Job Design

Job design has generated substantial theoretical and empirical interest in the past decades. The purpose of this article is to describe and evaluate the most significant approaches to job design.

Job Design for Individuals

Industrial Engineering

The first to undertake job design for individuals was Frederick W. Taylor, who developed the industrial engineering or scientific management approach in 1911. Taylor’s approach dictated four specifications. First, work should be studied scientifically to identify the most efficient method for accomplishing tasks and allocating them among employees. Second, employee-job fit should be optimized, so that employees should be mentally and physically capable of performing their jobs but not be overqualified. Third, employee training should be based on the scientific analysis of the work and regularly monitored to ensure optimum performance. Finally, employees should be motivated with monetary bonuses.

Advocates of the industrial engineering approach suggested that it would produce several positive outcomes for organizations, including an increased pool of job applicants capable of performing highly specialized and simplified jobs and the centralization of resources. The wage-lowering effect of this large job applicant pool would in turn reduce training costs, and resource centrality would increase the overall efficiency and productivity within the organization. As a result, by the 1950s, most manufacturing jobs were designed according to the industrial engineering approach. Additional research, however, revealed that the approach led to a number of unintended negative consequences. These consequences included dissatisfaction with routine and standardized tasks, increased tardiness, reduced motivation and productivity, and sabotage of work equipment. Thus, the gains of the industrial engineering approach were often more than offset by its negative effects. The problems associated with the industrial engineering approach led to the development of alternative approaches to job design. These new approaches focused on designing work for high productivity without the psychological costs to the employee. We discuss several of these approaches below.

Motivator-Hygiene Theory

The motivator-hygiene theory (MHT), which was developed by Frederick Herzberg and his colleagues in the 1960s, represents a significant deviation from the industrial engineering approach. Central to the theory is the distinction between motivator and hygiene factors. Motivator factors are intrinsic to the work itself and include responsibility, achievement, recognition, and personal growth in competence. Hygiene factors are associated with the job context or work setting and include relationships with peers and subordinates, quality of supervision, base wage or salary, benefits, and job security. According to MHT, motivator factors increase workers’ motivation and satisfaction on the job, and hygiene factors merely prevent job dissatisfaction. High employee motivation and performance can thus be achieved by enriching jobs so that they have high levels of motivator factors. A central component of job enrichment is vertical loading, which adds planning and evaluation duties to jobs to increase responsibility, complexity, and personal growth. Herzberg’s theory has inspired a plethora of research and several successful change projects that support the contribution of motivator factors to individual and organizational outcomes. His procedure for implementing job enrichment has also successfully guided many job redesign projects.

Nevertheless, MHT has several weaknesses. First, research has not always supported a clear distinction between motivator and hygiene factors. In particular, some job outcomes, such as pay raises, appear capable of serving as both hygiene and motivator factors. Second, the degree to which motivator factors are present in jobs is difficult to assess, given the lack of a suitable measurement technique or instrument for doing so. Finally, the theory fails to consider the impact of individual or cultural differences on motivator and hygiene factors.

Job Characteristics Model

The job characteristics model was developed by J. R. Hackman and G. R. Oldham in the 1980s as an attempt to overcome the shortcomings of MHT. Specifically, Hackman and Oldham proposed that five core job characteristics (skill variety, task identity, task significance, autonomy, and job feedback, each of which is defined below) affect three critical psychological states: experienced meaningfulness of work, experienced responsibility for work outcomes, and knowledge of work results. These three psychological states, in turn, positively contribute to personal and work outcomes, namely high intrinsic work motivation, job performance, job satisfaction, and reduced absenteeism and turnover. Finally, individual difference variables, including growth need strength (GNS; the desire for learning and personal accomplishment at work), knowledge and skills, and context satisfaction (satisfaction with supervisors, coworkers, income, and job security), moderate the relationships among job characteristics, psychological states, and personal/work outcomes.

The first of the five core job characteristics, skill variety, refers to the number of different skills needed to accomplish a job. Task identity focuses on whether the job requires completion of a whole, identifiable piece of work. Task significance refers to the job’s impact on the lives of other people in the organization or on society at large. Autonomy refers to the employee’s level of freedom, independence, and discretion in determining how and when to do his or her job. Finally, job feedback refers to the degree to which work activities provide the employee with direct and clear information about his or her job performance.

According to the model, employees will respond positively to job characteristics when they have high GNS, the requisite knowledge and skills, and high satisfaction with job context factors. To measure the model’s variables and assess the model’s validity, Hackman and Oldham developed the Job Diagnostic Survey (JDS). The results of more than 200 studies conducted on the model have generally supported the model’s major premises. In particular, there is strong evidence for the expected relationships between job characteristics and employee affective reactions (job satisfaction, growth satisfaction, and internal motivation). There is also support for the associations between job characteristics and behavioral outcomes (performance and absenteeism), although the magnitude of these associations is weak. Last, research has generally supported the mediating role of the psychological states, although questions about the precise relationships between the job characteristics and the psychological states remain.

Future Prospects for the Job Characteristics Model

Increased globalization and the emergence of complex service- and knowledge-based sectors have led scholars and researchers to suggest modifications and extensions of the job characteristics model to improve its validity and usefulness. One shortcoming of the model is its focus on relatively few job characteristics. Other researchers have suggested an expanded model that includes (for example) a job dimension concerning opportunities for acquisition of new skills in an increasingly complex, diverse, changing, and uncertain work environment. The growing complexity of the work environment also suggests the need to include additional contingencies (moderators) in the model. Such contingencies can be classified into three levels: individual (e.g., interpersonal trust), group (e.g., norms), and organizational (e.g., interdependence, uncertainty). The physical environment may also serve as a contingency. Some studies have found that the effect of a job’s design on individuals’ responses is contingent on the spatial characteristics of the work unit, such as distance between workstations, number of workstation boundaries, density, and openness. Further research has also shown that chronic noise among industrial employees, even at a moderate level, tends to weaken or even reverse the effects of enriched (complex) jobs on affective (job satisfaction), behavioral (absenteeism), and health-related (blood pressure) outcomes.

Two additional contingencies are time and culture. Like other motivation theories, the job characteristics model is largely nondynamic and fails to incorporate the construct of time into its premises. For example, jobs with low levels of job characteristics may still elicit high motivation and performance, if the jobholders view such jobs as temporary but necessary stepping-stones to future enriched jobs. Additionally, job characteristics and individual differences may not be independent of each other. For example, individuals with high GNS are more likely to attempt and succeed in further enriching their jobs. Thus, over time, jobs become better matched to the preferences of the jobholders.

Finally, globalization of the work environment necessitates the study and understanding of how different cultural backgrounds affect job characteristics. Thus we must take into account the importance of culture accommodation in job designs. For example, research has shown that empowerment (high autonomy) in India was associated with lower job satisfaction because of the lack of fit between the concept of empowerment and a culture that emphasizes hierarchy and status.

An Interdisciplinary Framework

A recent development in the job design area is the interdisciplinary viewpoint. This approach classifies previous job design approaches into four types— motivational, mechanistic, biological, and perceptual/ motor—and argues that changes associated with each will result in different work outcomes. The motivational approach focuses on increasing the motivational aspects of jobs to enhance employees’ motivation, satisfaction, and effectiveness. Next, the mechanistic approach focuses on human resource efficiency as the major component of efficient outcomes, such as improved staffing and low training costs. The third type, the biological approach, focuses on optimizing the physical environment to minimize employees’ physical efforts, fatigue, aches, pains, and health complaints. Last, the physiological/motor approach aims to ensure that the job requirements or the physical characteristics of equipment in the workplace do not exceed people’s cognitive capabilities, such as attention and concentration. In short, the approach aims to reduce mental overload, fatigue, stress, and boredom, which in turn should reduce errors and accidents.

The interdisciplinary viewpoint considers both the benefits and costs of each job design approach. For example, the motivational approach focuses on higher job complexity, which increases employees’ motivation and performance, but with the expense of increased staffing difficulty, higher training requirements and cost, higher error rates, and higher stress and mental overload. In contrast, the mechanistic approach focuses on reduced training time and lower likelihood of error, overload, and stress, but with the expense of lower job satisfaction and motivation. The biological approach focuses on reduced physical effort and fatigue, fewer health complaints, and higher job satisfaction, with the expense of higher financial costs associated with changes in equipment or the job environment. Finally, the perceptual/motor approach focuses on higher utilization levels and lower likelihood of errors, accidents, training time, and overload and stress, with the expense of lower job satisfaction and motivation.

According to this theoretical perspective, job design should optimize the cost/benefit tradeoffs of each design approach. The Multiple Job Design Questionnaire (MJDQ) was developed to assess employees’ perceptions of the job elements related to each approach. Studies based on the MJDQ have provided some support for the interdisciplinary viewpoint, in that they confirm the predicted relationships between the approaches’ job elements and the particular outcomes associated with those approaches. However, although the interdisciplinary viewpoint is both comprehensive and integrative, there is a need to better incorporate the four approaches into a theoretically coherent framework, as well as to take into account individual differences in reaction to the different design approaches.

Job Design for Teams

Quite often, the complexity of the work and the technology used require employees to work in teams. In principle, the job dimensions relevant to the design of individual jobs are also relevant to the design of team jobs. The interdependence among team members suggests that to understand the effect of job characteristics at the team level, it is necessary to take into account a number of contingencies, such as level of cohesion, team composition, trust, group norms, task interdependence, and shared knowledge. For example, research has shown that self-managed teams with high levels of individual autonomy performed better when trust level was low rather than high, because the low trust led to increased monitoring within the team, which enhanced team performance. Others have found that the positive relation between team control over planning and work processes and team job motivation decreased as team interdependence increased. Future research should continue to systematically examine the contribution of job characteristics to teams’ psychological and behavioral outcomes.


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