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Organizational commitment is the psychological bond an employee has to their employing organization. Commitment has been one of the most frequently examined constructs in organizational research because of the demonstrated impact it has on outcomes important to individuals and organizations. In this research paper, we define commitment, discuss the evolution of the construct, overview the outcomes and antecedents of commitment, contrast commitment to other related constructs, and outline current issues in the study of commitment requiring attention in future research.
- Evolution of the Construct
- Commitment Outcomes
- Antecedents of Commitment
- Related Constructs
- Burnout, Stress, and Well-being
- Issues Needing Research and Resolution
- Competing Conceptual Definitions
- Differences in Commitment across Targets
- Downsides of Commitment
- Cultural Differences and Influences
Commitment is a psychological bond that an individual forms with a particular foci or target. Our focus is on organizational commitment and we will henceforth use the term commitment to refer to the commitment an employee has to their employing organization, even though bonds can be formed between employees and other organizations (e.g., client organizations, professional associations, unions) as well as to numerous other workplace targets (e.g., team, supervisor, goal; Becker, 1992; Reichers, 1985). Commitment is a frequently examined construct, because of the demonstrated impact it has on outcomes important to individuals and organizations such as absenteeism, turnover, motivation, performance, prosocial behaviors, and well-being (Becker et al., 2009; Mathieu and Zajac, 1990; Meyer et al., 2002).
Commitment has been studied for decades and many definitions and conceptualizations of commitment have emerged over time. Commitment has often been referred to as a work attitude, but the nature of the construct does not fit current definitions of an attitude. Instead, commitment is more accurately conceptualized as a psychological state (Meyer and Allen, 1991). Klein et al. (2012) proposed a definition that we adopt here that is applicable to any target, excludes confounds present in prior definitions, and highlights the distinctiveness of commitment bonds. In the past, the term commitment has been used to encompass a wide range of different types of bonds or attachments (e.g., Kanter, 1968). Klein et al. (2012) define commitment as a particular type of bond and differentiate it from other bond types (e.g., instrumental or identification). They specifically define commitment as “a volitional psychological bond reflecting dedication to and responsibility for a particular target” (p. 137). Klein et al. (2012) also present the process model of commitment shown in Figure 1. We overview the outcomes and antecedents of commitment identified in this model after briefly summarizing prior treatments of the construct.
Evolution of the Construct
The earliest research on commitment was conducted by sociologists who examined group attachments as a mechanism for generating and sustaining social order (e.g., Parsons, 1951) or in understanding social roles (e.g., Gouldner, 1960). Scholars in psychology and management began to pay more attention to commitment in the 1960s, with that early commitment research taking two very different perspectives, reflecting either a behavioral or psychological view. The behavioral view considered commitment to be the result of behavior, with prior acts ‘committing’ people to a future course of action due to a desire for consistency, sense of obligation, and the ‘sunk costs’ of previously invested time and effort (e.g., Becker, 1960; Kiesler, 1971; Salancik, 1977). Work from the behavioral perspective provided important insights into the phenomena of commitment, particularly in terms of decisions to stay with and contribute to organizations based on behavioral consistency, investment, and exchange. This focus on behavior and exchange was, however, viewed by many as providing an incomplete explanation.
The alternative psychological or attitudinal view considered commitment as a driver of behavior rather than resulting from behavior. This perspective focused on how individuals identify or relate to their organization (e.g., Buchanan, 1974; Porter et al., 1974). From this perspective, commitment was presented as an important determinant of turnover and other outcomes, and as an alternative to job satisfaction that could be measured and influenced. Mowday et al. (1982) summarized the early work conducted from these perspectives and attempted to reconcile the two views, with primacy given to the psychological view.
Within and across these two views, there were numerous variations in focus and definition (see Klein et al., 2009), leading to efforts at developing integrative frameworks. For the past 20 years, the most popular of those frameworks has been the three-component model (TCM) presented by Meyer and Allen (1991). In this model, commitment is defined as “a force that binds an individual to a course of action of relevance to one or more targets” (Meyer and Herscovitch, 2001: p. 301), with that force experienced as one or more mind-sets – affective (‘want to’ or desire), normative (‘ought to’ or obligation), and continuance (‘have to’ or cost). This model, presented in Figure 2, has generated a tremendous amount of research regarding the antecedents and consequences of commitment. The TCM has, however, been criticized for a number of reasons including a lack of theoretical justification for the three mind-sets and being overly broad, with definitional overlaps with closely related constructs, leading to the Klein et al. (2012) reconceptualization.
Figure 1. Klein et al.’s (2012) process model of commitment. Reprinted from, Klein, H.J., Molloy, J.C., Brinsfield, C.T., Copyright 2012. Reconceptualizing workplace commitment to redress a stretched construct: revisiting assumptions and removing confounds. Academy of Management Review 37 (1), 139.
Figure 2. Meyer and Herscovitch’s (2001) general model of workplace commitment. Reprinted from Meyer, J.P., Herscovitch, L., Copyright 2001. Commitment in the workplace toward a general model. Human Resource Management Review 11 (3), 317.
As noted previously, Commitment is associated with a number of desirable consequences. The Klein et al. (2012) model, shown in Figure 1, proposes two immediate outcomes (i.e., continuation and motivation) with action and the results of those actions (e.g., performance) being more distal outcomes. Continuation includes both the intention to continue with the organization and continuation behaviors. In short, committed individuals are less likely to withdraw from the organization. Meta-analyses (Mathieu and Zajac, 1990; Meyer et al., 2002) have consistently demonstrated negative relationships between commitment and turnover intentions, actual turnover, and other withdrawal behaviors (e.g., tardiness, absenteeism).
In terms of motivation, high commitment results in individuals’ allocating more effort and resources in support of the organization and being more willing to make trade-offs in favor of the organization when allocating constrained resources such as time and attention (Klein et al., 2012). The relationship between commitment and motivation has been supported in prior research, summarized in the above referenced meta-analyses. Higher performance, both in-role and extra-role (e.g., organizational citizenship behaviors), can be expected to result from higher commitment, but indirectly, through the effects of continuation and motivation (Klein et al., 2012). Prior research supports these relationships, with stronger effects generally observed for extra-role than in-role performances.
Antecedents of Commitment
A vast number of factors have been identified as antecedents of commitment. The process model shown in Figure 1 suggests that four proximal states are the immediate determinants of commitment with an inclusive set of more distal antecedents, organized by level that can influence the development of commitment through the four proximal states (see Klein et al., 2012). The four proximal states, which based on cognitive and emotional evaluations of the target and environment, are salience, positive affect, trust, and perceived control. First, based on field theory, the more salient the organization, relative to other potential commitment targets, the more likely that commitment will develop. Stated differently, people are more likely to develop a commitment bond to when they feel closer to the organization.
The second factor is positive affect. Individuals are more likely to dedicate themselves to and care about positively evaluated organizations than negatively evaluated organizations. This is based on approach motivation (i.e., individuals approach pleasurable situations and avoid painful situations) among other theories and is supported by the positive relationship demonstrated between commitment and satisfaction. Trust, the acceptance of some vulnerability based on positive expectations that others will reciprocate, is the third proximal state. Without trust in the organization, the dedication that is at the core of commitment is unlikely. The final proximal state, perceived control, is based on the theory of planned behavior, social cognitive theory, and other research. Essentially, individuals are more willing to commit to an organization when they feel they have a sense of control over the situation and confidence in their ability to meet the demands of their work role.
A wide range of factors influence those proximal states, which are grouped, as illustrated in Figure 1, from individual characteristics to target, relational, organizational, and societal factors. Individual level factors are attributes of the employee such as values and personality traits. Personal values such as work ethic and work centrality have been shown to lead to organizational commitment, as has the congruence between personal and organizational values. Personality traits found to relate to commitment include locus of control, conscientiousness, extraversion, and regulatory focus. Other individual differences shown to influence perceptual evaluations, such as trait affect, also influence commitment via the above proximal states.
A second set of antecedent factors arises from the social relationships that individuals have, both work and nonwork. It has been shown, for example, that having a dense friendship network is positively associated with commitment (Morrison, 2002). In addition, both social influences and exchanges resulting from these relationships can impact the identified perceptual evaluations and subsequently commitment. Examples of these social influences include what others think and say about the organization and the commitment of others. Social exchanges include the effects of perceived organizational support, supervisor supportiveness, and leader–member exchange.
With the organization as the target, target and organizational characteristics become a single category. Target characteristics include factors such as the psychological proximity of the organization, which impacts salience. Similarly, characteristics such as the legitimacy and reputation of the organization can influence commitment through evaluations of trust and positive affect. Other organizational factors that would impact the more proximal states include culture (and subcultures) and climate relative to numerous foci (e.g., safety, justice productivity, burnout). Finally, an organization’s human resource practices can facilitate commitment bonds between employees and the organization. For example, Wayne et al. (2013) found that family supportive organizational practices are positively related to an employees’ organizational commitment via the family’s positive affect toward the organization.
The final antecedent category reflects societal-level factors – the broader socioeconomic environment in which the individual and organization are embedded. Because national culture shapes perceptions and ascribed meaning, cultural factors can influence the proximal states that determine commitment. Uncertainty avoidance, power distance, and collectivism, for example, can impact perceptions of control and trust, and have been shown to influence commitment. Macroeconomic factors can similarly impact perceptions and, in turn, commitment. Factors relevant to target salience and trust toward an organization, for example, include a country or region’s economic conditions, business system characteristics, and labor market features (e.g., segmentation, strength, and role of unions).
The distinctions between commitment and several related constructs have often been unclear because of the various, frequently confounded, prior definitions and measures of commitment. Below we address the distinctions and relationships between commitment and satisfaction, identification, motivation, engagement, and burnout.
Prior definitions of commitment have blurred the boundary between commitment and job satisfaction by emphasizing affective attachment. As a result, some authors have suggested that satisfaction and commitment can be combined into an overall job attitudes composite (Harrison et al., 2006) or even that commitment is a redundant and unneeded construct given the empirical overlap (Le et al., 2010). Although meta-analytic investigations have shown the two constructs to be highly related, there are conceptual distinctions that can be made between satisfaction and commitment. For example, attitudes such as satisfaction involve evaluative judgments (i.e., one’s summative evaluation of the organization), whereas commitment, as defined here, does not involve an affect-based evaluative aspect. The causal ordering of the relationship between satisfaction and commitment has also been of interest and a debated issue. Some scholars have asserted that satisfaction causes commitment (e.g., Mowday et al., 1982) and others the opposite (e.g., Bateman and Strasser, 1984). Conceptually, we conclude that a reciprocal causal relationship (e.g., Farkas and Tetrick, 1989) is the most appropriate view, with satisfaction being a stronger antecedent than consequence. Specifically, satisfaction likely impacts commitment through its primary antecedents. That is, job satisfaction should facilitate commitment, as individuals are more likely to commit to positively evaluated targets. In turn, being committed to an organization likely makes the positive aspects of the organization more salient, biasing subsequent affect. Additional empirical research is needed to tease apart and verify the casual ordering of these relationships, over time and within person, using more recent and less confounded measures.
Prior definitions of commitment have also blurred the boundary between commitment and identification. For example, Porter et al. (1974) in part defined commitment as the strength of an individual’s identification with a particular organization. Identification is a type of bond, like commitment, but there are unique aspects of commitment not captured by identification and vice versa. For example, the ‘forming of oneness’ with the target or the notion that the target becomes part of the individual’s self-concept or image is central to identification (Riketta, 2005). Others have further detailed the conceptual differences and the need to better differentiate these constructs (see Mael and Ashforth, 1992; Meyer et al., 2006). Meta-analyses (e.g., Riketta, 2005) have demonstrated very strong correlations between identification and commitment. This is partially due to prior confounds in definition and measurement, with some prior measures of commitment largely indistinguishable from measures of identification (Klein et al., 2014). Yet studies have demonstrated empirical distinctions (e.g., Mael and Ashforth, 1992; Riketta, 2005). Thus, both conceptual and empirical evidence supports the distinctiveness of the two constructs (Riketta, 2005) and the existing evidence suggests that social identities are more likely to be antecedents than a consequence of commitment (Meyer et al., 2006).
Some authors have defined commitment as a force (e.g., Meyer and Herscovitch, 2001), and motivation is typically defined as a set of internal and external forces that initiate behavior and determine its form, direction, intensity, and duration (Pinder, 1998). Meyer et al. (2004) proposed a model that presents motivation and commitment as related yet distinguishable concepts, with commitment being one of several energizing forces that constitute motivation. Klein et al. (2012) position commitment as distinct from motivation, with motivation being a primary commitment outcome as described above. In addition, since commitment is one of several determinants of motivation, other factors (e.g., needs, incentives) may be more salient in determining motivation at a given point in time (Meyer et al., 2004). Klein et al. (2009) summarize additional arguments for the distinctiveness of these two constructs.
A concept sometimes defined in motivational terms (e.g., Kahn, 1990; Rich et al., 2010) is engagement. Other authors define engagement as a trait, state, presence/enthusiasm, and the opposite of burnout (e.g., Macey and Schneider, 2008; Schaufeli et al., 2002). Because of this definitional diversity, it can be challenging to differentiate engagement from commitment. Across all these definitions, engagement would be expected to relate positively to commitment. When defined in motivation terms (i.e., the willingness to expend personal energies on behalf of a target, or the harnessing of oneself to a role), engagement is an expected, motivational outcome of commitment. Of these varied definitions, those that discuss engagement as a state are most similar to commitment; yet state engagement is frequently conceptualized as a broad, higher order concept incorporating commitment and other constructs. For instance, Macey and Schneider (2008) discuss state engagement as including energy, absorption, satisfaction, involvement, commitment, and empowerment. Similarly, Schaufeli et al. (2002) conceptualize engagement as being involved, dedicated, enthused, inspired, committed, engrossed, and attached to one’s work. Note that in defining commitment in terms of dedication, Klein et al. (2012) were not equating commitment with the dedication dimension in the Schaufeli et al. typology.
Burnout, Stress, and Well-being
Given that engagement is sometimes defined as the opposite of burnout, and the above-noted positive relationships between commitment and engagement, it is not surprising that commitment has been found to relate negatively to burnout (e.g., Cropanzano et al., 2003). In addition to burnout, research has consistently demonstrated associations between commitment and other employee physical and psychological health outcomes. Specifically, positive outcomes have been demonstrated with employee well-being (including physical well-being and physical general health, and mental health) and negative associations with physical and mental health complaints (including anxiety and depression), burnout and stress (see Meyer and Maltin, 2010). In addition to these main effects, several other studies have examined the role of commitment in buffering or mitigating the negative effects of perceived stressors on tension, anxiety, burnout, and depression. Commitment is thought to provide a sense of purpose and resilience, serving as a resource to attenuate the harmful effects of stressors. Results are generally supportive of this moderating effect, though there are some inconsistencies in the findings (Meyer and Maltin, 2010).
Despite this evidence that commitment is generally positively associated with well-being, there may be situations where commitment may threaten a person’s sense of well-being and lead to negative outcomes, resulting in what Reilly (1994) termed the “paradox of commitment”. First, commitment may actually increase stressor–strain relationships because highly committed employees are likely to experience greater stress stemming from the increased salience of job demands relative to less committed employees who may not care. Second, commitment may negatively impact well-being when there are competing commitments – commitments that are in direct conflict or simply in competition for an individual’s limited time or attention (Mathieu and Zajac, 1990). Similarly, over commitment – when the strength of a commitment results in an individual expending levels of time and effort that are not sustainable – can also result in high levels of stress and burnout (Schaufeli et al., 2002). A final potentially negative consequence of commitment on well-being pertains to the cessation or loss of a commitment, which has not been adequately considered in prior research. In addition, much of this research has been cross sectional, and longitudinal studies are needed to better understand how commitment relates to these employee-relevant outcomes. The evidence to date, however, does suggest that commitment has important consequences for employees themselves.
Issues Needing Research and Resolution
Competing Conceptual Definitions
As reviewed by Klein et al. (2009), numerous conceptualizations of commitment can be found in the literature. Inherent in this definitional debate, which has implications for the relationship between commitment and other constructs, is the location of the construct boundary. For example, investments that create a bond (e.g., sunk costs, side bets; Becker, 1960) as well as goal or value congruence (e.g., Porter et al., 1974) are included in some definitions of commitment, but excluded from others and instead viewed as antecedents. Similarly, some definitions include aspects of motivation, behavioral intentions, or even behaviors within the definition of commitment, whereas other definitions exclude these concepts, instead viewing them as distinct constructs that result from commitment. The location of the construct boundary matters as, depending on the definition used, a measure is either valid or confounded, constructs redundant or distinct, and observed empirical relationships accurate or inflated due to construct and measurement overlap (Klein et al., 2014). Klein et al. (2009) argue that five of the eight categories of definitions they identified are problematic because of conceptual overlap with antecedents or consequences. The remaining three conceptualizations view commitment as an attitude, a binding force, or as a bond or attachment. Klein et al. (2009) further note that commitment is not an attitude as attitudes are currently defined, and make the case for commitment as a bond over a binding force. There is not as yet, however, agreement on this in the literature.
A second aspect of the conceptual debate is whether commitment is multidimensional. There are several frameworks that view commitment as multidimensional, but there appears to be consensus that commitment, at its core, is one dimensional (Becker et al., 2009), with the dimensionality debates more around the multiple targets of commitment (e.g., organization, supervisor, career) and whether/how they are structured, the multiple bases that can lead to the formation of commitment (e.g., identification, compliance), and the multiple mind-sets that can characterize a commitment (e.g., normative, affective). With regard to commitment mind-sets, the empirical evidence does not always support the TCM, with arguments made for there being anywhere from two to eight distinct mind-sets (Klein et al., 2014). A related issue is whether all of these mind-sets should be considered commitment. The Klein et al. (2012) reconceptualization, for example, in differentiating among types of bonds and defining commitment as a particular type of bond, eliminates the need for ancillary concepts such as bases and mind-sets. Given the above conceptual disagreements, it is not surprising that there are also questions regarding the proper measurement of commitment. One set of issues centers around whether an uni- or multidimensional scale is needed and the extent to which those measures are construct valid. Another issue is whether the same measure can be used across targets or if distinct measures are needed for each commitment target.
Differences in Commitment across Targets
Organizational commitment is just one of a multitude of commitments individuals hold within and outside of work contexts. Those work-related commitments could be to other organizations (e.g., unions, professional associations, client organizations), individuals within or outside the organization (e.g., coworkers, supervisors, suppliers, customers), groups (e.g., work teams), and various ideas and initiatives (e.g., values, goals, decisions, policies, change programs). Commitment to different targets has, in the past largely, been studied separately, with different researchers examining different targets in different literature, and commitment to these different targets viewed as distinct (Klein et al., 2012). There have been efforts to integrate the research on commitment across targets and both the TCM and the more recent Klein et al. (2012) reconceptualization view the construct of commitment to be the same regardless of target. Meyer and Herscovitch (2001) extended the original TCM to be applicable to other targets; Klein et al. (2012) redefined commitment in a manner that is equally applicable to any target and concluded that although commitments to different targets may serve different purposes, there is a generalizable and distinctive meaning common to all commitments regardless of context or target. That conclusion was based on observed similarities across targets in terms of (1) how it is defined, (2) how it develops, (3) its antecedents, (4) the processes by which it operates, and (5) its consequences.
Defining commitment in a target-free manner does not mean that the target does not matter or that targets are interchangeable – only that distinct constructs are not needed to reflect commitment to distinct targets. There are likely phenomenological differences between commitments to different categories of targets (e.g., entities vs. individuals), and variation across targets can be expected in terms of the exact manifestation and relative importance of the identified causes and consequences of commitment (Klein et al., 2012). The need exists to systematically examine the differences and interplay among targets, but such research has been difficult up until now due to the absence of a brief measure that is applicable and comparable across any target. The need also exists, for a logically meaningful and parsimonious typology for categorizing commitment targets. Examples of needed research across commitment targets include identifying how the relative importance of the antecedents and outcomes might vary across targets and whether there are systematic differences in the development, maintenance, or dissipation of commitment over time across targets.
Commitment has often been viewed as static construct, yet as a psychological state, levels of commitment can ebb and flow. Commitment theorists have recognized that commitment is a process that develops over time, yet there has been surprisingly little research on that development process, variation in commitment within individuals over time, or the dissipation of commitment. In terms of the formation of commitment, there is a large body of cross-sectional research examining correlates of commitment that are likely antecedents, but relatively little longitudinal research examining the development of commitment as a process that unfolds over time. There is theory to guide such research, but the presumed mechanisms (e.g., attributions, trust, salience; Klein et al., 2012; Meyer et al., 2004), and other possible factors warrant further investigation. In addition to better understanding the formation of commitment, research on factors that may strengthen, weaken, or even eliminate commitment is needed as commitments do not simply develop and then exist forever and key factors in altering commitment may not be the same as those that initially facilitate the development of commitment. There are only a few studies that have examined within-person changes in commitment over time and even fewer looking at how and why employees once committed to their organizations became uncommitted. As a result, we know little about how the consequences of such dissipation of commitment on work attitudes, behavior, or well-being; or how those effects differ depending on the reasons for the loss of commitment.
Downsides of Commitment
Finally, greater research attention needs to be given to the potential ‘dark side’ of commitment. The literature has largely assumed that more commitment is better without sufficiently recognizing that the consequences of high commitment can be either positive or negative for the individual, the organization, or both. This issue has been previously identified (e.g., Randall, 1988), but unlike the work on escalation of commitment, research on organizational commitment has almost exclusively focused on positive outcomes. High commitment can potentially be detrimental when the target is problematic (e.g., an unethical organization, abusive supervisor, flawed strategy), or when commitment becomes so strong as to bias judgment and decision making. Negative outcomes may also occur when commitment results in an individual expending levels of time and effort on behalf of a target that are not sustainable without sacrificing other commitments and/or well-being. This relates to another understudied downside of commitment, conflicting commitments. Research suggests that individuals can simultaneously commit to multiple targets and that such commitments need not be in conflict (Randall, 1988). There are, however, limits on an individual’s resources (e.g., time, attention) and conflict is likely to result when multiple commitments create incompatible demands. Additional research is thus needed on both over commitment and conflicting commitment.
Cultural Differences and Influences
Commitment research has been conducted in numerous countries and it appears that commitment is relevant across cultures, but many questions remain concerning whether there are cultural differences in how commitment develops, is experienced, and influences behavior. There is some research suggesting that commitment models and measures developed in the Western world transfer reasonably well when applied in other cultures. Others (e.g., Wasti and Önder, 2009), however, question those results and the largely used imposed etic approach. Qualitative research is probably needed to better understand what commitment means to individuals within different cultures rather than simply evaluating the transportability of existing models. At that point, and after revising our models if needed, other issues including the appropriate translation of items and measurement equivalence, and the effects of cultural and values and norms on the development and experience of commitment can be examined.
Commitment is studied across a wide variety of disciplines, suggesting that it is a fundamental concept for understanding human behavior. Within the study of organizational phenomena, commitment has been one of the most frequently examined constructs. As a result of that attention, great strides have been made in our understanding of the antecedents and consequences of commitment, but many questions warrant further investigation and clarification. A better understanding of commitment is of both scientific and practical importance to organizations and individuals alike, as changes in the nature of organizations and work have not mitigated the need for a committed workforce.
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