Theory of Work Adjustment

The Theory of Work Adjustment (TWA) is a person-environment fit (P-E fit) theory that elaborated the P-E fit theories of Frank Parsons, Donald G. Paterson, and John G. Darley into a dynamic model of vocational adjustment. The TWA postulates that optimal vocational outcomes occur when (a) the individual’s abilities match the skills required for success in the occupation and (b) the individual’s needs are satisfied by the occupation. This match between the worker and the occupation, referred to in the theory as correspondence, results in good work adjustment. The TWA specifies the components that are important determinants of correspondence and the dynamic process by which correspondence develops and is maintained.

Development of the Theory of Work Adjustment

Development of the TWA occurred in two distinct phases. During the 1960s, Lloyd H. Lofquist and Rene V. Dawis, University of Minnesota psychologists, formulated a trait-and-factor matching model and in collaboration with David J. Weiss developed instruments to measure the major constructs introduced by the theory. The initial statement of the theory in 1964 provided the conceptual framework for the continuing program of research undertaken by the Minnesota Work Adjustment Project (WAP) from 1964 to 1972. The publication of Adjustment to Work 4 years later marked the culmination of this phase of theory building.

Elaboration of the theory continued along two fronts during the 1970s. First, the authors bridged the theoretical gap between vocational needs and work values. Of greater significance, however, was their elucidation of their constructs of personality style and work environment style and the dynamics of the work adjustment process. integration of the structural and dynamic aspects of the theory during the 1970s transformed the TWA from a static trait-and-factor model to a developmentally oriented model that describes the ongoing interaction between individuals and their work environments.

Structure of Work Adjustment

According to the TWA, work adjustment is a function of the correspondence (i.e., quality of the match) between an individual’s work personality and the work environment. The work personality consists of the psychosocial needs and abilities of the worker. The salient attributes of the work environment are the rewards provided by the job and the skills required to perform the work tasks successfully. A good match (i.e., work adjustment) results in job satisfaction, satisfactory job performance, and worker tenure. A poor match leads to worker dissatisfaction, poor job performance, and turnover.

Each worker has a unique set of psychological (i.e., secondary or learned) needs. The TWA and the research program it inspired identified 21 needs (i.e., learned preferences for particular stimulus conditions) that influence the individual’s reaction to a particular occupational environment. These are ability utilization, achievement, activity, advancement, authority, company policies, compensation, coworkers, creativity, independence, moral values, recognition, responsibility, security, social science, social status, supervision-human relations, supervision-technical, variety, working condition, and autonomy. The WAP developed the Minnesota Importance Questionnaire (MIQ) to measure the importance of each of these needs to the individual.

Each work environment satisfies some of these needs, but not others. For example, the job of elementary school teacher satisfies the needs to make use of your abilities, try out your own ideas, and help others, but it provides little opportunity to tell other workers what to do or to be paid well in comparison to other workers. The degree to which the occupation satisfies the worker’s needs determines the degree of correspondence, or more generally the degree of P-E fit. The WAP developed the Minnesota Job Description Questionnaire (MJDQ) to use in determining the rewards provided by an occupation. The pattern of rewards provided by an occupation (i.e., the profile of scores) is called the Occupational Reinforcer Pattern.

The other attribute of the person that forms the work personality is the worker’s set of skills and abilities. Examples of job-relevant skills include verbal fluency, manual dexterity, and numerical comprehension. Psychology has focused on ability measurement since the beginning of the 20th century, so it was not necessary for the WAP research scientists to develop a separate instrument to measure worker ability. Broadband instruments such as the General Aptitude Test Battery (GATB) and narrow-band instruments such as the Number Comparison test of the Minnesota Clerical Test are used to measure worker skills and abilities.

Each occupation requires certain skills for success. Workers who do not have the abilities required by an occupation will not be able to perform well in that work environment. For example, an individual with good verbal skills but poor eye-hand coordination would most likely be successful in a different set of occupations than a worker having the reverse pattern of strengths and weaknesses. The requirements of the work environment can be as simple as the ability to stack cases on a pallet or as complex as the ability to solve mathematical equations. The better the skills of workers match the requirements of their work environments, the better they can perform their jobs. Performance is termed satisfactoriness in the TWA.

The U.S. Employment Service had published data, based on results obtained using the GATB, for more than 1,200 occupations grouped into 62 Occupational Aptitude Patterns (OAP). The WAP scholars developed the Minnesota Job Requirements Questionnaire (MJRQ) for use in obtaining information about the skills needed for success in occupations not included in the OAP data.

Dynamics Process of Work Adjustment

While the structural model depicted above appears to describe a static state, Dawis and Lofquist actually viewed work adjustment as an ongoing process in which the worker and the work environment continually respond to each other to maintain correspondence. They chose the term correspondence to indicate the degree of worker-work environment match to emphasize the corresponsiveness of the worker and work environment. Work adjustment is the dynamic process by which the person and work environment seek to achieve and maintain correspondence with each other. The personality style of each determines how they respond to the other. The TWA identifies four aspects of personality style.

When an individual and a work environment are not correspondent (i.e., discorrespondent) the individual could leave the work environment voluntarily (i.e., quit) or involuntarily (i.e., be terminated), or could attempt to increase correspondence with the work environment. Workers can use two modes of adjustment in attempting to increase correspondence. Consider, for example, workers who find it difficult to work at the same hours every day. Workers who try to increase correspondence by attempting to change their work environment (e.g., negotiate flexible working hours) are using an active mode of adjustment. Workers who try to increase correspondence by attempting to change some aspect of their behavior or personal situation (e.g., modifying child care arrangements) are using a reactive mode of adjustment. Likewise, the work environment could attempt to increase correspondence by using an active or reactive mode of adjustment.

Dawis and Lofquist refer to these as personality styles rather than as types because they do not expect individuals or work environments to limit themselves to one or the other. The style used is a function of the specific situation and the user’s judgment regarding the approach that is most likely to be successful. Dawis’s and Lofquist’s work on personality styles illustrates a remarkable convergence with the theoretical views of Tiedeman and Robert O’Hara and V. A. Harren regarding the developmental process that characterizes the implementation of career decisions.

A second aspect of personality style is the degree of tolerance displayed by the worker and work environment. Perfect correspondence between the individual and work environment is difficult to achieve and almost impossible to maintain for any length of time. Therefore, correspondence is less than perfect for most persons and work environments most of the time. Flexible individuals and work environments are able to tolerate a relatively high level of discorrespondence. Inflexible individuals and work environments generally tolerate only low levels of discorrespondence. Most workers and work environments fall somewhere between these polar extremes. Nevertheless, whenever the level of discorrespondence exceeds the worker’s or work environment’s level of tolerance the discorrespondence is regarded as unmanageable and action is initiated to reduce the discorrespondence or discontinue the relationship.

The third aspect of personality style is the speed of adjustment. Once an individual or work environment determines that action is necessary to reduce discorrespondence (i.e., to increase correspondence), those with a high celerity level (i.e., fast adjusters) move to achieve correspondence or terminate the relationship quickly. Those with a low celerity level (i.e., slow adjusters) move through the process at a more leisurely pace.

Outcomes of Work Adjustment

Substantially more than 100 scientific investigations have examined aspects of the TWA. The vast majority of the research has examined the relation between worker-need, occupational-reward correspondence and job satisfaction. The results show that need-reward correspondence is positively related to job satisfaction. The greater the correspondence on a specific dimension, the more satisfied the worker is with that aspect of the job. The greater the overall correspondence between the total set of worker needs and environmental rewards, the greater the overall job satisfaction.

Several studies have examined the relation of need-reward correspondence to job tenure. In general, the results reveal a relation between correspondence and job tenure.

In summary, the matching model proposed by the TWA depicted work adjustment as a function of job satisfaction and job satisfactoriness. Job satisfaction results when the rewards provided by the occupation (measured by the MJDQ) satisfy the needs of the worker (measured by the MIQ). Job satisfactoriness results when the abilities of the worker (measured by an ability instrument such as the GATB) match the skills required for success (indicated by OAP data or MJRQ results). Tenure (i.e., longevity in an occupation) results when both satisfaction and satisfactoriness are high. Satisfied workers are more likely to remain in their jobs while dissatisfied workers are more likely to quit their jobs. Workers who perform their jobs poorly are more likely to be fired while those who perform their jobs well are likely to be encouraged to stay.


  1. Dawis, R. V., & Lofquist, L. H. (1984). A psychological theory of work adjustment. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
  2. Lofquist, L. H., & Dawis, R. V. (1969). Adjustment to work. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts.
  3. Lofquist, L. H., & Dawis, R. V. (1991). Essentials of person-environment-correspondence counseling. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

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