Barriers to Career and Employee Engagement

By Dr. Irma Campos, Licensed Psychologist

Understanding Career Engagement

Career engagement is imperative in developing your career and reaching higher levels of performance. First, let’s set an agreed upon definition of career engagement. Career engagement means to experience being ‘stretched’ and capable of successfully meeting expectations in paid and unpaid work (Neault & Pickerell, 2006). You need to experience adequate levels of challenging yet manageable work in order to feel engaged. If one of these is significantly skewed, you will either feel overworked or underworked and disengaged.

Knowing the Barriers

It is inevitable to experience barriers to achieving career engagement. Based on empirical research and theory (Social Cognitive Career theory; Lent, Brown, & Hackett, 2002; Chaos theory; Pryor & Bright; 2011) and my professional experience as a psychologist and leadership development consultant, these are a few common barriers to career engagement: 1) low self-efficacy, 2) poor person-organization fit, and 3) lack of flexible direction.

Low self-efficacy (or limiting beliefs that you can do well in relevant areas of your career) can undoubtedly impact your long-term engagement and performance. Low self-efficacy has been demonstrated to indirectly impact individuals’ abilities to seek the right opportunities, develop productive networks, and to meet suitable goals (Lent, Brown, & Hackett, 2002). In order to identify your level of career self-efficacy, consider performance domains relevant to your career (for example, consider knowledge, skills, and abilities that are most important in your career). For example, for a social scientist, data analyses and reporting would be one domain. Subsequently, think about your perceived level of current and future performance within one relevant domain (e.g., current and future performance in carrying out data analyses and reporting). This identified level of perceived current and future performance elucidates your level of self-efficacy in that domain.

Next, poor fit within your existing career or workplace can certainly impact your ability to thrive in your career. Person-organization fit relates to how your personality, values, interests, and other personal attributes fit a given workplace environment inclusive of organizational culture and demands of the career (Judge & Kristof-Brown, 2004). For example, if you value upward mobility, but you continue to be in environments with limited advancement opportunities, this can lead to a poor fit and subsequent disengagement. Perhaps there are other organizational dynamics (e.g., harassment, prejudice, discrimination) that are negatively impacting your well-being and mental health, which could also lead to experiencing poor person-organization fit. This is why positive organizational values (e.g., promoting diversity and inclusion) that are implicitly and explicitly upheld are so important-they ultimately impact employee engagement.

The last common barrier is a lack of flexible direction. I say flexible because numerous events will be unpredictable from vast industry changes to technological advancements (see Chaos theory; Bright & Pryor, 2011). Thus, it is imperative that we all have a general direction (short-term, mid-term, and long-term S.M.A.R.T goals) but also adapt to inevitable and unpredictable changes that may occur.

How to Surmount the Barriers

Building Self-efficacy

When it comes to low self-efficacy, research has supported that positive learning experiences can increase our self-efficacy (Lent, Brown, & Hackett, 2002). For example, if public speaking is important in your career yet you experience low public speaking self-efficacy, find a realistic yet challenging public speaking task to regularly engage in. Toastmasters International, for instance, could be a start. Another way to increase your self-efficacy is to observe others whom you identify with in terms of background and sociocultural identities engaging in the given task. Employee Resource Groups or mentors of your similar background and sociocultural identities can be strong sources of support. Ultimately, through Employee Resource Groups and mentoring you can find models that you can relate to and deeply connect with.

Ensuring Person-Environment Fit

In order to ensure person-environment fit, you must know your vocational values. Identify prominent work values by reflecting on what matters most to you in the world of work. Then, find out if your career or workplace truly uphold these values through implicit and explicit language, behaviors, and relational dynamics. One way to further explore fit is via personal research and experience (e.g., soliciting input from existing employees in that given career).

Creating a Flexible Direction

Lastly, to have flexible direction, set short-term, mid-term, and long-term goals that are attainable yet somewhat challenging. However, you should also plan to reexamine those goals and related progress (Bright & Pryor, 2011) and adapt specific details of your goals as needed. This flexibility in the ever-changing world of work can be your competitive advantage.

Summarizing it All

Career engagement can lead to many positive outcomes, including high levels of professional performance and overall well-being. Some of the barriers to feeling more engaged with your career include low self-efficacy, poor environment fit, and lack of a flexible direction. Through positive learning experiences, examination of work-related values, and creating a flexible strategy to career development, you will surmount existing barriers. Although these barriers may exist now, they do not have to exist forever.

Author: Dr. Irma Campos. Copyright all rights reserved: Interface Consulting and Psychological Services, LLC


Bright, J. E. H., & Pryor, R. G. L. (2011). The Chaos Theory of Careers. Journal of Employment Counseling. Special Issue. Thoughts on Theories,46,163–166.

Judge, T.A and Kristof-Brown,A. (2004), “Personality, Interactional Psychology, and Person-Organization Fit”, in Personality and Organizations, eds. B. Schneider and D.B. Smith, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, New Jersey.

Lent, R.W., Brown, S.D., & Hackett, G. (2002). Social cognitive career theory (pp. 255-311). In D. Brown, L. Brooks, and Associates, Career choice and development (4th Ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Neault, R., & Pickerell, D. (2006). Career management as an employee engagement strategy. HR Voice, 2(41).