To Thine Own Employer Be True – employee commitment to their employers

Deborah Smith

There has recently been a significant interest among researchers in the concept of commitment and its relationship to workplace settings and behaviors. Previous research has established a correlation between employee commitment and behaviors such as turnover, absenteeism, and tardiness (Iverson & Buttigieg, 1999; Cohen, 1993; Mathieu & Zajac, 1990; Angle & Perry, 1981; Mowday, Steers & Porter, 1979; Koch & Steers, 1978; Porter, Crampton & Smith, 1976; Porter, Steers, Mowday & Boulian, 1974). Organizational commitment often spawns employees who support organizational goals, require less supervision, and are willing to put forth extra effort on behalf of their organization without personal benefit (Balfour & Wechsler, 1996; Angle & Perry, 1981; Mowday, Steers & Porter, 1979; Buchanan, B. 1974; Mowday, Porter & Dubin, 1974).

In this day and age where flattened organizations and empowered workers serve as strategies for improving productivity and performance, employee commitment is crucial (Dessler, 1999). Not all employees develop commitment to their organizations; therefore, managers must be aware of the individual and situational factors that build commitment to the workplace. The purpose of this article is to explain organizational commitment, explore antecedents and outcomes associated with organizational commitment, and examine the implications of research on organizational commitment for professionals in the field.

One of the major problems confronting early efforts to understand commitment is the belief that commitment is a unitary construct. Research efforts were directed at finding an underlying single term and explanation, despite a variety of conceptualizations and measures that have fundamental differences (Angle & Lawson, 1993). These conceptualizations were derived primarily from either a behavioral or psychological perspective.

The behavioral interpretation of commitment has been defined by Johnson (1973) as “those consequences of the initial pursuit of a line of action which constrain the actor to continue that line of action.” Mowday, Steers, and Porter (1979) refer to these “commitment-related behaviors as representing “sunk costs … where individuals forgo alternative courses.” Exchange theory has permeated the literature on commitment and represents a widely used variation of the behavioral approach to the determination of commitment. According to exchange theory, an employee who perceives a favorable exchange and greater rewards is more likely to be a committed employee (Hrebiniak & Alutto, 1972).

Consequences to Other Interests

The side-bet theory of Howard Becker (1966) has also been widely used to explain commitment from a behavioral perspective. Becker (1966) describes side-bets as consequences to other interests and activities that result from a particular line of action. In life’s routines, individuals stake value on continuing a consistent line of behavior. Together, this line of action may come to represent a series of side-bets that an individual is unwilling to lose (Becker, 1966). Organizational theorists have taken these fundamentals and applied them directly to organizational commitment. In essence, commitment is viewed primarily as a matter of accrued investments — retirement dollars or specialized skills — in an organization that over time result in a cost accrual that makes disengagement difficult (Alutto, Hrebiniak & Alonso, 1973).

In contrast to the behavioral approach, the psychological interpretation “describes commitment as a more active and positive orientation” (Morris & Sherman, 1981), and stresses bonding, linkage, and attachment. Kanter (1968), in her study of how commitment develops in Utopian communities, defines commitment as “the process through which individual interests become attached to the carrying out of socially organized patterns of behavior which are seen as fulfilling those interests, as expressing the nature and needs of the person.” According to Angle and Perry (1986) this “attachment to membership derives not from economic exchange, but from such processes as identification and internalization — processes more clearly consonant with loyalty or allegiance. The most commonly used organizational application of the psychological framework, developed by Porter et al., defines organizational commitment as “the relative strength of an individual’s identification with and involvement in a particular organization” (Mowday, Steers & Porter, 1979). In accordance with this definition, organizational commitment has three major components: a strong belief in and acceptance of the organization’s goals, a willingness to exert considerable effort on behalf of the organization, and a definite desire to maintain organizational membership (Porter, Steers, Mowday & Boulian, 1974).

The lack of consensus about what commitment is and the resulting measurement of different constructs have made it difficult to generalize findings and to develop a clear understanding of the processes that precipitate organizational commitment. Researchers have also realized that although neither the behavioral nor the psychological perspective is wrong in its identification of commitment factors, both are incomplete.

Critics of behaviorism contend that it focuses on the environment as cause of behavior, that it attempts to explain individual behavior without taking into account the inner person. While hesitation to leave an organization may look like commitment, it may just as easily be constraint or shortage of options (Morris & Sherman, 1981; Becker, 1966).

Critics of the psychological framework point to the limitations of the micro approach of psychology because it examines only the influence of the immediate environment on the individual and the reaction of individuals to specific environmental events and situations. This approach is “impeded by an inability to deal with the facts of social structure and social organization” (Katz & Kahn, 1966) resulting in a narrow scope that is apt to “deal with too few variables or with inappropriate variables” (ibid.)

Conflicting Commitment

Also, both the behavioral and psychological approaches to the concept of commitment share difficulties that neither perspective has satisfactorily resolved. The first of these difficulties involves conflict, change, uncertainty, and degree of commitment and the processes by which individuals handle these ambiguities. In the case of side-bets, Howard Becker (1966) states, “People often have conflicting commitment, and the theory proposed here offers no answer to the question of how people choose between the commitments they have acquired when such conflicts are activated.” The behavioral and psychological approaches also neglect the mediation of interaction patterns, including the contexts of interaction between individuals and groups of individuals and the broader patterns of social structure and social organization, which have not only created personal history before an individual joins an organization but continue to dynamically shape and be shaped by individual and group interactions and linkages once a person has entered the workplace.

Researchers for the most part now agree that organizational commitment is complex and multidimensional (Balfour & Wechsler, 1996; Angle & Lawson, 1993; Allen & Meyer, 1990; Angle & Perry, 1981). The behavioral perspective of commitment has evolved into what is now commonly referred to as continuance commitment and is understood to be “membership attachment based on the costs that the employee associates with leaving the organization” (Angle & Lawson, 1993). Indicators of continuance are developed on the basis of primarily two factors: the magnitude/numbers of investments an individual has in an organization, and a perceived lack of alternatives (Allen & Meyer, 1990). Antecedents of continuance commitment commonly explored in the literature are demographic variables, such as age, tenure, education, position, and pay, as well as more direct measures of side-bet investments, such as firm-specific skills, firm participation, and hours worked (Wallace, 1997).

The psychological perspective of commitment is called affective commitment and refers to “emotional attachment to, identification with, and involvement in the organization” (Angle & Lawson, 1993). Indicators of affective commitment are related to work experience variables that explore employee needs to feel comfortable with an organization, social relationships in the workplace, and employee competence in the work role (Balfour & Wechsler, 1996; Allen & Meyer, 1990). Attention is also being given to a third commitment construct, identified by Allen and Meyer (1990), called normative commitment. This commitment component focuses on an individual’s internalization of commitment to an organization as a personal value and moral obligation (Angle & Lawson, 1993; Allen & Meyer, 1990). Variables indicative of normative commitment are related to value congruence and an employee’s feelings about the mission, purpose, and achievement of an organization (Balfour & Wechsler, 1996).

Allen and Meyer (1990) explain that although what is common to these three conceptualizations of commitment is a link between the employee and organization that decreases the likelihood of turnover, it is clear that the nature of that link varies. Employees with strong affective commitment remain because they want to, those with strong continuance commitment because they need to, and those with strong normative commitment because they feel they ought to.

Commitment Develops Independently

Allen and Meyer (1990) suggest that individuals can experience each of these components of commitment to varying degrees and that commitment is a net sum of these three links. At times, these multiple components of commitment “may not be consistent or mutually supportive and may pull an individual in opposite directions” (Balfour & Wechsler, 1996). Research suggests that each of these components of commitment develops fairly independently and is the consequence of both the different sets of antecedents related to each type of commitment and the complex personal and. situational factors that influence the relationship (Balfour & Wechsler, 1996; Angle & Lawson, 1990; Angle & Perry, 1983).

Much research has examined the sets of factors that lead to increased or decreased organizational commitment. Angle and Perry (1983) and Angle and Lawson (1993) suggest that antecedents of organizational commitment are either organization- or member-based.

Organization-based antecedents are “those things that happen to the individual in or at the hands of the organization” (Angle & Lawson, 1993). They reflect the way an individual has been treated by an organization (Angle & Perry, 1983). Even though organization-based factors originate in the organization’s structure, policies, procedures, and culture, it is the employee’s perception of and response to these factors that influence commitment (Bamberger, Kluger & Suchard, 1999; Angle & Lawson, 1993). Organization-based antecedents encompass everything from an individual’s perception of equal treatment (Angle & Perry 1983) to job characteristics and satisfaction, positive communication, leadership satisfaction, and fulfillment of needs (Young, Worchel & Woehr, 1998; Steers, 1977).

Member-based antecedents are “things the individual brings to the organization or does there” (Angle & Lawson, 1993). The “locus of commitment” is considered to reside in the “attributes and actions of the individual” (Angle & Perry, 1983). Although some researchers conclude that the characteristics of individuals have no direct effect on commitment (Balfour & Wechsler, 1996), little is known about how personal factors and early work experiences impact organizational commitment (Iverson & Buttigieg, 1999; Mohamed & Jason, 1999; Meyer, Irving & Allen, 1998). Angle and Lawson (1993) suggest that member-based antecedents fall into two general categories. The first category is dispositional factors, such as personality traits and value preferences. Normative commitment could also be considered a dispositional factor. The second category of factors is the investments or side-bets that an individual makes over time (Angle & Lawson, 1993). Research has thus far provided some support for the assertion that organization-based antecedents are more strongly related to affective commitment, member-based side-bets are primarily related to continuance commitment, and member-based dispositional factors influence both affective and continuance commitment (Angle & Lawson, 1993). In a recent study, Balfour and Wechsler (1996) tested the strength of these three commitment components with a random sampling of employees from 12 state agencies. They found that the affiliative/social relations aspect of affective commitment was the most important determinant of desire to remain in an organization, and normative commitment the least important determinant. Continuance commitment was a factor determining desire to remain in an organization, but it did not influence one of the desired outcomes of commitment — extra-effort behaviors by employees on behalf of their organization.

Research findings in this article have implications for managers in the field.

A Matter of Reciprocation

First, a variety of personal and organizational characteristics affect the degree of an employee’s commitment. Many of these characteristics, however, are mediated by organizational policies and practices. Angle and Perry (1983) suggest that organizational commitment is in large part a matter of reciprocation between the individual and the organization, and that many of the principal antecedents of workplace commitment are well within the capacity of management to shape and influence. For example, Becker, Billings, Eveleth, and Gilbert (1996) suggest that because the affective dimension appears to be such an important component of commitment, efforts focused on building relationships between employees and supervisors through such activities as leadership training, socialization, and team building might significantly impact performance. Another example can be demonstrated with family-friendly policies, such as flextime, which are related to higher organizational commitment for employees who have family responsibilities (Iverson & Buttigieg, 1999; Scandura & Lankau, 1997).

Second, because organizational commitment is multidimensional, commitment-related issues may vary among organizations. In a study examining differences between the commitment of employees in the public and private sectors, Steinhaus and Perry (1996) concluded that variance in organizational commitment between public and private sector employees was explained more by differences in organization types and industries than by the public/private sector dichotomy. Tang, Robertson, and Lane (1996) postulate fundamental differences in types of organizations impact the nature of commitment, what managers must do to cultivate employee commitment, and the importance of generating commitment among employees. Additionally, each occupational group has its own particular value system, which affects the antecedents of commitment differently (Wallace, 1997).

Current research is examining dual commitments such as the relationship between organizational commitment and commitment to careers/occupations (Wallace, 1997; Meyer, Allen & Smith, 1993) or unions (Bamberger, Kluger & Suchard, 1999). Managers must be sensitive to not only how work characteristics affect commitment, but also to how types of organizations and different occupations impact employee attitudes.

Finally, even though employee commitment is a critical factor in an organization’s productivity and performance, it is a challenge for managers to foster and maintain organizational commitment. Dessler (1999) comments that it is “a paradoxical situation: on the one hand today’s focus on teamwork, empowerment, and flatter organizations puts a premium on just the sort of self-motivation that one expects to get from committed employees; on the other hand, environmental forces [such as outsourcing and downsizing] are acting to diminish the foundations of employee commitment.” Research suggests that to promote employee commitment, managers must implement a comprehensive package of policies and practices that treats employees equitably and fairly, create a positive organizational culture, provide job satisfaction, and fulfill employee needs.


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RELATED ARTICLE: Research Into Action: Take This job and Love It


In this era of flattened organizations and empowered workers, employee commitment is crucial. Managers must be aware of individual and situational factors that build commitment to the workplace. This month’s “Research Update” reviews these factors.

Impact of this Research

Even though organizational commitment is complex and multidimensional, researchers have been able to generalize several basic types.

* Continuance commitment — Based on the costs an employee associates with leaving the organization.

* Affective commitment — Emotional attachment to the organization.

* Normative commitment — A moral obligation to organizational loyalty.

In other words, employees with strong affective commitment remain because they want to, those with strong continuance commitment because they need to, and those with strong normative commitment because they feel they ought to. An employee’s commitment package is a net sum of these three types of commitment.

How to Use This Research

Factors that managers can harness to increase organizational commitment include:

* Building positive relationships between employees and supervisors through such activities as leadership training, socialization, and teambuilding.

* Establishing a multifaceted package of policies and practices that treats employees equitably and fairly (and is perceived as such by employees).

* Establishing “family-friendly” policies such as flextime.

For More Information

Check out these journals for studies on organizational commitment:

Journal of Occupational Psychology

Academy of Management Journal

Journal of Vocational Behavior

Research Into Action is published monthly by the Society of Park and Recreation Educators, National Recreation and Park Association. As an accompaniment to “Research Update,” its goals is to turn research findings into field action by highlighting management strategies. Founding editors are Dr. Ruth Russell and Dr. Daniel D. McLean, Department of Recreation and Park Administration, Indiana University.

Deborah Smith, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in the Department of Health Education and Recreation at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale.

Research Update is edited by Dr. Irma O’Dell of Southern Illinois University at Carbondale and Kim L. Siegenthaler, Ph.D., of Appalachian State University.

COPYRIGHT 1999 National Recreation and Park Association

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group

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