had a relatively small impact on subjective success. Earning more and getting promoted did boost people’s happiness – but less than we might expect.

Growth in subjective success had a much larger impact on objective success. In other words, people who were happy in their work also ended up earning more and getting more promotions. This makes sense: people who genuinely enjoy their work tend to be more willing to learn about their disciplines and work long hours, which in turn helps them – almost inadvertently – to be more objectively successful. The major implication then is to pursue work that you genuinely enjoy as it will likely make you objectively successful, too.

Boosting career outcomes

A major study led by the University of Hong Kong’s Thomas Ng used a statistical technique known as meta-analysis to identify factors that reduced subjective career success in a sample of 94,090 employees from all over the world. Hearteningly, the data showed that subjective success was unaffected by gender, marital status or having children. In other words, people were mostly able to experience career satisfaction irrespective of their background and home situations.

However, several factors did impair subjective success, including low participation in training and development activities as well as low networking behaviour. Neither finding should be surprising. A reluctance to take part in training and development could be indicative of close-mindedness; it also likely results in less growth in skills and knowledge. Low networking may lead to encountering fewer opportunities, too.

Low political knowledge and having few or no mentors also predicted lower subjective success. These two factors may be linked. Effective mentors may be more helpful in providing advice on relationships and politics than on technical issues.

However, mentoring may not only benefit the protégés who receive it. A meta-analysis led by Rajashi Ghosh at Drexel University found that managers who provided mentoring tended to be higher performers – they experienced greater career success, too. If you are an experienced individual in the more advanced stages of your career, think about offering yourself as a mentor as you may learn and grow as a result of the process, too.

A few critics consider mentoring to be a somewhat old-fashioned paradigm. They argue that it is less effective in new, disruptive industries. An alternative – or perhaps additional – model may lie in peer coaching, which business researchers such as Polly Parker define as a voluntary relationship between two or more people with the goal of supporting each other to achieve career objectives.

To set up a peer coaching group, find one or more individuals who you trust and respect for their knowledge and insight. Give each person equal time to share and then receive advice on a pressing issue. For example, one may have a specific project that needs discussing; another may wish to get guidance on a job offer.

External coaching provided by a consultant outside of an organisation is yet another route to career development. However, management researchers led by Shirley Sonesh have observed that this is more effective at altering behaviours than attitudes. So do seek out external coaching to change behaviours and improve skills but consider that you may get less successful results when hiring a coach to change the outlook of difficult individuals.

Dr Rob Yeung is an organisational psychologist at leadership consulting firm Talentspace.