Keeping Workers Happy, Productive Requires Careful Job Design

October 4, 2007 (PLANSPONSOR.com) - How employers design a worker's job functions can significantly affect both the employee's attitude and professional performance, a new academic study has suggested.

That was a central conclusion of a research paper published in the Journal of Applied Psychology by the American Psychological Association. Authoring the paper were Florida State University management Professor Stephen E. Humphrey and Jennifer D. Nahrgang and Frederick P. Morgeson of the Eli Broad Graduate School of Management at Michigan State University.

In their sweeping review of work design academic literature, Humphrey, Nahrgang and Morgeson found that a job’s blueprint explains an average 43% of the differences in worker attitudes and behaviors.

For the purposes of their research, the authors defined work design as the attributes of the task, job, and social and organizational environment. “Our focus is on work design, rather than ‘job design,’ because it recognizes that work consists of the attributes of a job and the link between a job and the broader work environment,” the study indicated.

Overall, the authors asserted, employers could benefit from a careful job of industrial design, keeping in mind that motivational characteristics, social characteristics, and work context characteristics can play a part in how workers feel and their office performance.

“The two best predictors of job satisfaction were autonomy and social support,” the researchers wrote. “If an organization were interested in improving job satisfaction, it could improve either job autonomy or social support. However increasing autonomy can increase compensation and training requirements, whereas increasing social support does not have these negative tradeoffs. Thus, organizations may benefit by utilizing the results of our meta-analysis in their work redesign process to pinpoint those work characteristics that maximize the outcomes they are interested in and minimize the negative impact on other desirable outcomes.”

Pursuing Goals

In setting out to make an employee’s assignment “meaningful,” the researchers asserted that objective can be reached if “(workers) are able to pursue cherished goals.”

It is in pursuit of those professionally valuable benchmarks that continual feedback is critical, the study said.

“It is crucial that employees receive feedback on the progress toward goal accomplishment,” the authors declared. “Feedback from the job provides an opportunity for employees to learn about their performance level and proximity to their goal. If employees are successfully moving toward goal accomplishment, experienced meaning will be enhanced. If employees learn that they are not moving toward goal accomplishment, having the ability to change their behavior (i.e., autonomy) will allow them the ability to find different paths toward goal accomplishment. Thus, having autonomy and feedback from the job should promote experienced meaning and positive work outcomes.”

The social environment in which the employee functions at work is also an important determining factor in that person’s professional happiness and performance.

“…the set of social characteristics explained an equivalent amount of variance as the set of motivational characteristics (e.g., supervisor satisfaction, coworker satisfaction, job involvement, role ambiguity, and stress). In particular, this suggests that social characteristics provide a unique perspective on work design beyond motivational characteristics,” the authors wrote.

The study report is here .

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