Relational-Cultural Theory: A Social Justice Perspective of Career Development in the Workplace
By Lawrence L. H. Richardson, Tonya R. Hammer, Christian D. Chan
Within the field of career counseling, there are limited approaches that emphasize the importance of relationships within both employment opportunities and workplaces while substantiating the influence of personal relationships on an individual’s career choices and success. Many career theorists, in fact, gloss over the concepts of relationships. The recognition of a person’s values, interests, personality, and skills, as is done in most traditional career counseling theories, prevents viewing such pieces in isolation. However, this focus is primarily on the self. Individualistic tendencies are not necessarily fitting for clients and students socialized in collectivist values and tight-knit communities where context and relationships need to be taken into consideration. By integrating an approach grounded in Relational-Cultural Theory (RCT), which has relationships at its heart, career practitioners can examine a multitude of concepts, including a person’s relationships.
Jean Baker Miller (1986) developed RCT to understand how people move and grow through relationships, which is in direct response to the traditional perspectives of autonomy and individualism. Integrating the evolution of feminist theories, Miller (1986) formed a collective of feminist scholars and practitioners to build more fluidly on a community of voices. For example, Judith Jordan, Irene Striver, and Janet Surrey collaborated with Miller to increase the amount of scholarship and research grounded in RCT to inform practices with clients and students (Jordan, 2010; Jordan & Carlson, 2013). Although feminism continues to grow in popularity as a resulting feature of practices for social justice, multiculturalism, and equity, applying principles of feminism and RCT are often more complex to define outside of an abstract or theoretical basis. Career practitioners need far more accessible tools from RCT, given its usefulness in the delivery of career services. Consequently, this article focuses on three particular aims: (a) primer of key historical influences; (b) outline of RCT principles; and (c) exemplified applications of RCT for career practitioners.
Miller (1986) initially proposed RCT as a developmental theory, which has since evolved into a theory of counseling with applications to group, individual, supervision, ethics, and (with limited application) careers. At its core, RCT strives to help individuals develop relational competence in their lives and to be able to live their authentic selves. This outcome would ultimately lead to healthy growth-fostering relationships in a variety of domains, including but not limited to intimate, family, friends, peers, and colleagues (Hammer, Trepal, & Speedlin, 2014). RCT thus examines how people live and grow within relationships, while career development practitioners strive to understand people’s movement and growth through their careers. The theoretical approach has also emphasized institutional and environmental barriers that inhibit clients and students’ connections to their settings, safety, and ability to live authentically (Hammer, Crethar, & Cannon, 2016; Kress et al., 2018). Integrating the core tenets and goals of RCT within career development can allow practitioners to understand ways people can navigate the fluidity of careers.
Similar to Holland’s (1997) definition of congruence, one of the key concepts of RCT is authenticity (Miller, 1986). Considering both situational and environmental contexts, and bringing their genuine perspectives, reactions, and emotions into the relationship exhibits authenticity (Hammer et al., 2016). Through intentionality, individuals can move more positively in their relationships (Jordan & Carlson, 2013). While authenticity varies from person to person, it is important for career practitioners to consider clients’ needs to show their authentic selves in their professional roles.
From a career development perspective, the central relational paradox is important to consider (Jordan, 2010). The paradox surmises that people have a desire to move into a relationship with unconditional acceptance, but there are certain aspects of themselves that are shameful or unlovable (Jordan, 2010). By hiding those parts of themselves, individuals enter into relationships that are not fulfilling because they are not their authentic selves. Consider the following situation:
Crystal is a 31-year-old, Latinx cisgender female married to a woman. She is currently in her 3-month probation period for a middle-level management at a technology company. Her supervisor notices that she has a ring on her left ring finger and asks questions that use biased wording such as husband or children. This situation puts her in a difficult situation. Crystal needs to consider how coming out could affect her career environment. From an RCT lens, vulnerability can foster authenticity, which would establish a growth-fostering relationship. However, different types of relationships require varying levels of openness. Should she choose to come out to her supervisor, her supervisor could revise the questions and continue the conversation. To affirm Crystal’s identity further, her supervisor may recommend a LGBTQ resource group that supports and encourages professional development sexual, affectional, and gender minorities. Conversely, Crystal has probationary status. If her supervisors are not affirming, then they may evaluate her more harshly during her probation period. In doing so, her supervisor may recommend her for termination, rather than continuation, from her position. Furthermore, a non-affirming response may prevent Crystal from expressing her authentic self in future employment. Considering Crystal’s decision-making process, career development practitioners should be supportive of whom they serve and respect how they choose to navigate their world of work.
Career practitioners can assist their clients by navigating important aspects of relationships and its relation to their career goals. Clients and students may benefit from identifying the importance of relationships in the workplace since they can explore career paths from a holistic perspective. For clients that desire a significant career change, career practitioners can explore the reasons for a career change and the next steps to take action. Regardless of their clients’ needs, career practitioners can integrate RCT concepts into their work since personal values and professional environments are not mutually exclusive.
Hammer, T. R., Crethar, H. C., & Cannon, K. (2016). Convergence of identities through the lens of relational-cultural theory. Journal of Creativity in Mental Health, 11(2), 126-141. doi:10.1080/15401383.2016.1181596
Hammer, T., Trepal, H. and Speedlin, S. (2014). Five relational strategies for mentoring female faculty. Adultspan Journal, 13, 4-14. doi:10.1002/j.2161-0029.2014.00022.x
Holland, J. L. (1997). Making vocational choices: A theory of vocational personalities and work environments (3rd ed.). Odessa, FL: Psychological Assessment Resources.
Jordan, J. V. (2010). Relational-cultural therapy. Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association.
Jordan, J. V., & Carlson, J. (2013). Couples therapy and relational-cultural therapy (RCT). In J. V. Jordan & J. Carlson (Eds)., Creating connection: A relational-cultural approach with couples. New York, NY: Routledge.
Kress, V. E., Haiyasoso, M., Zoldan, C. A., Headley, J. A., & Trepal, H. (2018). The use of relational-cultural theory in counseling clients who have traumatic stress disorders. Journal of Counseling & Development, 96, 106-114. doi: 10.1002/jcad.12182
Miller, J. B. (1986). Toward a new psychology of women. Boston: Beacon Press.
Lawrence L. H. Richardson, MS, NCC, GCDF, is a board-certified counselor and career consultant at Oklahoma State University. He earned his bachelor’s degree in psychology and his master’s degree in clinical mental health counseling from OSU. The National Board of Certified Counselors Foundations recognized him as a Fellow for Minority Mental Health. He specializes in the science, technology, mathematics, and medical industries within the College of Arts and Sciences. Currently, he is the secretary of the Career Guidance Network of Oklahoma and a member of the NCDA Diversity Initiatives and Cultural Inclusion Committee. Before working in career development, he held previous positions in research, addictions, and social services. Passionate about social justice, he specifically advocates to eradicate the systemic barriers that affect Asian, Asian-American, and Pacific Islander communities. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dr. Tonya R. Hammer is an Associate Professor of Counseling and Counseling Psychology. She holds a Ph.D. in Counselor Education and Supervision from St. Mary’s University and her master’s degree is in Psychology and Counseling from the University of Mary-Hardin Baylor. Dr. Hammer is an active scholar with research interests in the areas of body image and eating disorders, humiliation and language particularly with regard to marginalized populations, relational cultural theory, and the area of professional identity and competence in the counseling field. She has served in numerous positions within the American Counseling Association (ACA) including serving as the 2016-2017 President of the Association for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Issues in Counseling and as a past communications officer of Counselors for Social Justice and Treasurer of the Association for Creativity in Counseling. She currently serves on the By-Laws committee for ACA. She may be contacted at email@example.com.
Christian D. Chan, PhD, NCC, is an Assistant Professor of Counseling at Idaho State University, Member-at-Large for the Association for Adult Development and Aging (AADA), Co-Chair of the National Career Development Association (NCDA) Committee on Diversity Initiatives and Cultural Inclusion, and Past-President of Maryland Counseling Association. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org