Organizational psychologists—researchers and practitioners alike—have long been interested in understanding how people react, psychologically, to the various aspects of their workplace and in understanding the consequences of these psychological reactions. Given that most people are likely to spend at least some of their working careers as members of one or more organizations, it is perhaps not surprising that a great deal of this interest focuses on employees’ commitment to the organizations for which they work. Indeed, of the several “work attitude” variables studied by organizational psychologists, only job satisfaction has received more research attention than organizational commitment (OC). As with the study of job satisfaction, much of this research deals with the conceptualization and measurement of OC. In addition, considerable attention has been given to understanding the conditions under which OC develops and its consequences.
Conceptualizing Organizational Commitment
The early organizational commitment literature produced various, and quite distinct, definitions of the concept. At a general level, however, most scholars would agree that organizational commitment refers to a psychological state that characterizes an employee’s relationship with the organization for which he or she works. This psychological state has important implications for whether the employee will choose to maintain a particular course of action, in this case, remaining with the organization. Thus regardless of their specific conceptual definition of OC, most researchers expect that strongly committed employees have a greater intention to stay with the organization than those with weak commitment.
Beyond this, however, there are different views about the nature of the psychological state that binds an employee to the organization. Indeed, just as the word commitment is used somewhat differently in everyday language, early researchers in the field provided differing conceptualizations of OC and developed different measures of the construct. In all cases, however, commitment was described in one-dimensional terms. For some early researchers, OC was an emotional attachment to the organization much like love or affection. Others focused on identification with the organization and what it represented. Some researchers viewed OC in terms of a reluctance to endure sacrifices, or incur costs, that voluntarily leaving the organization would entail. Still others described commitment in terms of a moral obligation to remain with the organization.
From these different views has emerged wide acceptance of OC as a construct that has not one, but multiple, dimensions. Although specific details vary, the basic premise of most of these multidimensional models is that a given employee’s commitment to the organization has more than one psychological base or component and that each of these should be measured separately in order to give a full picture of the employee’s commitment to the organization. Of these various multidimensional models, the three-component model (TCM) proposed in the 1990s has received the most empirical attention. Although it is through this lens that the research on the development and consequences of OC is viewed here, it is important to note that research from various traditions has contributed to this body of knowledge.
As its name implies, the TCM proposes that OC has three distinct components. Each develops via somewhat different processes and represents a distinct psychological tie that binds the employee to the organization. Affective commitment refers to the employee’s emotional attachment to the organization, characterized by an enjoyment of the organization and a desire to continue membership in it. Employees with strong affective commitment remain with the organization because they want to do so. In contrast, continuance commitment refers to the extent to which the employee perceives that leaving the organization would be costly. The focus is not on emotional attachment to the organization but rather on what employees would lose if they left. Employees with strong continuance commitment remain because they feel that they have to do so. Normative commitment refers to the employee’s feelings of obligation to the organization and the belief that staying with it is the “right thing” to do. Employees with strong normative commitment remain because they feel that they ought to do so.
It is important to note that affective, continuance, and normative commitments do not represent a typology of commitment. That is, a given employee’s commitment is not characterized in terms of one of the three components but rather as a “commitment profile” made up of all three. Furthermore, the model proposes that the three components have interactive effects on employee behavior.
Measuring Organizational Commitment
Researchers and practitioners usually assess OC directly, using multiple-item scales, or questionnaires, administered to the employees themselves. Typically, employees respond to these questionnaires anonymously in order to ensure that they feel as free as possible to provide candid responses. As with any such measures, it is critical that items reflect the underlying construct in question. Especially in early OC research, this was accomplished with varying degrees of success. Particularly noteworthy, however, is the 15-item Organizational Commitment Questionnaire (OCQ). Developed in the 1970s to assess identification with, involvement in, and emotional attachment to the organization, the OCQ represents a valid and reliable measure of desire-based, or affective, commitment to the organization. It has been used in hundreds of studies over the years, and this research has contributed greatly to what we know about the development and consequences of the affective component of OC.
In order to extend this research, and to assess propositions based on the multidimensional view of OC referred to above, TCM researchers used the construct approach to develop separate measures of each of the three proposed OC components. Since then, the affective, continuance, and normative commitment scales (ACS, CCS, NCS, respectively) have been used extensively in research conducted in dozens of organizational and cultural contexts and with members of various occupations. Both the original and alternate versions of the scales have been subjected to considerable psychometric scrutiny. Overall, the evidence shows that the measures are reliable, correlate with other variables in general accordance with TCM propositions, and, based on factor analytic evidence, appear to represent distinct factors.
Development of Organizational Commitment
Although OC might be expected to develop on the basis of both “person” and “work experience” factors, the evidence suggests that the latter plays the more important role. Some demographic and other individual difference variables (e.g., age, locus of control) are modestly related to OC, but it is what people experience in their jobs and at their organizations that seems to have particular influence on OC development.
With respect to affective commitment, meta-analytic evidence (that is, a quantitative review of a body of empirical research) suggests several work experiences that seem especially important. Perhaps not surprisingly, affective commitment is particularly strong among employees who feel that they have been treated by their organizations in a supportive manner. Such perceptions can, of course, arise from numerous policies, practices, and everyday events; of key importance here is that employees feel that the organization is on their side. Also important, and perhaps indicative of organizational support, are various types of workplace justice: interactional, procedural, and distributive forms of justice have all been shown to be positively related to affective commitment. Affective commitment is also stronger among employees who experience minimal role ambiguity and role conflict at work and whose managers and/or leaders adopt transformational leadership styles. Finally, although this has not been examined meta-analytically, there is evidence that affective commitment is stronger among employees whose work experiences enhance, rather than degrade, their feelings of competence.
The TCM proposes that normative commitment— the “ought to” component—will develop on the basis of both cultural and organizational experiences that highlight the mutual obligation between employees and the organization and/or make the reciprocity norm salient to employees. These theoretical propositions have received relatively little empirical attention. Meta-analytic results show that some of the same variables (e.g., organizational support, role ambiguity, justice) that seem to influence affective commitment are related to normative commitment, albeit relations are weaker. Possibly the relations between some of these experiences and normative commitment are explained by employee interpretations focusing on the feelings of indebtedness and obligation that underlie normative commitment. Furthermore, there is some evidence that the impact of work experiences on normative commitment depends on employees’ cultural values (e.g., individualism vs. collectivism).
Consistent with theory, continuance commitment is more strongly related than are the other two components to two sets of variables: perceived alternatives and perceived investments. Specifically, continuance commitment is stronger among employees who believe that they would have few, rather than several, viable sources of employment if they left the organization. This makes sense, since for such employees the costs associated with leaving their current organization would be quite high. In addition, continuance commitment is stronger among employees who believe that they have made significant investments developing their skills and acquiring education that would not transfer readily to other organizations.
Compared to those with easily transferable skills/ education, such employees would incur greater costs if they left the organization.
Consequences of Organizational Commitment
As mentioned earlier, examining OC consequences in terms of the commitment profile (or interactions between components) is most consistent with theory. Some researchers have taken this approach, but most studies have involved the examination of potential OC consequences on a component-by-component rather than profile basis. In such research, the emphasis has been on employee retention, work performance, and employee well-being.
The links between OC and employee retention are clear and consistent. Meta-analytic research shows that affective, normative, and continuance commitments are all negatively related to employee intention to leave the organization voluntarily. This research also shows that both affective commitment and normative commitment, but not continuance commitment, predict actual turnover.
For many organizations, of course, how employees behave at work is as much, or greater, a concern as whether they stay. In this regard, the distinction between the three components of commitment becomes particularly important. Beyond their demonstrated link with turnover intention, affective, continuance, and normative commitments are considered, and have been shown, to have somewhat different implications for employee behavior.
Meta-analytic research confirms that affective commitment is linked to several key performance indicators. Employees with stronger affective commitment are less likely to be absent from work than those with weaker affective commitment, and interestingly this effect is stronger for absence under the employee’s control than for involuntary absence (e.g., illness, emergencies). Affective commitment also predicts job performance. Across a wide variety of jobs, both self-report ratings and supervisory ratings of in-role (or required) work performance are higher among those with stronger affective commitment. Employees with strong affective commitment are also more likely to go the “extra mile” at work, engaging in more organizational citizenship behavior (OCB) than those with weak affective commitment. OCB includes various behaviors (e.g., exerting greater effort, courteousness, helping coworkers, championing the organization) that help create a more productive and more positive workplace. As such, it is important for both the organization and its employees.
Normative commitment is unrelated to employee absence. Its relations with other performance indicators, however, are positive, though effects are more modest than for affective commitment. Interestingly, meta-analytic evidence shows that relations between normative commitment and both in-role performance and OCB are stronger in studies conducted outside North America, suggesting that cultural factors might play an important role in the behavioral expression of this component of commitment. Finally, although this has not yet been tested, it has been argued that normative commitment might influence the “tone” with which the employees carry out their work, particularly if they also have weak-to-moderate levels of affective commitment. Specifically, a strong sense of feeling of obligation to stay, in the absence of strong desire to stay, might occasionally create feelings of resentment, prompting such employees to carry out their duties in a competent but more grudging manner.
Like normative commitment, continuance commitment is unrelated to employee absence. In contrast to affective and normative commitment, however, it is also unrelated to organizational citizenship behavior; those with strong continuance commitment are neither more nor less likely to go the extra mile. Most noteworthy, however, is the strong negative relation—reported in meta-analytic research—between continuance commitment and in-role job performance. The fact that employees with strong (vs. weak) continuance commitment perform more poorly has a critically important implication for those organizations that develop retention strategies around what employees will lose if they resign. Such organizations might well increase retention but do so at the cost of employee performance. This will be especially so if employees are given little reason to develop affective commitment to the organization and, as a consequence, feel “trapped” within it.
Finally, researchers are beginning to examine whether OC has implications for employee well-being. Presumably, most people prefer to feel positively, rather than negatively, toward the environment in which they work. Some have argued, however, that strong affective OC could interfere with well-being by causing employees to focus undue attention on work. Thus far, there is little evidence of this latter view.
Indeed, meta-analytic research suggests that strong affective commitment is related to reduced stress/ exhaustion and greater quality of life beyond the workplace. In contrast, however, continuance commitment is related to poorer quality of life and greater stress levels.
Emerging Issues in Organizational Commitment Research
Organizational commitment has received a considerable amount of research attention over the past 30 years. Because it has important consequences for organizations and their employees, this attention would appear to be well placed. Nonetheless, there remain many challenging issues that researchers and practitioners continue to examine.
As mentioned earlier, the examination of consequences in terms of the commitment profile represents an important research direction. Preliminary research suggests that different profiles are associated with different consequence patterns, but more of such work is needed. In a related vein, although commitment research began with a focus on the organization, more recent theorizing incorporates the idea that employees feel multidimensional commitment to numerous work-related domains, or foci, nested within the organization (e.g., department, work unit, supervisor) and beyond it (e.g., career, occupation, union). Although complex, a comprehensive understanding of commitment in the workplace will only come through considering, in concert, the various components of commitment that employees feel toward these various interrelated foci.
Other challenges are driven by the changing nature of the workplace. For example, as outsourced work becomes more common, it will be important to determine how employees develop psychological attachments to their two focal organizations (employment agency, current workplace) and how these attachments interact in influencing work behavior and other employee outcomes such as well-being. In addition, we need to learn more about the effects of other alternate work arrangements (e.g., part-time employment, temporary/contract-based work) on the development and consequences of OC. Within the workplace, employees and managers are placing greater emphasis on the interplay (or “balance”) between work and nonwork/family considerations. Thus, it will be important to examine how policies and practices related to these issues influence the development of OC. Finally, likely driven by the increasing cultural diversity in the workforce, the challenges of globalization, and the growing researcher base worldwide, greater attention is being focused on the role that cultural factors may play in shaping the structure, development, and consequences of organizational commitment.
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