OCI #15: Why People Stay
Linking job design to employee engagement during organizational change
There has been a lot of conversation lately about the issue of people leaving organizations. While not all turnover is bad, high levels of unwanted departures are disruptive and expensive.
As I thought about this question, its flip side—why do people stay?—brought to mind a model that has framed my thinking about this question for many years. In the 1970s, organizational scholars Richard Hackman and Greg Oldham published a foundational studyfocusing on the design of jobs. They proposed that core characteristics of jobs affect individual motivation and other key organizational outcomes.
The Job Characteristics Model
The model outlines five aspects of how jobs are designed. These elements are linked to a set of critical psychological states. These states, in turn, influence motivation and outcomes such as engagement, turnover, and satisfaction.
Here are brief definitions of the characteristics:
Skill Variety: The degree to which the job involves a variety of activities, enabling the worker to develop and apply a broad range of skills and talents.
Task Identity: The degree to which the job requires completion of a whole and identifiable piece of work with a clear outcome.
Task Significance: The degree to which a job has a substantial impact on the lives, work, and/or well-being of others.
Autonomy: The degree to which the job provides the individual with significant freedom, independence, and discretion to plan the work and determine the procedures used.
Feedback: The degree to which the individual has clear and frequent knowledge of their work performance, results, and the actions they can take to improve their effectiveness.
According to this model, which is supported by a long stream of organizational research, the extent to which jobs include these five characteristics affects important psychological states—and core human needs—including respect, meaning, and personal growth.These, in turn, drive satisfaction, engagement, and longer-term outcomes such as absenteeism, turnover, and performance.
This model applies to all kinds of work, not just organizational jobs. I selected the headline image for this article as a reminder that individual craft-focused work typically has very high levels of all the characteristics, and can serve as an inspiration for thinking about how we design work in larger human systems.
Think about your own work—which of these areas are strongest? Where are there opportunities to increase one or more of these characteristics?
Implications for Change
I’ll focus here on two core areas in which this model has implications for effective change: work design and leadership.
Organizational changes often call for the restructuring of processes, procedures, and jobs. It’s important to look at the impact of these changes on the design of work, and to identify and address any areas that might affect the core job characteristics.
For example, the recent shift from in-person to remote work is likely to affect task identity—it’s sometimes easier to see how your work fits into the larger picture when you are around other people who are involved in the overall processes of operation. It may also affect feedback, as the ongoing interactions with people that give you an informal sense of what’s going well and what needs attention are harder to see.
In planning and managing organizational change, give some thought to the ways jobs need to shift as the result of new structures and processes, and how these might affect the five job characteristics in this model. Where possible, consider shaping job designs to maximize these motivating factors.
In addition to keeping these elements in mind when designing and redesigning jobs, various other strategies for enriching work can be incorporated into the organization’s processes, including job rotation and team-based approaches to work planning and performance.
Leaders, particularly those who directly manage the work of individual contributors, play a huge role in the experience of work. As long as other aspects of the work (pay, workplace culture, etc.) are satisfactory, people will often stay in a job where they have a supportive manager who actively fosters their growth and development rather than leave to go to an unknown environment.
There are specific things leaders can do during transition, and in the new environment, to reinforce the job characteristics outlined above.
formulate and communicate a clear vision that helps people understand the purpose of the changes being implemented and make sense of the new ways of working [task significance; task identity]
understand new skills that are required and provide support and resources for employee learning [skill variety]
help people see the significance of new tasks they are being asked to take on, especially if they appear to reduce the time spent on personally important aspects of the work [task significance]
“connect the dots” to help people see how their job fits into the larger work of the organization and the work others around them are doing [task identity]
invest trust in employees, allowing them as much autonomy and input as possible while maintaining appropriate levels of oversight and control [autonomy]
create an environment that is rich in formal and informal sources of learning and feedback [feedback]
As you plan and implement change, how are you preparing leaders for their role in engaging and retaining employees?
What examples can you find and share of leaders who have done a great job of helping employees see the opportunities for meaning, responsibility, and learning in their work?
We often overlook the design of work as a key factor in employee engagement and satisfaction, and underestimate the potential for shifts in job design to increase the likelihood that employees will choose to stay when organizational changes affect their work. This model provides a starting point for including these elements in our thinking.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this edition of Organizational Change Intersections! Please feel free to share it with others who might be interested.
Organizational Behavior and Human Performance, Volume 16, Issue 2, August 1976, Pages 250-279.
Adapted from this source.
The model focuses on the individual job, and not the overall context and relationships; it therefore doesn’t directly address interpersonal relationships, connections, and belongingness, which is another important area to pay attention to.
If you’ve never read Matthew Crawford’s wonderful book Shop Class as Soulcraft, I highly recommend it.
Here’s an article about one specific type of intervention—distributed leadership in school systems—that explores this issue in much greater depth.