Job Characteristics Theory

The primary objectives of job characteristics theory (JCT) are to explain how properties of the organizational tasks people perform affect their work attitudes and behavior, and to identify the conditions under which these effects are likely to be strongest. The most recent version of the theory is shown in Figure 1. As shown in the figure, the theory posits that five core characteristics of the work itself affect a variety of personal and work outcomes via their effects on three psychological states of employees. In addition, the theory argues that these core characteristics have their strongest effects when employees score high on three individual conditions: growth need strength, context satisfaction, and knowledge and skill.

Job Characteristics Theory

The conceptual core of the theory is the set of three psychological states that mediate between job attributes and outcomes. They are as follows:

  • Experienced meaningfulness. The degree to which the jobholder experiences the work as inherently meaningful, as something that counts in his or her own system of values.
  • Experienced responsibility. The degree to which the jobholder feels personally accountable and responsible for the results of the work he or she does.
  • Knowledge of results. The degree to which the jobholder has confident knowledge about how well he or she is performing.

Job characteristics theory posits that the simultaneous presence of these three psychological states results in a number of favorable personal and work outcomes. Specifically, the jobholder should (a) be internally motivated at work (i.e., feel good when performing well, and feel bad or unhappy when performing poorly), (b) be satisfied both with the opportunities for personal growth and development at work and with the job in general, and (c) perform effectively at work (i.e., produce work that is high in both quantity and quality). However, if one or more of the psychological states is absent or at very low level, fewer of these desirable outcomes should emerge.

The three psychological states are internal to individuals and therefore do not represent properties of the work itself that might be changed or redesigned. Job characteristics theory identifies five characteristics of jobs that, when present at high levels, increase the chances that a jobholder will experience the three psychological states and, through them, shape the personal and work outcomes. The specific job characteristics that are expected to most strongly influence each of the psychological states are (a) skill variety, (b) task identify, (c) task significance, (d) autonomy, and (e) feedback. These characteristics are described in the following paragraphs.

Experienced meaningfulness is shaped by three job characteristics: skill variety, task identity, and task significance. Skill variety is the degree to which carrying out the work of the job requires a number of activities, which involve the use of a number of skills and talents of the jobholder. Work that stretches one’s skills and abilities invariably is experienced as more meaningful than work that is simple and routine. Task Identity is the degree to which the job requires completion of a whole and identifiable piece of work—doing a job from beginning to end with a visible outcome. Putting together an entire product or providing a complete unit of service is inherently more meaningful than being responsible for only a small part of the work. Task significance is the degree to which the work has a substantial impact on the lives of other people, whether in the immediate organization or in the external environment. An activity that is consequential for the psychological or physical well-being of others is typically experienced as more meaningful than is work that makes little difference to anyone else. These three job characteristics are expected to be additive, in that meaningfulness is enhanced to the extent that any or all of them are present.

Experienced responsibility is shaped by the amount of autonomy the job provides. Autonomy is the degree to which the work is structured to provide the employee with substantial freedom, independence, and discretion in scheduling the work and in determining the procedures to be used in carrying it out. For high-autonomy jobs, the outcomes of the work depend on the jobholder’s own efforts, initiatives, and decisions, rather than on the instructions of a manager or a manual of job procedures. In such circumstances, the jobholder feels greater personal responsibility for his or her own successes and failures at work.

Knowledge of results is shaped by feedback from the job—that is, the degree to which carrying out job-specified work activities provides the jobholder with direct and clear information about the effectiveness of his or her performance. When someone receives information about his or her performance from the work itself (e.g., when a salesperson closes a deal and receives payment from a customer), that feedback is direct and immediate and therefore contributes substantially to his or her overall knowledge of results about work outcomes.

The degree to which a job has an overall high standing on the five characteristics described here, and therefore is likely to prompt favorable personal and work outcomes, is summarized by an index called the Motivating Potential Score (MPS). To engender all three of the psychological states, a job must have a high standing on one or more of the three characteristics that boost meaningfulness and be high on both autonomy and feedback, as well. The MPS score indicates the degree to which that is the case through the following formula:

MPS = (skill variety + task identity + task significance)/3 x autonomy x feedback

Thus, a low score on either autonomy or feedback will substantially reduce a job’s MPS, because both experienced responsibility and knowledge of results must be present for personal and work outcomes to be high, and those two job characteristics produce the corresponding two psychological states. Conversely, a low score on one of the three job characteristics expected to foster experienced meaningfulness may not necessarily compromise a job’s MPS, because the absence of any one of those three attributes can be compensated for by the strong presence of the others.

As shown in Figure 1, the theory identifies three individual conditions (i.e., growth need strength, context satisfaction, and knowledge and skill) as moderators of the impact of the core job characteristics on an employee’s responses. Jobholders are expected to respond most positively to jobs high in motivating potential when they score high on all three of these individual conditions.

Growth need strength (GNS) is the strength of an individual’s need for personal accomplishment, learning, and development at work. The theory posits that jobholders who have strong growth needs value the opportunities for accomplishment and self-direction provided by jobs high on the five core characteristics and, as a result, respond positively to them. Low-GNS jobholders, by contrast, place less value on the opportunities provided by high-MPS jobs and therefore respond less positively to them.

Context satisfaction refers to the extent to which employees are well satisfied with major elements of the work context (e.g., pay, job security, coworkers, and managers). When individuals are satisfied with the context of their work, they are likely to focus their attention on the properties of a job high in motivating potential. As a result, they should appreciate and respond positively to those properties. However, dissatisfaction with the context may distract employees’ attention from the core job characteristics and orient their energy instead toward coping with the experienced problems.

Knowledge and skill refers to the extent to which the employee has the skills and competencies necessary to complete a job high on the five core characteristics. When individuals have such skills, they have the potential to successfully complete jobs high in motivating potential and, therefore, to reap the personal and psychological rewards provided by those jobs. By contrast, when employees are missing these skills and competencies, they are likely to experience a good deal of frustration and unhappiness on jobs high in motivating potential, precisely because these jobs offer psychological rewards for effective performance, but the employees are unable to perform well enough to obtain these rewards.

Many of the empirical tests of JCT have used the Job Diagnostic Survey (JDS), a research instrument that was developed to assess many of the constructs specified by the theory. Specifically, the JDS assesses jobholders’ perceptions of the five core job characteristics, their experienced psychological states, their GNS, and affective outcomes including internal motivation, growth and job satisfaction, and satisfaction with several aspects of the work context. The JDS does not assess jobholder work effectiveness or knowledge and skill.

Results of Research

More than 200 studies have used the JDS to test all or portions of JCT, and the results of these studies provide some support for many of the major tenets of the theory. In particular, results suggest that the higher the job is on each of the five core job characteristics, the higher the jobholder’s growth and job satisfaction, internal motivation, and work effectiveness. Also, results from numerous organizational change projects suggest that when jobs are boosted on the five core characteristics, improvements in jobholder satisfaction and work effectiveness result. For example, these studies show that changing the jobs so that employees receive more direct feedback from the work itself and have more personal freedom and independence at work typically results in higher levels of work effectiveness and job satisfaction.

Research also shows that the core job characteristics affect the personal and work outcomes via their effects on the three psychological states specified by the model. That is, the presence of the five job characteristics increases the experience of the three psychological states, which then positively influence the jobholder’s satisfaction, internal work motivation, and work effectiveness. Finally, there is some evidence that individuals respond most positively to jobs high on the core characteristics when they have high GNS. Specifically, employees who work on jobs high in motivating potential tend to be more effective and internally motivated when they have strong needs for personal accomplishment and development.

Although research supports many of the basic tenets of JCT, other parts of the theory have received relatively little research support. One of these involves the summary index of the overall motivating potential of jobs, MPS. Previous studies suggested that the MPS index is not more predictive of outcomes than a simpler index computed by merely adding up scores on the five core job characteristics that have been derived from the JDS. Although the MPS index does make conceptual sense, it is likely that these weak results are a function of the psychometric properties of the JDS, which do not allow for the multiplication of variables specified in the formula for the MPS score.

Another element of JCT that has received little support involves the proposed moderating effect of context satisfaction. Although some studies show that individuals respond more positively to jobs high in motivating potential when they are satisfied with the context, others indicate that satisfaction with the context has little to do with their reactions to the core job characteristics. Given these results, the role of context satisfaction in JCT remains unclear. Finally, no previous studies have examined the effects of jobholders’ knowledge and skill on their reactions to the core characteristics, and therefore it is not yet clear if individuals respond more positively to the job characteristics when they have high levels of knowledge and skill.

More research is now needed that investigates the effects of an individual’s skills and context satisfaction on the relation between the job characteristics and the personal and work outcomes. Because JCT posits that employees respond most positively to the core job characteristics when GNS, context satisfaction, and knowledge and skill are all present at high levels, a reasonable start might be to directly test this argument by including in a study measures of all of these conditions in addition to measures of the job characteristics and the personal and work outcomes. Results of such a study could provide important information about the conditions that should be present if jobs high in motivating potential are to have positive effects on employees’ personal and work outcomes.


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