Negative career shocks of senior managers – as the elimination of a workplace after a corporate restructuring – are quite common. But we have less available information about such developments in the lives of senior managers.
At the time of writing this article the world seems to be concerned with massive voluntary employee departure from organization, labelled as the Great Resignation, as well as with the phenomena of quite quitting, or employee reduction of their efforts to only the minimum prescribed by labor contract. Still, some people who would otherwise like to continue their work in their current positions and workplaces experience externally-caused events that affect their career plans and prospects irrespective of their will and effort.
Such events that happen regardless of the individual’s ability and willingness to work productively, have been recently called “career shocks” in academic literature. A career shock is “a disruptive and extraordinary event that is caused by factors outside of the focal individual’s control and that triggers a deliberate thought process concerning one’s career” (Akkermans et al., 2018, p. 4). It is probably very easy to imagine negative career shocks (for example, elimination of a workplace as an outcome of corporate restructuring). Akkermans et al. (2018) also talk about anticipatory career shocks – negative events that might materialize in the future and negatively affect an employee (for example, a growing labor market supply of qualified individuals capable of doing this employee’s work at a lower cost to the employer or an anticipation of elimination of a position after an announced merger). There also are examples of externally caused events that can affect an individual’s career in an objectively positive manner (for example, sudden departure of a previous senior job incumbent and an unusually early promotion of the person experiencing this shock). While in the latter case the external event leads to what looks like a beneficial event, the shock is associated with an unexpected career development that may affect other aspects of the person’s life.
Although systematic research on career shocks is relatively new, a few studies have highlighted how career shocks influence various employee groups, from blue collar-workers to management academics (e.g. Baruch et. al., 2016; Kraimer et. al. 2019). Career shocks at the executive level may be, however, different in terms of their immediate and longer-term effects. Sutton and Callahan (1987) mention that executives face far higher chances of the irreparable damage to their career than employees at lower levels of organizational hierarchy do. Organizations ascribe significant weight to the role top managers play in the company’s image. In case of trouble, they may choose to sacrifice a particular top manager in order to maintain an overall positive image of the organization, alluding to the resolution of the problem by removing a “bad apple,” i.e. a top executive allegedly associated with the organizational problem (e.g. Arthaud-Day et. al., 2006; Gangloff et. al., 2016). Such a move may have long-term consequences for the reputation, image, and employability of the person concerned. Buckingham (2020), for example, describes her own experience of being forced to resign from the position of the CEO of the Massachusetts Port Authority as a consequence of the September 11 terrorist attacks and then taking a long road to career recovery. Some authors have also mentioned that executive are prone to anxieties associated with their work positions, including the one of not being able to keep one’s job and thus losing the societal standing (e.g. Kets de Vries and Miller, 1984; Kets de Vries, 2014).
The work on how career shocks affect business executives is still, however, very scarce. This can be explained by a generally more difficult task of conducting research involving managers, particularly senior ones, as opposed to rank-and-file employees. Another reason for research scarcity is the idiosyncratic nature of shocks affecting senior managers. There are many very different types of shocks coming unexpectedly and in different forms and shapes (think, for example, about a recent acquisition of Twitter by Elon Mask and subsequent firing of top executives from that corporation). We also simply have less available information about such developments in the lives of senior managers. Nevertheless, some recent attempts of looking at career shocks affecting executives can be found in Korotov (2021).
As mentioned earlier, from the objective career success perspectives shocks may have different valences – negative or positive. When executive experience a negative career shock, they often are affected by feelings of loss, b…
Professor of Organizational Behavior and Faculty Lead Executive MBA at ESMT Berlin. He has previously held additional positions as the director of the ESMT Center for Leadership Development Research (CLDR), which he co-founded with Professor Manfred Kets de Vries. Konstantin received his PhD in Management (Organizational Behavior) at INSEAD (France, Singapore, and Abu-Dhabi).