Person-environment (PE) fit refers to the degree of match between individuals and some aspect of their work environment. The concept of PE fit is firmly rooted in the tradition of Kurt Lewin’s maxim that B = /(PE); behavior is a function of both person and environment. The early interactional psychologists emphasized Lewin’s perspective and developed a perspective that individuals’ behaviors and attitudes are determined jointly by personal and environmental conditions. On the person side, characteristics may include interests; preferences; knowledge, skills, and abilities (KSAs); personality traits; values; or goals. On the environment side, characteristics may include vocational norms, job demands, job characteristics, organizational cultures and climates, and company or group goals. Various synonyms have been used to describe fit, including congruence, match, similarity, interaction, correspondence, and need fulfillment.
The basic premise of PE fit research is that for each individual there are particular environments that are most compatible with that person’s personal characteristics. If a person works in those environments, positive consequences including improved work attitudes and performance, as well as reduced stress and withdrawal behaviors, will result. Although the premise is straightforward, research on PE fit is one of the most eclectic domains in organizational psychology. In part this is because of the wide variety of conceptualizations, content dimensions, and measurement strategies used to assess fit. Questions about what we mean by the term fit, what characteristics constitute fit, and how to best assess fit are addressed in the following text.
What do we mean by fit?
Although terms such as congruence or match seem to imply similarity, multiple conceptualizations of PE fit have been discussed in the literature. Supplementary fit exists when the individual and the environment are similar on a particular characteristic. The underlying mechanism is one of similarity-attraction, such that people tend to like interacting with other people and with environments that are similar to themselves in some way. Alternatively, complementary fit occurs when individuals’ characteristics fill a gap in the current environment or the environment meets a need in the person. Complementary fit is based on the underlying process of need fulfillment, resulting in positive attitudinal and behavioral outcomes.
Research on stress and coping, which describes fit as adjustment, has elaborated on two distinct forms of complementary fit. The first is needs-supplies fit, which exists when a person’s needs are met by the resources in the environment. The second is demands-abilities fit, which generally focuses on individuals’ KSAs meeting environmental demands.
Fit on what?
PE fit research has generally concentrated on matching the individual to one of four levels of the environment:
Each of these subtypes of PE fit emphasizes different person and environment characteristics as relevant to fit. Each type is briefly reviewed in the following text.
The broadest form of PE fit is the fit between individuals and their vocations or occupations, generally labeled person-vocation (PV) fit. Vocational choice theories, such as those by John L. Holland, Rene Dawis, and L. H. Lofquist fall into this category. Holland proposed in 1985 that the RIASEC typology (people and vocations are characterized as realistic, investigative, artistic, social, enterprising, or conventional) suggests that people will be most satisfied if they pursue careers that are compatible with their interests. Fit is defined by the degree of match between an individual’s interests and those of others who generally make up the person’s chosen vocation. Dawis and Lofquist’s theory of work adjustment posits that individuals and careers are compatible to the extent that personal traits (including skills, abilities, needs, and values) correspond with the requirements imposed by the environment, and personal needs are simultaneously met by the environment.
Reviews of the PV literature generally report moderate positive correlations between PV congruence and individual measures of well-being such as job and career satisfaction, stability, and personal achievement. Correlations are higher when focusing on the congruence with specialty areas within vocations. Consistent negative relationships have been found between fit and mental distress, somatic symptoms, changing vocations, and seeking satisfaction through leisure activities unrelated to work.
A second type of fit concerns the relationship between an individual and a specific job. Labeled person-job (PJ) fit, this includes the match between a person’s KSAs and the demands of a job (demands-abilities fit), or the person’s needs and interests and the resources provided by the job (needs-supplies fit). Traditional notions of personnel selection, which began during World War II with the selection of soldiers into specific positions in the army, emphasized the importance of hiring people who possessed the requisite KSAs for particular jobs. Thus, PJ fit was defined from the organization’s perspective, such that the most appropriately qualified people would be hired.
PJ fit from the needs-supplies perspective was the emphasis of work done by J. R. P. French, Jr., and colleagues on stress and adjustment. Their research presented a model that described psychosocial stress as the outcome of a discrepancy between the subjective environment and the subjective person (i.e., subjective PE fit), which in turn was the result of the fit between the objective environment and objective self. Thus, fit was equated to adjustment. PJ fit is also assessed in early definitions of job satisfaction, which emphasized satisfaction as the result of personal needs being met by a job. Over time scholars have separated job satisfaction (the affective outcome) from fit (the objective or perceived match that leads to the outcome). Yet because of the close relationship, PJ fit and job satisfaction are generally found to have a moderate to strong positive relationship. Other outcomes associated with PJ fit include organizational commitment, intent to quit, task performance, and strain.
Person-organization (PO) fit, defined broadly as the compatibility between people and organizational characteristics, is a third type of PE fit. Benjamin Schneider popularized this approach to fit with the attraction-selection-attrition (ASA) model, used to explain how homogeneity naturally results from organizational recruitment and selection processes. Although the ASA model emphasizes the antecedents and consequences of homogeneity at the organizational level, Jennifer Chatman proposed a model that emphasized PO fit from the individual’s perspective. This interactive model of PO fit emphasizes the objective fit between individuals’ values and those that senior management believe best represent the organization. Many researchers have used the notion of value congruence to assess PO fit but have followed French and colleagues’ approach of emphasizing subjective or perceived fit, rather than objective fit. PO fit has also been assessed using personality traits, goals, and needs. Meta-analytic estimates demonstrate that PO fit is most strongly associated with feelings of attachment to the organization, such as organizational commitment and intent to quit. Additional influences on contextual performance, or extrarole behavior, and turnover have been found.
Finally, a fourth type of PE fit is the match between individuals and members of their immediate work groups. Most of the emphasis on person-group (PG) or person-team fit has been on demographic variables. The concept of relational demography suggests that individuals’ attitudes and behaviors are influenced by the demographic similarity among teammates or coworkers. However, more recent studies have moved beyond demographic similarity to examine fit on deeper, less directly observable characteristics, including personality traits, goals, and KSAs. Outcomes most strongly associated with PG fit are group-level attitudes, including cohesion and satisfaction with coworkers, as well as contextual performance.
How can fit be measured?
Debate over how to measure PE fit reflects the diversity of approaches outlined earlier. Each of the following strategies has been used to assess or infer PE fit.
Traditional methods relied heavily on the use of statistical interactions, where the effect of the environment was moderated by the characteristics of the person, or vice versa. There was no requirement in such approaches that the dimensions of person and environment be commensurate (i.e., using the same dimensions), just that they were theoretically related. Fit was assumed to be supported if the interaction term explained significant variance in the outcomes, beyond the main effects of person and environment. This method captures objective, or actual, fit because person and environment are measured separately and fit is determined algebraically as the multiplicative interaction of the two terms.
A second measurement strategy involves directly asking individuals whether they believe that a good PE fit exists. For example, people may be asked to assess how well their vocation or job satisfies their personal needs (PV and PJ fit respectively), how well their KSAs meet job requirements (PV fit), how compatible their values are with their organizations’ (PO fit), or whether they share their coworkers’ goals (PG fit). This type of assessment captures holistic assessments of subjective or perceived fit, because the individuals are asked to mentally calculate fit using whatever internal standards they wish to apply.
An alternative method for assessing subjective or perceived fit is to use indirect methods, in which person and environment variables are reported separately. This could be by the same person (perceived fit) or from two unique sources (objective fit). The actual calculation of fit is done by a researcher making an explicit comparison of these two descriptions. How these two are compared can be further differentiated into two categories:
Difference Scores. The primary means of indirect fit assessment has been the use of profile similarity indexes or difference scores. These methods assess the algebraic difference between the person and environment variables. Despite their popularity they have been heavily criticized because of the inability to determine whether person and environment contribute equally to the outcome and the loss of information on the absolute level of characteristics and the direction of differences, as well as overly restrictive statistical constraints. These limitations may result in inappropriate conclusions about the nature of the fit relationships under investigation.
Polynomial Regression. In response to the concerns over difference scores, J. R. Edwards and colleagues proposed polynomial regression as an alternative way to assess PE fit. At its core, this approach avoids using a single term to capture fit. Instead, both person and environment, and associated higher-order terms (P2,P x E, and E2), are included as predictors in a regression. The relationship between these variables is then graphed in three-dimensional surface plots, which can be visually inspected, or characteristics of the surface (i.e., slopes and curvatures) can be statistically evaluated to determine whether a fit relationship is supported. This method requires large sample sizes and assesses fit on single dimensions (i.e., on one value) rather than across a set of dimensions (i.e., across a value profile). It provides a precise depiction of the relationship between person and environment variables but does not result in an effect size attributable to fit.
Research on PE fit remains one of the most eclectic domains of organizational psychology. However it is conceptualized, operationalized, or assessed, results consistently demonstrate that people’s perceptions of, and actual fit with, their environment has important consequences for work-related attitudes and behaviors.
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- Holland, J. E. (1985). Making vocational choices: A theory of careers. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
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- Kristof-Brown, A. L., Zimmerman, R. D., & Johnson, E. C. (2005). Consequences of individuals’ fit at work: A meta-analysis of person-job, person-organization, person-group, and person-supervisor fit. Personnel Psychology, 58, 281-342.
- Lewin, K. (1935). A dynamic theory of personality. New York: McGraw-Hill.
- Schneider, B. (1987). The people make the place. Personnel Psychology, 40, 437-453.