The Minnesota Theory of Work Adjustment (MTWA), developed by Rene Dawis and Lloyd Lofquist, provides a way of conceptualizing the fit between an individual and a job or organization. It was initially influenced by research into the job placement problems of the physically disabled, which was the focus of a consultancy undertaken at the University of Minnesota as part of the Work Adjustment Project commenced in 1957. Much of the early research leading to MTWA was published with the Minnesota Studies in Vocational Rehabilitation. In developing the MTWA, the authors drew heavily on the strong measurement tradition at Minnesota. This emphasis resulted in a theory that provides a set of clearly testable hypotheses, which has stimulated many decades of research and associated development of instruments and measures.
MTWA consists of both a structural model and a process model. Much of the research has focused on the components of the structural model, thereby failing to capture the underlying influence of learning theories on the development of the model and, more important, missing the richness of the dynamic aspects of the theory that deal with how both individuals and environments change. However, the dynamic component of MTWA has increasing relevance because of the way in which the theory accommodates the current focus on adaptation and change in the work environment.
The MTWA describes both people and work environments in terms of the demands they impose on or ways they can reinforce each other and in what each can offer, or supply, the other. Commensurate measurement of the individual and environment along two broad dimensions captures the extent of the match between demands and supply.
Knowledge, Skill, and Abilities (KSAs)
TWA requires a detailed understanding of the environmental requirements in terms of the Knowledge, Skill, and Abilities (KSAs) (perceptual, cognitive, social, and physical), education, and experiences that are necessary for optimal functioning. The measurement of these requirements derives from the job analysis literature.
A principle of symmetry embedded in MTWA requires that the individual be assessed on the same KSA dimensions as those used to describe the environment. Commensurate measurement provides information not only on what the individual has to offer but also on how well his or her supplies match the work requirements. This emphasis on stable individual differences is unique among career development theories, and although it implies certain limitations, it does not deny the influence of the situation or the potential for change.
Further evidence of symmetry can be seen in the focus on the demands the environment places on the individual, and vice versa.
Needs, Values, and Interests
The importance of assessing an individual’s needs, values, interests, and preferences illustrates MTWA’s link to fundamental learning principles. The concept of individuals seeking environments that will reinforce their values or the potential of an occupational reinforcer to reinforce behavior was heavily influenced by the early learning theory traditions of Edward Tolman and B. F. Skinner. Originally, measurement of needs and values occurred through the Minnesota Importance Questionnaire (MIQ), which included 20 need dimensions thought to be common to the majority of working people. These 20 needs were summarized into the five work values of achievement, autonomy, status, safety and comfort, and altruism, which, according to MTWA, are higher-order needs.
Similarly, the environment is assessed in terms of the opportunities it has to offer individuals as motivational incentives, that is, its capacity to fulfill an individual’s identified needs, values, and interests.
Work adjustment is the outcome of a match, or correspondence, between requirements and supplies from both the individual and the work environment on the two dimensions described above. Three major criteria are viewed as indicators of work adjustment: satisfaction, satisfactoriness (i.e., satisfactory performance), and tenure.
Satisfaction is the outcome from the match between the individual’s vocational interests, motivational needs, and values and the extent to which the organization is able to provide appropriate rewards and reinforcement of these. The authors of MTWA argued that satisfaction was more than an overall component and therefore incorporated satisfaction with specific aspects of one’s job such as supervision, coworkers, working conditions, hours of work, pay, and types of work. Importantly, they also highlighted the more intrinsic aspects of work, including satisfaction arising from the fulfillment of aspirations, expectations, and needs.
Unlike other theories of career development that focus solely on the individual’s perspective, MTWA also incorporated the employer perspective through the inclusion of satisfactoriness (satisfactory performance). Resulting from the correspondence between the environment’s need for specific KSAs and the individual’s capacity to supply these, satisfactoriness covers efficiency, productivity, the ability to get along with a supervisor and coworkers, and a willingness to follow company policies. The early measure of this construct, The Minnesota Satisfactoriness Scales (MSS), asks the employer to rate how well the individual is performing compared with others in his or her work group on dimensions parallel to current conceptualizations of task performance (quantity and quality of work); contextual performance (e.g., accepts direction from supervisor, works as a member of a team); and adaptive performance (e.g., adapts to changes in procedures or methods, adjusts to different interpersonal approaches). The MSS also has sections that address what is currently called “counterproductive behavior” (e.g., comes late for work, becomes upset and unhappy, and requires disciplinary action).
Furthermore, MTWA proposes that the extent to which correspondence between person and environment results in satisfactoriness is moderated by (that is, dependent on) the level of an individual’s satisfaction. Specifically, the prediction of satisfactory performance from the match between an individual’s KSAs and those required by an organization is stronger for satisfied employees than for unsatisfied employees. Likewise, satisfactoriness moderates the extent to which satisfaction is predicted from a match between an individual’s needs and the reinforcers provided by the environment.
Tenure, that is the length of time an individual and environment interact, is a function of both satisfaction and satisfactoriness. While MTWA originally operationalized tenure as a period of time before voluntary or involuntary removal from the workplace, more recently, the concept of withdrawal behavior has been used to include voluntary turnover as well as absenteeism, lateness, and other behaviors that indicate a reduced affective commitment to work.
The dynamic component of MTWA was developed to explain the process by which either the person or the environment adjusts or adapts to minimize deterioration in fit.
Based on control or systems theory, it is proposed that a lack of correspondence acts as a trigger for a behavioral response aimed at reducing the tension that is created by the associated dissatisfaction. The extent to which this behavior is initiated depends on the so-called response style of either the person or the environment. Response style is classified in four dimensions: celerity, or speed of response; pace, or strength of response; rhythm, or pattern of response; and endurance, or length of sustaining the response.
The actual behaviors that reduce the level of mismatch can be enacted by either the person or the environment. There are four kinds of behaviors or adjustment styles that describe this process of maintaining or improving correspondence: activeness, reactiveness, flexibility, and perseverance. Taken from the perspective of the person, activeness is when the individual attempts to reduce the mismatch by acting to change the environment to better suit himself or herself. An example of activeness on the part of the person would be negotiating job changes or a salary increase. Conversely, reactiveness occurs when the individual changes or modifies himself or herself to better suit the environment. Examples of reactive behavior include learning new skills, adapting interpersonal relating, and cross-cultural adaptability. Flexibility is tolerating a mismatch, such as being able to cope with higher-than-desired levels of stress and ambiguity in the workplace. Finally, perseverance describes the degree to which an individual will enact adjustment behaviors before giving up. In the same way that individuals act in these four adjustment styles, so do environments. For example, an organization can provide feedback and training to actively change its employees’ KSAs and reactively changes itself by instituting work redesign initiatives.
The structural and process models of MTWA combine to produce 17 research proposals. Propositions X to XVII relate to the style variables and, due mostly to inadequate measures of these, have attracted scant empirical attention. Likewise, there has been little testing of the hypotheses concerning the moderating role of satisfaction and satisfactoriness (Propositions IV and V).
In contrast, a large body of research has been consistent in supporting the prediction of satisfaction from the congruence between an individual’s needs, interests, and values with the corresponding environmental reinforcers.
Similarly, there has been extensive support for the proposed relationship between satisfaction, satisfactoriness, and tenure. However, recent research has highlighted the complexity of measuring tenure and the recently identified need to include work withdrawal behaviors other than resignation or termination (such as absenteeism and lateness).
Support for the propositions regarding the prediction of satisfactory performance is found directly in research investigating MTWA as well as indirectly through the large body of selection research of the last decade, particularly that showing a link between cognitive ability and job knowledge and performance. Admittedly, much of this research shows the direct link between KSAs and performance, failing to account for the requirements of a specific job. However, the identification of a number of moderators of the relationship between cognitive ability and job performance, such as task complexity and novelty, does suggest that the more a task requires cognitive ability, the stronger its prediction of performance.
Although the MTWA was originally developed to assist people to choose careers and to adjust in a rehabilitation context at a time when work environments were relatively stable, the theory has shown itself to be readily amenable to being updated to cater to changing work conditions and ongoing research developments.
As mentioned, the concept of tenure has evolved with the recognition of the importance of both work and job withdrawal behaviors. Aharon Tziner and Elchanan Meir expanded MTWA to take account of this research and also included the notion of organizational commitment. Attention has also been paid to the other MTWA criteria of satisfaction and satisfactoriness. Peter Warr identified the need to account for mental health and well-being along with satisfaction. He emphasized the measurement of job-related well-being, and much of the subsequent support is found in the stress and coping literature. Other seminal work showed that job performance (satisfactoriness) is, in fact, a multidimensional construct and that its dimensions are differentially predicted, suggesting that future investigations of MTWA consider measurement of these separate aspects of performance.
The role of personality factors was not a focus of the original MTWA. Although considered as higher-order variables derived from the more basic model variables, their role is not clear. Renee Dawis extended the model to include personality as one of several “other factors” that moderate the relationship between the three outcome variables. Alternatively, Beryl Hesketh and Barbara Griffin suggested that because of the established empirical relationship between interests and personality and between job performance and personality, individual differences in personality could belong in the structural model of MTWA as one of the essential aspects requiring a fit between person and environment.
- Borman, W. C. and Motowidlo, S. J. 1993. “Expanding the Criterion Domain to Include Elements of Contextual Performance.” Pp. 71-98 in Personnel Selection in Organizations, edited by N. Schmitt, W. C. Borman and Associates. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
- Campbell, J. P. 1990. “Modeling Performance Prediction Problem in Industrial and Organizational Psychology.” Pp. 687-732 in Handbook of Industrial and Organizational Psychology, edited by M. D. Dunnette and L. M. Hough. Palo Alto, CA: Consulting Psychologists Press.
- Dawis, R. V. 2004. ‘The Minnesota Theory of Work Adjustment.” Pp. 3-23 in Career Development and Counseling, edited by S. D. Brown and R. W. Lent. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.
- Dawis, R. V. 2004. 1987. “Requirement, Capability, and Opportunity.” Canadian Journal of Guidance and Counselling 3: 55-60.
- Dawis, R. V. and Lofquist, L. H. 1984. A Psychological Theory of Work Adjustment. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.
- Hesketh, B. and Dawis, R. V. 1991. “The Minnesota Theory of Work Adjustment: A Conceptual Framework.” Pp. 1-16 in Psychological Perspectives on Occupational Health and Rehabilitation, edited by B. Hesketh and A. Adams. Sydney, Australia: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.
- Hesketh, B. and Griffin, B. 2004. “Work Adjustment.” Pp. 245-266 in Handbook of Vocational Psychology, 3, edited by W. B. Walsh and M. L. Savickas. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
- Lofquist, L. and Dawis, R. V. 1969. Adjustment to Work. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts.
- Tziner, A. and Meir, E. I. 1997. “Work Adjustment: Extension of the Theoretical Framework.” Pp. 95-112 in International Review of Industrial and Organizational Psychology, 12, edited by C. I. Cooper and I. T. Robertson. London, UK: Wiley.
- Warr, P. 1991. “Mental Health, Well-being and Job Satisfaction.” Pp. 143-165 in Psychological Perspectives on Occupational Health and Rehabilitation, edited by B. Hesketh and A. Adams. Sydney, Australia: Harcourt Brace.