Person-Environment Fit

Person-environment fit models are among the most widely used and influential models in vocational psychology. Ultimately, these models trace their lineage to Frank Parsons’s suggestion that job outcomes could be improved by carefully matching the attributes of an individual with the characteristics of an occupation. In the 1930s, advances in statistics and psychometrics allowed Parsons’s concepts to be operationalized using individual assessment and occupational classification systems, an approach known as trait-factor counseling. Overall, trait-factor counseling was criticized as being atheoretical, and its matching process as being too static. Current person-environment fit models, such as Holland’s theory of vocational personalities and work environments and the theory of work adjustment, evolved from trait-factor counseling and represent fully fleshed and dynamic theories of career choice and adjustment.

There are a number of assumptions common to all person-environment fit models used in vocational psychology. These assumptions are (1) within an occupation, the well-adapted incumbents share certain psychological attributes; (2) there are measurable and practically significant differences between people and between occupations; (3) individual differences interact with occupational differences to positively or negatively affect outcomes; and (4) person attributes and occupational characteristics show sufficient consistency across both time and setting to justify the prediction of long-term outcomes. It is implicit in these assumptions that if workers and work environments can be reliably measured, then the quality of the match (or fit) between the two may be a useful predictor of outcomes ranging from job satisfaction to productivity.

Historical and Theoretical Influences

The core concepts of person-environment fit models can be traced to a number of sources. As stated above, Parsons’s template matching approach and trait-factor counseling models were important influences on the evolution of person-environment fit models. Another important influence is captured in Kurt Lewin’s famous formulation of the interaction of person with environment: B = f (P, E). Lewin proposed that behavior does not arise from a purely mechanistic interaction of person with environment, but rather it is influenced by the weight and value an individual gives to elements of the environment. Individuals bring unique learning histories to a given situation. These histories impact their interpretations and valuing of environmental features. Consequently, different individuals will behave differently given the same environment features. Another influence is found in Hans Selye’s conceptualization of stress as arising from a mismatch between organism and environment. In occupational settings, a mismatch between worker and workplace is expected to give rise to job dissatisfaction and/or poor job performance. It should be noted that person-environment fit models have been successfully applied to a wide range of behavior settings. However, applications to vocational psychology are the most sophisticated, both in terms of the variables assessed and the psychometric models used, and the most widely used.

Subjective or Objective Environment Debate

As might be expected given the influence of Lewin’s field theory, many researchers working with person-environment fit models choose to assess the work environment as it is perceived by the worker. In keeping with Lewin’s thinking, it is argued that the perceived or subjective environment is what individuals are actually responding to in a given setting. However, it is important to note that some person-environment fit researchers reject operationalizing work settings subjectively for the very same reasons put forward by others arguing for its primacy. These researchers argue that because an individual’s perception of an environment is so colored by that individual’s unique learning history, the perceived environment is too variable and too subjective to be meaningfully applied across groups of individuals. These researchers argue that the environment should be defined only by objectively determined and directly measurable attributes such as behaviors and physical features. Roger Barker’s behavior setting theory represents the best articulated and operationalized approach to the objective assessment of environments.

Many vocational models of person-environment fit fall somewhere in between subjective and objective measures of the environment. For example, the Environmental Assessment Technique defines environments in terms of the qualities (Holland types) of the individuals inhabiting a given setting. The theory of work adjustment defines individuals using self-appraisal methods, but categorizes work environments using pooled supervisor ratings.

Measurement Assumptions

The choice of which person attributes and occupational characteristics to measure is challenging from both a theoretical and a psychometric perspective. For example, Holland’s career types have great intuitive appeal and seem to be supported by structural analyses. However, their exact configuration and perhaps more importantly their efficacy in predicting job satisfaction have been the topics of spirited controversy.

The following have been put forward as measurement assumptions for person-environment fit models: (1) the measurement of environmental characteristics and person attributes should utilize commensurate dimensions and units, (2) the level of measurement for the environmental characteristics and the person characteristics should be at least interval, and (3) the measurement of person attributes should be independent of the measurement of environmental characteristics. However, given current methods and measurement technologies, these assumptions represent ideals to aim for rather than goals attained.

Assessing Person-Environment Fit

Ultimately, the crux of any person-environment fit model is how well it predicts relevant outcomes. This prediction is influenced by a number of factors: the assessment of the person, the assessment of the environment, the assessment of the outcome, how fit between person and environment is operationalized, and how fit is related (in a predictive manner) to outcome. In vocational psychology models of person-environment fit, the assessment of the individual is generally well validated. As discussed above, the best method for assessment of the environment is not agreed upon. In vocational psychology, the outcome frequently measured is job satisfaction. When assessing global job satisfaction, this construct is robust enough that a single item is often used. However, it has been argued that job satisfaction is more meaningfully discussed in terms of its two facets—intrinsic and extrinsic job satisfaction. Depending upon the specifics of a given person-environment fit model, different fit indices may be possible and/or desirable. For example, fit indices for Holland’s theory of vocational personalities and work environments frequently factor in the hexagonal arrangement of the types. In addition, these indices typically weight for the relative importance of first, second, or third highest Holland types. In contrast, many of the fit indices proposed for use with the theory of work adjustment face problems classic to the quantitative comparison of psychological profiles. For example, difference scores, although simple to calculate, seldom can meet the measurement assumptions inherent in their use and perhaps more to the point tend not to perform any better than fit indices making less rigorous assumptions—that is, a correlation coefficient. Holland uses the term congruence to describe the fit between person and environment. The theory of work adjustment uses the term correspondence. Regardless of the fit index used, it is typically related to the outcome measure (typically, job satisfaction) using a correlation coefficient. Early literature reviews suggested that studies using Holland’s model had a relationship between congruence and job satisfaction of around r = 0.30. However, more recent reviews and meta-analyses have revised this figure ever downward with some arguing that the true value was in the 0.20s and with others that it was closer to 0.10. Similar studies using the theory of work adjustment have consistently found relationships of r = 0.30 to 0.40 between correspondence and job satisfaction.

Ongoing Influence

Although person-environment fit models have been criticized along similar lines as the trait-factor counseling approaches they grew out of, these models have been and continue to be very widely used. This use is due in part to the intuitive appeal of these models and in part to the psychometric rigor that was devoted to developing both individual assessment instruments and occupational classification systems. Perhaps the strongest indication of the ongoing influence of person-environment fit models was the adoption of the core variables of Holland’s theory of vocational personalities and work environments and of the theory of work adjustment by the Occupational Information Network and the United States Department of Labor’s online database that is the successor to the


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