Adlerian Career Assessment & Counseling

The Individual Psychology of Alfred Adler and his successors has always purported to have implications for career choice and satisfaction. The techniques of Adlerian lifestyle analysis, such as the assessment of psychological birth order and the interpretation of early recollections, provides a great deal of information about an individual’s motivations, preferences, and general orientation towards self, other, and the world at large. In this paper we will examine the ways that this information can be used to develop an expedient and comprehensive view of our clients’ career paths and to assist them in making choices that will satisfy their conscious needs as well as their unconscious private logic.

Overview of Adlerian Theory

The basic premise of Individual Psychology is that all individuals strive to transform their perceived inferiorities into perceived superiorities. The specific types of inferiority that an individual perceives originate in his or her relationship to the early environment. Elements of this environment include what is called the family constellation, or the arrangement of parents, siblings, and other family members in relation to the individual. For example, the order in which a child is born into his or her family will tend to exert a strong influence on the types of opportunities and expectations that he or she experiences while growing up, and so will influence the development of the individual’s personality and style of living across the lifespan (Watkins, 1993).

Another major premise of Adlerian assessment and counseling is that behaviors of all kinds, including emotional and cognitive behaviors, are teleological. In fact, Individual Psychology holds that the purposive nature of each behavior can be fit within the framework of an individual’s overarching final goal, of which he or she is unlikely to have any conscious knowledge. The pattern of behaviors which build up in support of this final goal, in turn, constitute the individual’s style of life (Watkins, 1993).

Finally, Individual Psychology holds that the individual is inseparable from his or her social environment. Because the individual’s perceptions and purposes are seen to emerge from the social situation in which the individual is positioned, all of the actual and perceived problems of life are seen as social problems, The well-adjusted individual, therefore, experiences a strong sense of connection with his or her social environment. Adlerians refer to this sense of connectedness as the community feeling or the sense of social interest (Watkins, 1993).

Overview of Adlerian Assessment & Counseling


Adlerian assessment is fundamentally an assessment of the individual’s manner of relating to the world around him or her. One way in which this relationship can be understood is through an examination of the early social environment in which the individual’s style of life originated and developed. Because the individual is seen as an active force in his or her world from the very beginning, the lifestyle assessment focuses on the ways in which the young individual began to make a place for himself or herself within the family unit.

A major component of this adaptive process can be surmised from the individual’s ordinal and psychological birth order. A first-born child, for example, is often cherished and expected to fulfill the wishes of his or her parents, and so is likely to tend toward conventionality and conscientiousness. The second-born enters the environment several years behind his or her older competitor and is therefore unable to match the elder sibling’s skill in fulfilling the parents’ wishes. This child will therefore often learn to demand attention and recognition through originality and rebellion, and by developing skill in areas where the elder sibling has not excelled. A key point in the consideration of birth order is that it is the child’s experience of his position within the family that is important, rather than the actual order in which the child was born. A second-born who is five or six years older than the elder sibling may feel and behave as though he or she were a second-born, an only child, an eldest child, a middle child, or any combination of the four, depending on the interactional dynamics of the family as a whole (Leong, Hartung, Goh, & Gaylor, 2001).

A key projective technique of Adlerian assessment is the interpretation of early recollections. Because the individual is seen as an active participant in the creation of his or her environment, the memory itself is seen not as a passive storage of past events but rather as an active recreation which serves to reinforce the individual’s private goals. Therefore, by scrutinizing an individual’s recollections of early life, the clinician can get a sense for the private logic that emerged from the early situation and the ways in which it may be maintained in the present day.

From these techniques the individual’s style of living can be deduced. This lifestyle consists of the individual’s attitudes toward him or herself, toward others, and toward the world at large. It is through the exploration and evaluation of these attitudes that Adlerian counseling and psychotherapy aim to assist the client in cultivating an increased sense of interconnectedness with his or her social environment. It is precisely this social interest which is, in Individual Psychology, seen as the essence of health and adaptation.

Implications of Lifestyle for Career Assessment

An individual’s choice of career can be seen as an extension and expression of his or her total style of life. As Watkins (1993) explains:

It is saying, “This is who I am,” “This is how I see myself vis-a-vis others,” “This is how I see myself vis-a-vis the world at large.” For example, the person whose life-style is oriented around helping and assisting others might gravitate toward such jobs as counseling, nursing, or some other helping profession. The person whose life-style is oriented around knowing (to know, find out) might gravitate toward such jobs as science or academics. Further still, the person whose life-style is oriented around getting and acquiring (to have and to hold) might gravitate toward jobs that emphasize collecting, buying, and investing (p. 357).

There is some limited research to support these notions and to connect them with other, better-studied models of career conceptualization. A 1978 study compared the predictive power of Holland’s Self-Directed Search (SDS) against Mosak’s lifestyle typology. This study found that life style type was “essentially as effective as SDS in such predictions.” A study published in 1980 also supported a relationship between vocational orientation and lifestyle type. This study compared Thorne’s Life Style Analysis measure against Holland’s Vocational Preference Inventory and found a number of significant correlations between indices on the two measures. In particular, the authors of that study noted strong correlations between Holland’s Enterprising scale and the Aggressive-Domineering and Domineering-Authoritarian lifestyle configurations. Mosak’s Conforming lifestyle type also correlated positively with Holland’s Conventional scale and negatively with his Artistic scale (Watkins, 1984).

As self-selected representations of the life-style, early recollections can therefore be used as an expedient tool for collecting information about individuals’ vocational motivations as well as their individual vocational needs. A series of early recollections provides the skilled Adlerian counselor with a wealth of information about the client’s way of learning, of motivating him or herself, of approaching work as a basic task of life, and of relating to others in both collegial and authoritative capacities.

Lifestyle and Career Counseling

According to Watkins (1984), “the more consistent the person’s life style is with the realities and demands of an occupation, the greater the likelihood that the person will be satisfied in the occupation.” He further explains that the compatibility of an individual’s own lifestyle with those of his or her coworkers will be a great importance, due to its effect on the individual’s ability to find a place for him or herself within the interpersonal dynamics of the workplace. These ideas are not at all dissimilar from other theories of career congruence, such as Super’s “life-span, life space” model (Anderson, 1995).

One Adlerian approach to career counseling, called the “Career Goals Counseling” process and developed by McKelvie & Friedland (1978, as cited in Watkins, 1993) focuses on assessing and modifying clients’ personal goals, assessing and intervening with the obstacles that impede those goals, and assessing or modifying the strategies that clients are using to meet their goals. When we speak of personal goals in this context, it should be noted that we are speaking not only of situational or intermediate goals, but also of Adlerian final goals, or the basic strivings which characterize the client’s lifestyle. Such goals might be along the lines of “being good” or “being superior” (Newlon & Mansager, 1986, as cited in Watkins, 1993).

Likewise, the obstacles that an individual faces may not only be objective in nature, such as discrimination, lack of education, lack of information, and so on. Individuals also carry with them their own set of personal, internalized limitations that impede their ability to select and succeed in career that they will ultimately find fulfilling. These include “irrational ‘shoulds,’ ‘oughts,’ and ‘musts’ that we maintain” (Watkins, 1993).

Strategies, then, are the patterns of behavior that individuals engage in in order to advance their goals. These strategies are reflective of the unique manner in which an individual attempts to implement his or her lifestyle. While two workers might share the goal of “advancing,” one might seek to do so through consistent and conscientious work while another seeks to accomplish the same goal by finding fault with and criticizing co-workers (Watkins, 1993).

In order to discover a client’s unique system of goals, obstacles, and strategies, the McKelvie-Friedland approach calls for a complete lifestyle assessment interview. This procedure is a standard practice in all types of Adlerian counseling and psychotherapy, and it involves taking a detailed psychosocial history, including information about the client’s family constellation and a set of early recollections. In this model of career counseling, the counselor concentrates on helping the client to gain insight into vocationally-relevant psychosocial dynamics in his or her own life. For example, the client might be led to consider the career ramifications of his or her life goal, and to consider more effective choices given his or her current life situation and direction (Watkins, 1993).

The main shortcoming of the McKelvie-Friedland approach, according to Watkins (1993), is that it is essentially a direct translation of the standard Adlerian counseling approach into the area of career counseling. As noted, it involves a complete lifestyle assessment interview, which is often quite lengthy and may include elements which, Watkins argues, the average career counseling client will have trouble relating to because of its abstract, “experience-distant” orientation.

Watkins finds a more creative reinterpretation of Adlerian clinical technique in the work of Savickas, who states “…much of the data gathered with the Life Style Inventory [or interview pertains to career-adjustment counseling, that is, helping clients cope with problems at work. Although enlightening, data about family constellation and early recollections are not needed for career-choice counseling” (1989, as cited in Watkin, 1993). Savickas refers, then, to a “career-style counseling” method that fits within the framework of Individual Psychology.

Savickas’ career-style counseling utilizes an abbreviated “career-style assessment” designed to gather lifestyle information that is directly applicable to vocational choice in an experience-near fashion. In this assessment process, clients are first asked to describe their role models in order that the counselor can begin to understand their values and potential ambitions. Next, clients are asked about their favorite books and magazines, thereby gathering further information about role models and valued characteristics as well as preferred environments and types of interactions.

Clients are next asked leisure activities they enjoy; this line of inquiry provides insight into the clients’ interests, ways of self-expression, and coping strategies. Questions about clients’ preferred school subjects next provides the counselor with information about “work habits, work attitudes, and preferred work environments” (Watkins, 1993). Savickas’ model directs counselors to next inquire about clients’ favorite mottoes or sayings. Personal mottoes are likely to directly reflect pertinent lifestyle information and so provide insight into the client’s basic heuristics for evaluating situations.

The next step in the career-style assessment is to ask clients to share their “occupational daydreams” as well as the ambitions that their parents had for them. These questions will provide insight into the internalized meanings that occupational roles hold for clients. Finally, clients are asked about an important decision that they made, and the process whereby they came to make the choice that they made. This final line of questioning allows the counselor to understand what steps will need to be taken to assist the client in reaching a decision.


While the ideas and methods of Individual Psychology certainly seem to have a lot to offer to the career counselor, there are two major problems with each of the Adlerian approaches that we have examined: lack of empirical support, and lack of a clear model for intervention. Although there is some very limited research indicated significant correlations between Adlerian constructs and more widely accepted career development and assessment models, this research derives from only a handful of relatively small studies which have been spread out over significant periods of time.

Likewise, Adlerian career counseling has not yet found a clear model for intervening in the career development of clients. The available literature speaks to the value of Adlerian projective techniques such as lifestyle analysis and early recollections, but makes no mention of specifically Adlerian methods for making use of this information. This lack may reflect Individual Psychology’s psychoanalytic roots, pointing to an underlying assumption that insight into the causes and dynamics of psychological and practical difficulties will ultimately provide the client with more and better behavioral choices. However, this assumption is far from explicit in the available literature and would be surprising given Adlerian counselors’ reliance on concrete tactics and strategies in psychotherapy sessions (Mosak & Maniacci, 2006).

Therefore it is more likely that Adlerian career counseling methodologies are simply under-researched and poorly developed at this time. This is not to say that standard techniques of Adlerian counseling and psychotherapy could not be effectively adapted to the career counseling situation, but simply that doing so would require experimentation on the part of the practitioner. Individual Psychology has been enjoying a minor resurgence in the United States over the last five or ten years, and so the problem of Adlerian career counseling may be one that will yet be adequately addressed.


  1. Anderson, K.J. (1995). The use of a structured career development group to increase career identity: An exploratory study. Journal of Career Development, 21(4), 279-291.
  2. Leong, F.T.L., Hartung, P.J., Goh, D., & Gaylor, M. (2001). Appraising birth order in career assessment: Linkages to Holland’s and Super’s models. Journal of Career Assessment, 9(1), 25-39.
  3. Mosak, H.H., & Maniacci, M.P. (2006) Tactics in counseling and psychotherapy. Mason, OH: Thomson Brooks/Cole.
  4. Watkins, C.E., Jr. (1993). Psychodynamic career assessment: An Adlerian perspective. Journal of Career Assessment, 1(4), 355-374.
  5. Watkins, C.E., Jr. (1984). The Individual Psychology of Alfred Adler: Toward an Adlerian vocational theory. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 24, 28-47.

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