The Individual, the Organisation and the Path to Mutual Appreciation

This paper describes a tried and tested procedure for balancing the capability and career of any employee with the requirements of the organisation – to the mutual benefit of both parties.

For more than 25 years I have been listening to men and women, of different ages and levels of education, in different countries, from different cultures and at all levels of responsibility, as they talked to me in depth about their working lives. They were employed by or belonged to, a wide variety of commercial, military, religious, educational and voluntary organisations and of the many things that this experience has taught me, one of the most significant is the importance of actively seeking to create and maintain well-being within an organisation.

A proper concern for well-being is not a ‘soft’ option about ‘being kind to people’. It is a recognition that the capability of an organisation to respond to new challenges depends on effective decision-making by people who are not unduly stressed. The timing of the appearance of a new challenge is rarely under the control of the organisation: possible acquisitions present themselves, political influences on markets are difficult to predict, an unwelcome take- over bid will probably not have been anticipated. The experience of rising to such challenges is exciting but because it calls for effective decision-making in unfamiliar circumstances, it may strain existing capabilities to the point at which excitement spills over into anxiety.

While effective decision-making is not the only capability called for by a new challenge, it is arguably the one that carries the greatest hidden added value when decisions are appropriate and risks the greatest damage to the organisation and the individual when they are not. Seen from this perspective, organisational well-being depends on the interplay between challenges and decision-making capabilities. Where challenges exceed capabilities, financial and human costs rise; where capabilities exceed challenges, resources are wasted.

1 – Decision-making capability and organisational well-being

Effective Decision-Making

While the damaging consequences of stress at work are well known and have been amply documented, the necessary conditions for achieving its converse remain elusive. One contribution to setting these conditions in place lies in a structured interview procedure known as Career Path Appreciation (CPA) that, by giving priority to the relationship between individuals and the organisation they work in, can contribute to the well-being of both.

2 – The individual decision-maker

The Experience of Work

An ‘Appreciation’ consists of a one-to-one interview between a highly trained practitioner and an individual; the focus is on the relationship between capabilities and the challenges that exist for both the individual and the organisation. The interview leads to a view of the individual’s capability of responding to the challenge of decision making at varying levels of complexity and offers recommendations regarding the pacing – both in the short and long-term – of their future career.

The word ‘Appreciation’ was chosen because the appropriate pacing of individuals calls for an assessment neither of intelligence nor of present skills nor even of ability to perform a given task successfully, all of which can be arrived at without feedback to or from the respondent. With its connotations of mutual respect, the word implies mutual recognition of the current scope of a person’s ability to make decisions, of the likely rate at which that ability will grow and of the steps that could ensure the realisation of that potential.

An Appreciation allows:

a) interpretation of the present relationship between the respondent’s current decision-making capability and the work for which he or she is responsible

b) consideration of the history of that relationship

c) consideration of the likely future of that relationship in the light of the internal resources on which the respondent is perceived to have been drawing.

When a number of Appreciations have been carried out and analysed within a department, division or organisation, the resultant understanding can lead to a review of the balance – or lack of it – between challenges and capabilities for the entity as a whole.

Because an Appreciation is intended to be a microcosm of the experience of doing work, it does not include psychological testing or tests of knowledge or ability. Rather it seeks to uncover – in the space of some two hours – evidence of potential growth in capability which would otherwise have become apparent to management only in the course of months or even years of actual performance at work. It does not claim to replace judgements arrived at over time but rather to test and reinforce them in the light of a tried theoretical model.

The Appreciation begins with two tasks, the first of which involves the use of phrase cards designed to guide conversation about the respondent’s approach to the work on which they are currently engaged. There are nine sets of six cards, and the respondent is asked to select from each set the card he or she feels reflects most closely their own approach to work, and then to explain their choice. For example, each of the set of six cards used to trigger a discussion on the respondents’ preferred way of coping with uncertainty carries one of the following phrases: expect that a task will be transformed while it is in progress; allot a specific amount of time to each task; tolerate uncertainty; handle ambiguity by developing opposing points of view; use your common sense; or transform the task to create uncertainty.

The second task, by requiring the sorting of different colours, shapes, sizes etc. – according to a predetermined rule unknown to the respondent – offers insight into his or her capacity to create order out of disorder. Neither task is intended to elicit information about ability to handle specific jobs.

As a means of testing these preliminary evaluations by an appreciation of actual work experience, completion of the two tasks is followed by a discussion of the respondent’s current work, the history of their career and their aspirations for the future, in the course of which special emphasis is placed on periods when they have felt themselves to be at ease with their responsibilities, overstretched or underused – in other words in or out of ‘flow’.

Material from the three parts of the Appreciation is not ‘scored’, but its content is interpreted in the light of a model of levels of complexity in work and individual decision-making capability, and of an array of ‘growth curves’ which indicate the likely rate of increase of that capability.*

*This array of curves was derived originally from studies of individual earning progression; this led to a hypothesis that an increase in earning progression might reflect increase in capability.[1] The slope of the array has been tested in a number of studies.[2, 3] It is also of interest that the form of the curves can be drawn using a mathematical equation, which is used to predict the growth processes of living systems and growth patterns of, for example, populations, industries and industrial products.

3 – Levels of work and an array of growth curves

Growth Curves
Our research has shown that even the largest multinational does not need more than seven levels of work that can be summarised as follows:

Level 1 Work to produce goods or services that can be closely prescribed.

Level 2 Management of and/or technical/ professional contribution to sections

Level 3 Management of and technical/ professional contribution to a department

Level 4 Management of and individual contribution to a division

Level 5 Management of and individual contribution to a strategic business unit

Level 6 Maintaining and interpreting given international contexts

Level 7 Shaping and managing not yet given transnational contexts.[4]

The following examples of the effect of introducing CPA are drawn from actual case histories:

A technical specialist in her late 20s, who has
several times been unsettled and on the verge of
leaving, is helped by a CPA to realise that her
capability has consistently exceeded the
demands of her work over the past four years.
Recommendation of a move into another
function at a different level of work creates a
vivid sense of ‘fit’ and opens up many more
career-path options.

A salesman in his late 30s discovers a way of
looking at an early ‘failure’ as ‘the right step at
the wrong time’. His CPA enables him to see his
career history in a more balanced way and gives
him the confidence to take a broadening career
step about which he had previously had

A trainee in her early 20s is helped to take a
much more positive view of the career path open
to her. As a result she is able to rethink the
assumptions that she had been making about
her private life and her location, and a more
stretching development plan is then agreed with

The result of the Appreciation is a prediction about the respondent’s likely level of capability in the future – always assuming that its realisation has not been inhibited by personal problems or by lack of adequate opportunities for growth. A means of intervention by the organisation, which can mitigate the effects of the former and make provision for the latter, is described below as ‘career path mapping’. Finally this prediction can be used to plot an optimal curve (we call them ‘comfort curves’) which will allow for planning for and constantly reviewing, the well-being of the individual in relation to the needs of the organisation and vice versa.

Emphasis on the role that management must play in helping individuals to achieve their full potential helps to avert any tendency on the part of respondents to feel that there is an element of inevitability about the prediction – ‘If it’s mapped out for me already, what’s the good of all this?’ The fact that an Appreciation has been ‘offered’ by management (another word chosen quite deliberately) is in itself an indication of a human and constructive approach.

The sense of relief commonly engendered by a career path appreciation goes beyond a universal need to share one’s experience with a sympathetic and non judgmental listener, as crystallised by one respondent’s memorable phrase: ‘Listening to my story has been really interesting.’ The technique both underlines the uniqueness of each respondent’s experience and places it in the context of a wide and tested body of theoretical and practical knowledge, very often engendering feelings of relief expressed in such comments as, ‘This is the first time in my life I’ve ever talked to someone who understands what it all feels like from where I sit.’

The research that underpins these optimal or comfort curves has taken two forms. In a ‘pure’ research study predictions of likely pace of growth of decision-making capability were made for 282 people employed by three companies in the UK and one in a newly industrialised nation. The predictions were not made available to the individual or to his or her manager. Follow-up of the levels at which they were actually employed over subsequent periods ranging from four to 13 years showed a very high predictive validity.

This is all the more striking in that the sample spanned Anglo-Saxon and African men and women operating at all levels of work with educational attainment ranging from completion of primary school to PhD.[5]

In ‘applied’ studies where the evaluations have been used to plot optimal curves, predictive validity has been even higher.[6]

The essential organisational context in which a programme of career path appreciations becomes fully effective is known as ‘career path mapping’. This considers the constraints and opportunities that surround the realisation of potential, both in the individual and the organisation, and thus clarifies the connection between effective decision-makers and the well-being of the organisation.

Career path mapping helps to distinguish between intrinsic changes in people as they grow older, the competencies they will need to realise their full potential and the opportunities that must be offered by the organisation to help them realise that potential. These issues are modelled by using a set of five curves (see figure 4.)

4 – Career path mapping

Career Path Mapping

Curve 1 – the potential growth curve – illustrates the intrinsic rate of growth of decision-making capability.

Curve 2 – the historic curve – is the path that has been followed by the person to date and which it is assumed will continue, unless there is an intervention on the part of the organisation. Curve 2 may be higher or lower than curve 1 according to whether there has been a tendency for the person to be over or under-stretched.

Curve 3 – is the opportunity curve: the path to which the person could be moved immediately, simply by removing constraints.

Curve 4 – illustrates the path on which the person is likely to be most effective.

In ideal conditions, curves 1 and 2 would be the same. But factors such as personality, concern for the career of a partner, a desire to put some working energy into the community or private pursuits, or a period of very rapid change in the organisation, are all factors that may result in a ‘negative’ gap between the two curves. If this gap is not too wide, the flow state can be maintained, but both the person and the organisation need to take great care to prevent a widening which takes him or her away from the flow state.

Curve 5 – illustrates the development path: that path which can carry the person out of curve 2 into curve 4. The development path is the joint responsibility of the person, their manager, the manager once removed, and the organisation’s human resource specialists. Progress along the development path should be reviewed at regular intervals.

The new approach to corporate structure offered by career path mapping leads to greater awareness of the need to pace the human dimension, and hence to significant enhancement of the organisation’s ability to respond promptly and appropriately to challenge.

Two recent case studies illustrate the contribution that CPA can make to change. With a mix of ‘state of the art’ and traditional processes at its disposal, a manufacturing group was preparing systematically for the opportunities offered by extended European markets. The expectations now being placed on the organisation at all levels include the need to bring production operations closer to the consumer and the market, and call for far more sophisticated decision-making than has hitherto been necessary.

Before the formation of the wider group, the company had already put a great deal of resource into management and organisation development, and this work had provided good understanding of current competencies and interpersonal skills. But it was felt that future development work would be enhanced by a deeper understanding of individual differences in decision-making capabilities and their likely rate of growth in the future. A programme of Career Path Appreciation was therefore initiated.

After only six months both trained practitioners and managers came to appreciate the profound implications of using this approach, not least the very high degree of acceptance by those involved who often for the first time, realise that they have been offered a way of thinking about themselves and their work that is both clear and practical.

The need to profit by the conclusions that arise from CPA is presenting line managers and human resources staff with some interesting challenges, both where misuse and disuse of an individual’s capability has been revealed. Tact and care are called for when explaining the practical implications of the process, both to respondents and their managers, but in general it was found that both parties were enthusiastic about the clarity and pragmatic sense of fit with reality that is commonly experienced. A senior manager in the Group clearly saw that the use of CPA would have a major impact on the way the company approaches succession planning, organisation design, career development and training programmes. He commented: ‘We now recognise this approach to be a very significant advance on assessment/development techniques previously available.’

The wide geographical dispersal of many units of an international hotel and catering group led to problems about spans of control. These had been addressed by creating extra levels of management, merely to ensure that no manager or executive was responsible for more subordinates than they could effectively handle. The underlying organisational principles of CPA were used to produce more precise and effective structures in which each level of management is involved in quite different work from the levels shown above and below it. Individual CPAs are helping to ensure that people are more effectively matched to their positions and will continue to be so as both capabilities and opportunities develop.

The group director of personnel, commented: ‘This work has helped to channel our thinking about future structures of the company as it grows, particularly on an international basis. It is clear that a number of people’s roles have to change, and in practice the pressure of events tends to support our own analysis; the difference is that with CPA people can be encouraged to move with the tide rather than fight against it.’

Career Path Appreciation can help an organisation to respond successfully to change. Through the formalised review and monitoring of employees’ decision-making capability, it ensures that this is constantly appropriate to the growing complexity of the levels at which they are required to work. Its underlying principle – disarmingly simple, but all too often overlooked – is that a state of well-being occurs when what each person is required to do is in balance with what they feel able to do and that continuing personal development occurs only when what each person feels able to do is matched by a constant widening of the opportunities available to them. To put it even more simply, career path appreciation can help ensure that people are treated as people rather than as units of production or items of equipment.

© Gillian Stamp and Colin Stamp

First published in Personnel Management; amended Bioss 2004.


  1. Jaques, E. (1961) Equitable payment, Heinemann Educational Books; (1976) A general theory of bureaucracy, Heinemann Education Books; (1986) ‘The development of intellectual capability: a discussion of stratified systems theory’, Journal of Applied Behavioural Science, Vol. 22, No. 4.
  2. Homa, E. (1967) The dynamic interrelationships between work, payment and capacity, unpublished doctoral dissertation, Harvard University.
  3. Stamp, G. (1988) Longitudinal research into methods of assessing managerial potential, Technical Report 819, US Army Research Institute for the Behavioral and Social Sciences.
  4. Jaques, E. (1988) Requisite organisation: the CEO’s guide to creative structure and leadership, Cason Hall and Co.
  5. Stamp, G., op. cit.
  6. Burgess, B. (1985) Career path appreciation; the practice, RTZ conference paper.