It’s not my intention to give full information or an extensive discussion on every theory. This website is intended to be a starting point and the main difference with other websites is the visual representation of the theory, which I hope will help get to grips with the theory. There are also links it the bottom to get your further research started.

Systems Theory Framework of Career Development

Wendy Patton & Mary McMahon 2006



The Systems Theory Framework of Career Development is very much a constructivist theory. In short, constructivists claim that reality is made or constructed, rather than discovered and described. There is no objective reality out there and the positivist, scientific approach is a human construction. If we compare this theory or approach to differentialism, which has a positivist foundation, you can understand constructionism in that there are no objective data about careers or about an individual to match. What is there is relative and not fixed. This means it’s slightly closer to the narrative approach, which of course is also constructivist in nature. One of its central tenets is the creation of career stories through reflection. It’s not about matching to separate environments (the self and ‘the world’) but about actively extracting meaning out of the relationships between self and the world around them.

… and holistic; a meta-theory

However, The Systems Theory Framework of Career Development at the same time is attempting to be a holistic theory; a theory of everything (within career development), thereby accepting a wide range of approaches within it. It’s presented as a framework of influences, illustrating content and process of career development (McMahon et al., 2004), tying both its constructivist and holistic foundation together. The Systems Theory Framework of Career Development is also holistic in that it focuses not just on job selection but on a very wide set of aspects of the individual’s life.

The Systems Theory Framework of Career Development:

  • Illustrates the content and process of career development
    • Content influences are comprised of:
      • Intrapersonal variables – personality, abilities and skills, gender, age, etc… – variables influencing the individual from inside – intrinsically
      • Contextual variables – influencing the individual from outside – extrinsically:
        • social influences – family and friends
        • environmental/society influences – geographic location, environment etc…
  • It provides a map that can guide career counselling and the co-construction of career stories


Systems Theory Framework – step by step (my own pragmatic interpretation)

If you look at the entire system illustration for the first time, without preparation, it looks really confusing and may not make sense. So, let’s look at the different elements one by one and put them together as we go along.

The individual system

Literally at the centre of the Systems Theory Framework of Career Development is the individual. Individual’s career development is influenced by a range of intrinsic or internal factors. Some of these, like gender and sexual orientation as well as ethnicity are not changing throughout someone’s life, although some would argue that the jury is still out on this. However, for this system and the purpose of this theory, we’re concentrating on these intrinsically, at this stage without influence from extrinsic factors. It is true that a person’s view of these can develop over their lifetime, but at the same time, you can argue that this is because of external influence.

Other elements of this system change throughout an individual’s lifetime. Age changes by definition, but also health and ability, as well as interests are going to change. Patton and McMahon's Systems Theory Framework individual for career guidance theory.

All of these intrinsic influences don’t stand in isolation, which is why there are dashed lines around them. All of these influence each other as well as the individual’s thinking. They will by definition also influence thinking about careers, career planning and career choice.

In practice, these can be part of any career appointment but don’t have to. It would be important to realise these can be factors in someone’s career development, career planning or career interests (or lack thereof).

As I mentioned, these don’t stand on their own, there are other levels of influence which are extrinsic to the individual. Let’s have a look…


The individual system + the social system

Directly surrounding the individual is their social system. This consists of the organisations and individuals directly (often physically) around them. These influences have a direct effect on the intrinsic influences of an individual. They permeate through the line between individual and their surroundings.

  • Peers, friends and family will have an opinion on gender and sexual orientation as well as age and health. They will also have their own belief structures. They will influence the individual by being communicated in the broadest sense.
  • Education institutions, the media and the workplace will have intrinsic structures of influence themselves and will communicate these in the broadest sense to the indivual, influencing their thinking and narrative.

Patton and McMahon's Systems Theory Framework individual and social for career guidance theory.

In turn, the individual in the middle of the diagram will influence others as well as the structures surrounding them. This doesn’t just include the social invironment an individual is in direct contact with, and overlaps with. This also applies to the next system which as it were, operates at a distance from the individual.


The individual system + the social system + the environmental/societal system

As you can tell, the environmental/societal level works at a less personal level, as opposed to the societal system, offering less direct contact with the individual. Political decisions, for instance, can generate a strong influence on the social system surrounding an individual, but also the individual system. I’m sure that Brexit will still evoke strong reactions in many and it will have changed the intrinsic influences within the personal system of many of us. What we thought we knew and were certain about before, we may not be sure about now. Compared to the individual’s system of influences, this operates on a meta-level over which we don’t have direct influence, but it will have direct influence on us.

Patton and McMahon's Systems Theory Framework individual, social and environmental for career guidance theory.

These three systems don’t operate completely without context either. Change happens over time, past influences present and future and future can influence present. Also, we can plan all we like, unexpected things will happen and influence our personal narrative, sometimes for the better, somtimess for the worse.


The individual system + the social system + the environmental/societal system + change over time + chance

Understanding how time influences the other two systems and how moments of happenstance influence a client’s other levels of influence, could get us closer to supporting them move forward. For instance, if a client is made unemployed and we find out their knowledge of the world of work is limited because of the fixed opportunities offered in their workplace and community groups and the limiting influence of their family. Other influences we discover could be their geographical location which may hamper them in creating awareness of other options or their socio-economic status. Then we can explore this with them and helping them open up their vision and ideas by offering a different narrative.

Patton and McMahon's complete Systems Theory Framework including individual, social and environmental for career guidance theory.

This looks like any other theory at the first instance. Let’s take a step back and explore its meta-theory credentials.


Back to the meta-theory and holistic thinking

If you paid close attention to my description above, you may have recognised several elements from different theories. Amongst which:

  • Happenstance and chaos theory of careers – chance and unexpected events
  • Narrative career counselling and constructivist theory – we create our own reality – interpretation or narrative
  • Developmental approaches – age as an influence within the individual system but also influenced by the social system
  • Life-is-career
  • Community Interaction Theory
  • …and elements of many others…

I feel it also offers a critique of other theories such as:

  • Classic structuralism: influence doesn’t run one way but both ways. Dashed lines leave influences through in both directions. Social structure doesn’t influence us without us being able to influence what happense within the social and environmental framework.
  • Positivist theories: there is no fixed truth ‘out there’ but we move within a network of interactive influences that change over time. They depend on all the other elements of influence within it.

Systems Theory Framework of Career Development in practice

Individual networks don’t function in isolation. No person is an island. Once we meet up with a client, our system of influence and the client’s system of influence will interact.

Within this interaction, we bring our own individual system and social system with us in most cases, unless we have mutual social influences. eg.: the client is a member of our family, in which case it’s best to ‘separate our systems’ and for the client to look for another career professional (in most cases).

Other systems will/can be shared:

  • The Therapeutic System is one that is shared directly between client and practitioner, otherwise there wouldn’t be an intervention.
  • We’re also likely to be part of the same Organisational System and Environmental/societal System and we move through the same timeframe together.
  • Here too, all of these systems will continuously and permanently influence each other and the narrative of the client, the narrative of the practitioner as well as the narrative of the intervention. Chance can cut through these 3 different spheres (client – practitioner – intervention) and influence any or all systems.

Patton and McMahon's Systems Theory Framework and the therapeutic system for career guidance theory.


… and now? What can we do with this in practice?

This model is all nice and well, but how can we use this? The first time I looked at this model I didn’t know what to make of it, as I mentioned. Only after looking into it in more detail did it start to make sense. So too does it work for how I can use this in practice. As a model, it looks nice, but I didn’t know what to do with this with a client.

After exploring this a bit further, I feel I can use this in different ways:

  • As the inclusion of the different theories I listed above suggests, the Systems Theory Framework of Career Development can have a significant influence on how we work with clients. It includes a wide range of tools, focused and focusing on the client’s narrative, as opposed to finding a direct solution to the question of what job they can best enter into. I often describe career theory, as opposed to counselling theory, as a toolbox to be used with a client, rather than approaching the client’s issues from within one perspective. I feel that the Systems Theory Framework is the toolbox, containing all the other tools (or most of them) I normally use with clients. It offers me a frame of reference of where the client is with their narrative, which influence there are and ‘where they are coming from’ but also what is missing or where the client’s perceptional or other limitations are. Referencing the metaphorical framework of this entire website (career routes with way points on a map), I feel this theory offers us the map of where a client is, where they have been and where they are hoping to go.
  • I use it as a reflective tool as well. Not just to reflect on a client’s journey after the intervention, as well as during, but to reflect on where I am as a person and a practitioner. In the case of the client, it helps me to find out where I have left things too much or where I could have missed something out. For me, it in part informs my own biases and where they’ve come from, how I’ve changed over time as a practitioner and person and where I can do more to correct my own perspective or limit some influences and encourage others.


“For me, it’s a tool to explore the narrative of the client as well as the narrative of the intervention and my own narrative.”



After my initial aversion I really feel this theory covers a lot of angles, as it’s developed to do. As I mentioned above, it offers a map to both the client and the practitioner to assess where either is, has been and where to go next. Being a meta-theory, it requires work to get into the detail, which is why I recommended borrowing or buying the book if you can. However, I didn’t feel I had to get right down into every nook and cranny of this theory to make some use of it and to ‘get it’. I’m not sure if its unique focus on constructivism (or else) is as helpful as I have quite a few clients for whom some form of carefully used ‘matching’ as an assessment tool, if nothing else, is helpful.On the other hand, a lot of the other theories, I feel, focus on one aspect and leave the rest to be covered by another theory. Other theories don’t claim to be meta-theories however, though some do.

What do you think?

  • For this theory especially, which claims to be holistic (I’ll leave it up to you to decide whether it is!), have a look at Brown. What doesn’t it cover and what does it cover?
  • I’ve given you my interpretation of how I use the model and the theory. How would you use it, or not? What would you need to use this effectively?
  • Is it ‘too much’ in practice? Or just right?
  • What kind of interventions do you usually do and is this model applicable to those? If not, why not?
  • Have a closer look at the differences between this theory and trait and factor theory. What can you distinguish?
  • How does this theory hold up in the 21st century?
  • A critique of other theories often mentions that they are not ‘culturally valid’ and too focused on the West. Is this the case with this theory? How could it fit in with a culturally divers clientele?


References, further reading and useful links:

If you are interested in finding out more, I would recommend getting hold of a copy of ‘Career Development and Systems Theory: Connecting Theory and Practice’ by Patton and McMahon. Available from all good bookshops – I’m not paid to advertise this book, but it’s an interesting read and helps put everything in context and more. One page on a website doesn’t do Patton and McMahon justice.

Academic reference:

  • McMahon, Mary and Patton, Wendy and Watson, Mark (2004) Creating career stories through reflection: An application of the Systems theory Framework of career development. Australian Journal of Career Development, 13(3):13-17.
  • Patton, Wendy and McMahon, Mary (2006) The Systems Theory Framework Of Career Development And Counseling: Connecting Theory And Practice. International Journal for the Advancement of Counselling, 28(2):pp. 153-166.