Holland’s Theory

The origin of John L. Holland’s theory of vocational personalities can be traced back to his 1966 publication Psychology of Vocational Choice, which was followed by four subsequent editions of Making Vocational Choices. With each edition, Holland built a more comprehensive theory of career counseling and tackled new issues arising from the complex relationship between human personality and suitable work environments. The theory is formulated around the fundamental observation that people possess different traits, behaviors, and interests that can be organized according to six groupings or types. The six types are called Realistic, Investigative, Artistic, Social, Enterprising, and Conventional (RIASEC), each of which characterizes a type of person who may gravitate to, choose, and enjoy a specific occupation or vocational area. In career counseling circles, it is common to hear a counselor refer to a Social or Investigative type person as a shortcut to describe someone who possesses clear, identifiable traits, personality characteristics, or behaviors. In a similar vein, the theory recognizes that work environments, the settings in which people work, live, and play, can also be organized according to the RIASEC typologies. It is theoretically appropriate to hear a career counselor describe a work function as a Conventional type job or a Realistic type activity. Through the use of the typological system and through the process of matching people who represent specific types with similar typed environments, career counselors try to enhance the likelihood that their clients will make satisfying career choices that lead to career stability and ultimately to career success and achievement.

The RIASEC Model

Types of People

The six types in the Holland theory describe multiple facets of the typee, which include personal characteristics, preferences, and tendencies. For example, the Realistic type person is considered to be rugged, robust, reserved, practical, and materialistic. People of this type are often inclined toward mechanical, physical, or technical activities where hands-on capabilities are paramount.

Each consecutive type demonstrates a sufficient degree of dissimilarity to the other types:

  • The Investigative type person is considered to be analytical, intellectual, complex, critical, and cautious. People of this type are often drawn to the sciences, quantitative pursuits, and research and scholarly activities.
  • The Artistic type is considered to be expressive, imaginative, intuitive, emotional, and nonconforming. People of this type are often drawn to art, writing, theater, and languages.
  • The Social type is considered to be friendly, warm, understanding, idealistic, and cooperative. People of this type are often drawn to teaching, counseling, social services, and other helping activities.
  • The Enterprising type is considered to be ambitious, energetic, sociable, assertive, and excitement seeking. People of this type are often drawn to politics, business management, leadership, and other entrepreneurial activities.
  • The Conventional type is considered to be conscientious, methodical, careful, orderly, and thrifty. People of this type are often drawn to accounting, banking, clerical, and computational work.

Relationships Between Types

In addition to the descriptive qualities associated with the types, the RIASEC model also incorporates a spatial component that is depicted via a hexagon (Figure 1).

Holland’s Theory Figure 1

Figure 1. RIASEC model

The distances between the types around the hexagon determine the degree of similarity or dissimilarity between the various types. Adjacent types on the hexagon are most related to one another, and opposite types on the hexagon are least related to one another. The hexagonal model also visually demonstrates a few other key concepts that are central to the Holland theory. These concepts are calculus, consistency, congruence, differentiation, and identity.


Calculus provides the spatial foundation for the hexagonal model in that it refers to the degree of relatedness of all the types based on the distances between them on the hexagon. From calculus, one can more clearly understand the following assumptions of the theory as they apply to both people and environments.


Consistency refers to the assumption that adjacent pairs of types on the hexagon are most related and accordingly most consistent. For example, career clients whose tests show Social and Artistic as their two highest codes are considered to be more consistent than if they tested Social and Realistic as their two highest codes.


Congruence refers to the degree of match between one’s type and the type of the work environment that he or she ultimately chooses. For example, persons who measure Artistic as their highest type would be most congruent in an environment that incorporates artistic activities, that allows for artistic expression, and that attracts other artistic people.


Differentiation addresses a person’s purity of type or whether that person clearly resembles one or perhaps two types, yet clearly does not resemble the other types. For example, a person is considered highly differentiated if he or she measures high on conventional and measures significantly low on all the other types. That same person could also measure highest on Conventional, next highest on Enterprising, significantly lower on all the other types and have both a consistent (due to adjacent codes) and well-differentiated profile.


Identity deals with the clarity of one’s whole typological picture. A clear sense of one’s career picture that includes an understanding of one’s interests, goals, and talents as well as movement toward an accurate career environment is an indication of a firm career identity. Degrees of identity are highly related to the concepts of consistency and differentiation.

Types of Environments

Just as personalities can be measured to determine typology, environments too can take on a typal character of their own. Holland determined that an environment’s type was primarily determined by the constellation of personalities that made up the environment. For example, a hospital will present with a much different feel than will an accounting firm primarily because the people drawn to these environments act, relate, and perform work in very different ways. One can understand this dynamic by observing the differences between the hospital environment and the accounting firm environment. Since a hospital is largely staffed by physicians, nurses, and allied health professionals, its work culture is dominated by a unique combination of helpful, analytical, idealistic, intellectual, empathic, and curious people. In essence, it represents a combination of Investigative and Social types. In contrast, an accounting firm is largely comprised of accountants, bookkeepers, and administrative assistants who also define a work culture. This group of people is highly Conventional, so they tend to be careful, orderly, efficient, inflexible, practical, and thorough. Again, the work culture takes on the identity of the people who are in it.

Other Defining Factors for Work Environments

It is important to note that while work environments are largely defined by the people who are in them, this is not their only defining feature. Certainly, the tasks required of the environment in order to complete the work have an impact on environmental type. Take for example the hospital with its doctors, nurses, and allied health professionals. The focus of the hospital is to diagnose and treat illnesses and to restore the health of sick people. This mission dictates that its culture is one of caring, responsibility, and curiosity about science and disease.

Work environments are not homogeneous in terms of their type. Some organizations are very large and complex, and therefore different units within the organization take on their own characteristics. Staying with the medical example, most large hospitals comprise separate units such as x-ray, surgery, patient care, business services, and social services. Each of these units attracts people with distinctly different work personalities by nature of the work responsibilities that are required, and in turn the work environment is shaped by the personalities of the people in the environment. It makes intuitive sense that the intense and critical nature of surgery feels very different from the warm, human interactions that occur in the social services area.

Power differentials in the workplace can also influence the culture and ultimately the type of the work environment. If the executives in a work unit exhibit a specific set of behaviors, attitudes, and interests, it stands to reason that they will value these same traits in their employees and both consciously and unconsciously reward these employees. This dynamic creates a workplace where employees to the best of their ability either conform to a type or be viewed as a less valuable. If, for example, the top executive in an organization has a high Realistic in his or her Holland code, then this person will typically value concrete achievements associated with the production of tangible objects, the creation of wealth, and opportunities to gain power and exert control. While it is highly probable that this executive may employ a number of Social employees to tend to necessary human interactions that require tact and diplomacy in an organization, he or she may not fully value the political contributions of these social types.

Assessment of Personal Type

Methods exist for assessing types of people and types of work environments according to Holland coding. In the case of the former, a Holland profile can be determined a couple of ways: (1) utilizing a well-constructed quantitative measure such as the Self-Directed Search or Vocational Preference Inventory that evaluates a person’s interests, competencies, and self-ratings on multiple dimensions and assigns a code or (2) evaluating a person’s current or desired career or position and assigning a code based on the work characteristics of the position. The Position Classification Inventory is a formal questionnaire of 84 items designed to assign Holland codes to various positions based on the unique work-related activities and tasks associated with a job.

It is important to note that while the Self-Directed Search is the instrument that is most closely aligned with and derived from Holland’s theory, another widely utilized career instrument, the Strong Interest Inventory, also makes use of the Holland typological system. The selection of a method for measuring a person’s type can vary depending on the goals of the career client, the training and ability of the career counselor, and the time and resources available to both parties.

Assessment of Environmental Type

A method has been developed by Holland and Gary D. Gottfredson to measure the type of a work environment. This method is based on capturing the typal profiles of the people in the environment, or the inhabitants of the work environment. By applying codes to the people in an organization according to their occupational roles, training, or education, one can determine the dominant type within the environment. This method, known as the Environmental Assessment Technique, can be applied to any work environment, and it can generate an absolute number of types for an environment or a percentage of types based on the total distribution.

A resource was recently developed by Holland and Gottfredson that categorized all the entries from the Dictionary of Occupational Titles (DOT) according to a three-letter Holland code. This Dictionary of Holland Occupational Codes utilizes job analysis data to prescribe a corresponding three-letter code to the positions in the DOT, allowing for a more complex inventory of organizational type based on a three-letter profile rather than one primary type.

Matching Person to Environment

The notion of matching people to environments can be broadly conceptualized to include environments that go well beyond occupational responsibilities and work cultures. Person-environment interactions can apply to the fit between children and parents, students and neighborhoods, students and primary and secondary schools, adults and their social circles, and adults and retirement activities. There is a developmental component to the theory in that the degree of matching, or congruence, between person and environment in any of life’s stages can profoundly influence levels of contentment or stress and frustration. In response, new decisions are made that ideally draw upon past experiences to create future situations that are more compatible and congruent. Take for example a student who decides to major in premed because he or she is drawn to being a physician out of a desire to help people, have a status position, and make lots of money. During the first year of college, the student encounters difficult science courses and realizes that he or she is not really congruent with science due to a lack of genuine interest in biology, chemistry, and physics. Consequently, the student modifies his or her choice of major to include potential majors where he or she can help people and make sufficient money, but not in the field of science or medicine. At this point, the student may ultimately choose psychology, human resources, or public administration where new interests and goals can be realized. In a short amount of time a shift has occurred in large part due to the developmental process of maximizing congruence.

Research Support for Holland’s Theory

Holland’s theory of vocational personalities and work environments is a mature theory in that it has been widely researched for a period extending beyond 35 years. Evidence has generally supported the formulation of the Holland types; however, it has been concluded that the hexagon itself is much less symmetrical and exact than the drawings might depict. Nevertheless, the RIASEC ordering does hold true, and it has presented us with a model that is clear, practical, and highly amenable to vocational assessment. Other significant, yet secondary parts of the theory such as differentiation and consistency have received less compelling support since research results have been mixed. The environmental models have received the least attention by researchers, and the categorization of jobs by type remains a complicated process that varies according to the methods by which workers and jobs are measured and analyzed.

Practical Applications of Holland’s Theory

Perhaps the hallmark of Holland’s theory is that it is user friendly. Psychological theories are often complex in both theory and in practice, yet Holland has managed to keep the end user in mind when developing his theory of vocational personalities and work environments. The RIASEC coding allows for a clean and simple method for assigning typologies to people, their current jobs, their career aspirations, their work culture, and a host of environmental factors. From the perspective of the career counselor who sees clients for a limited number of appointments, Holland’s theory provides an efficient and effective method for making predictions about satisfaction in many work arenas.


  1. Gottfredson, G. D., & Holland, J. L. (1991). Position Classification Inventory professional manual. Odessa, FL: Psychological Assessment Resources.
  2. Gottfredson, G. D., & Holland, J. L. (1996). Dictionary of Holland occupational codes. Odessa, FL: Psychological Assessment Resources.
  3. Holland, J. L. (1997). Making vocational choices: A theory of vocational personalities and work environments. Odessa, FL: Psychological Assessment Resources.
  4. Holland, J. L., Fritzche, B. A., & Powell, A. B. (1994). The Self-Directed Search technical manual. Odessa, FL: Psychological Assessment Resources.

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