Organizational Commitment

Industrial and organizational (I/O) psychologists are interested in understanding employees’ psychological reactions to their workplaces. Not surprisingly, much of this interest focuses on employees’ commitment to the organizations for which they work. Among the several work attitude variables studied by I/O psychologists, only job satisfaction has received more attention than organizational commitment.

Conceptualizing Organizational Commitment

Early definitions of organizational commitment (OC) varied considerably. Nonetheless, most scholars view OC as a psychological state characterizing an employee’s relationship with the organization. This relationship influences the employee’s intention to maintain a particular course of action, in this case, staying with the organization.

Beyond this, however, early OC researchers had varied views about the nature of OC and how it should be measured. For some early researchers, OC was an emotional attachment to the organization; for others, it was identification with the organization and what it represented. Some researchers described OC in terms of a reluctance to endure sacrifices, or incur costs, that voluntarily leaving the organization would entail. Still others described commitment in terms of a moral obligation to remain with the organization.

From these early one-dimensional views has emerged wide acceptance of OC as a multidimensional construct. Thus most current models propose that OC has at least two psychological bases, or components, each of which should be measured separately. Of these models, the three-component model (TCM) proposed in the 1990s has received the most theoretical and empirical attention, and it is from this perspective that the development and consequences of OC are described here.

The TCM proposes that OC has three distinct components, each of which develops via somewhat different processes. Affective commitment refers to the employee’s emotional attachment to the organization, characterized by enjoyment of the organization and a desire to stay. Employees with strong affective commitment remain with the organization because they want to do so. Continuance commitment refers to the extent to which the employee perceives that leaving the organization would be costly. Employees with strong continuance commitment remain because they feel that they have to do so. Normative commitment refers to the employee’s feelings of obligation to the organization and the belief that staying with it is the right thing to do. Employees with strong normative commitment remain because they feel that they ought to do so.

According to the TCM an employee’s commitment is characterized not in terms of just one of the three components but as a profile made up of all three. Further, the model proposes that the components have interactive effects on employee behavior.

Measuring Organizational Commitment

Researchers and practitioners usually assess OC using multiple-item questionnaires administered directly to employees. Typically, employees respond anonymously, thus increasing the candidness of responses. As with any such measures, it is critical that items reflect the construct they are intended to assess. Especially in early research, this was accomplished with varying degrees of success. Of particular note, however, is the 15-item organizational commitment questionnaire (OCQ). Developed in the 1970s to assess identification with, involvement in, and emotional attachment to the organization, the OCQ is a psychometrically sound measure of desire-based (affective) commitment. It has been used in hundreds of studies, contributing greatly to our understanding of the affective component of OC.

To evaluate the multidimensional model of OC outlined earlier, TCM researchers developed parallel measures of the three proposed OC components. Since then, the affective commitment scale, continuance commitment scale, and normative commitment scale (ACS, CCS, and NCS) have received considerable psychometric scrutiny and have been used extensively in research conducted in dozens of organizational and cultural contexts and with members of various occupations. Overall, the evidence shows that the measures are reliable, assess three distinct constructs, and correlate with other variables in general accordance with TCM propositions.

Development of Organizational Commitment

Although OC might be expected to develop on the basis of both person and work experience factors, the latter play the more important role. Some person variables (e.g., age, locus of control) are modestly related to OC, but it is what people experience at work that seems to have the most influence on OC development. With respect to affective commitment, quantitative review (or meta-analysis) suggests several work experiences that seem particularly important. Affective commitment is stronger among employees who feel that they have been supported by their organizations and who have experienced procedural, distributive, and interactional justice in the workplace. Affective commitment is also stronger among employees who experience minimal role ambiguity and role conflict at work and have leaders who adopt transformational leadership styles.

The TCM proposes that normative commitment develops on the basis of both cultural and organizational experiences that highlight expectations of mutual obligation between employees and the organization and make the reciprocity norm salient to employees. These ideas have received relatively little empirical assessment. Meta-analytic results show that some of the same variables (e.g., organizational support, role ambiguity, justice) that seem to influence affective commitment are related to normative commitment, but relations are much weaker. There is also some evidence that the impact of work experiences on normative commitment depends on employees’ cultural values, such as individualism versus collectivism.

Consistent with the TCM model, continuance commitment is more strongly related than are the other two components to two sets of variables: perceived alternatives and perceived investments. Specifically, continuance commitment is stronger among employees who believe that they would have few, rather than several, viable sources of employment if they left the organization. Presumably, the costs of leaving their current organization would be quite high for such employees. Continuance commitment is also stronger among employees who believe that they made significant investments developing their skills and acquiring education that would not transfer readily to other organizations. In comparison to employees who have easily transferable skills, such employees would incur greater costs if they left the organization.

Consequences of Organizational Commitment

As previously mentioned, it is most consistent with theory to examine the consequences of OC in terms of the commitment profile (or interactions between components). Some researchers have taken this approach, but most studies have involved the examination of potential OC consequences on a component-by-component, rather than profile, basis. Outcomes that have been emphasized include employee retention, work performance, and employee well-being.

The links between OC components and employee retention are fairly straightforward. Affective, normative, and continuance commitment are all negatively related to employee intention to leave the organization voluntarily. Both affective commitment and normative commitment, but not continuance commitment, have been shown to predict actual turnover.

Just as important as retention, however, is how employees behave at work. Here the distinction between the three components of commitment becomes especially critical. Beyond their demonstrated link with turnover intention, affective, continuance, and normative commitment are considered, and have been shown, to have somewhat different implications for behavior.

Affective commitment is linked to several key performance indicators. Employees with stronger affective commitment are less likely to be absent from work, and this effect is stronger for absence that is under the employee’s control than for involuntary absence, such as that caused by illness and emergencies. Affective commitment also predicts the job performance. Across a wide variety of jobs, both self-report ratings and supervisory ratings of required (or nondiscretionary) work performance are higher among those with stronger affective commitment. Such employees are also more likely to engage in discretionary organizational citizenship behavior (e.g., exerting extraordinary effort, helping coworkers, championing the organization) than those with weak affective commitment and, in so doing, help create a more productive and positive workplace.

Normative commitment is unrelated to employee absence. Its relations with other performance indicators, however, are positive, but effects are more modest than for affective commitment. Interestingly, meta-analytic evidence shows that relations between normative commitment and both job performance and organizational citizenship behavior are stronger in studies conducted outside North America, suggesting that cultural factors might play an important role in the behavioral expression of this component of commitment. Finally, although this has not yet been tested, it has been argued that normative commitment might influence the tone with which the employees carry out their work, particularly if they also have weak-to-moderate levels of affective commitment. The idea here is that strong feelings of obligation to stay, in the absence of strong desire to stay, might create feelings of resentment, prompting such employees to carry out their duties in a competent, but more grudging, manner.

Continuance commitment is unrelated to employee absence. In contrast to affective and normative commitment, however, it is also unrelated to organizational citizenship behavior; those with strong continuance commitment are neither more nor less likely to go the extra mile. Of particular note, however, is the strong negative relation, found in meta-analytic research, between continuance commitment and required aspects of job performance. The fact that employees with strong (versus weak) continuance commitment perform more poorly has critical implications for those organizations that develop retention strategies around what employees will lose if they resign. Such organizations might well increase retention but do so at the cost of employee performance. This will be especially so if employees are given little reason to develop affective commitment to the organization and, as a consequence, feel trapped within it.

Finally, researchers are beginning to examine whether OC has implications for employee well-being. Presumably, most people prefer workplaces about which they feel positively. It has been argued, however, that strong affective OC might reduce well-being by causing employees to focus too much attention on their work. Thus far there is little evidence of this latter view. Instead, meta-analytic research suggests that strong affective commitment is related to reduced stress and exhaustion and greater quality of life. In contrast, however, continuance commitment is related to poorer quality of life and greater stress levels.

Further Research Directions

Despite extensive OC research, there remain many challenging issues. One such issue incorporates the idea that employees feel multidimensional commitment to numerous work-related domains or foci. These include foci both within the organization (e.g., department, supervisor, team) and beyond it (e.g., occupation, union). Although complex, a comprehensive understanding of commitment in the workplace will only come through considering, in concert, the multiple components of commitment that employees feel toward these various interconnected aspects of their workplace.

Other challenges are presented by the changing workplace. For example, researchers are just beginning to examine the effects that alternate work arrangements, such as part-time employment, temporary and contract-based work, and outsourcing, have on the development and consequences of OC. Within many workplaces, greater emphasis is being placed on the interplay (or balance) between work and nonwork or family; it will be important to examine how policies and practices associated with this issue will influence the development of OC. Finally, likely driven by the increasing cultural diversity in the workforce, the challenges of globalization, and the growing international researcher base, more attention is focused on the role that cultural factors may play in shaping the structure, development, and consequences of organizational commitment.


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