Relational Job Design and the Motivation

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Academy of Management Review 2007, Vol. 32, No. 2, 393–417.

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This article illustrates how work contexts motivate employees to care about making a positive difference in other people’s lives. I introduce a model of relational job design to describe how jobs spark the motivation to make a prosocial difference, and how this motivation affects employees’ actions and identities. Whereas existing research focuses on individual differences and the task structures of jobs, I illuminate how the relational architecture of jobs shapes the motivation to make a prosocial difference.

Why do I risk my life by running into a burning building, knowing that at any moment . . . the floor may give way, the roof may tumble on me, the fire may engulf me? . . . I’m here for my community, a community I grew up in, a community where I know lots of people, a community that knows me (firefighter; International Firefighters’ Day, 2004). On my bad days I feel I have wasted three years working here in the ghetto. . . . You can work four days straight, sixteen hours a day . . . until your eyes start falling out. . . . we charge one-tenth of what a lawyer would normally charge. . . . It’s just physically too much—and emotionally. . . . You’re aware of the suffering of your client. . . . You know the pressure he’s under. It makes you all the more committed. We don’t help them only with their legal problems. If they’re suffering from a psychological problem we try to hook them up with a psychiatrist. . . . You get to know them intimately. We’re very close. . . . The people I work with here are my life (inner-city attorney; Terkel, 1972: 538 – 539).

Employees often care about making a positive difference in other people’s lives. In the popular The National Science Foundation provided valuable financial support for the preparation of this article. For generative feedback on previous drafts, I am grateful to former action editor Elizabeth Mannix, Sue Ashford, Art Brief, Jane Dutton, Amy Edmondson, Richard Hackman, LaRue Hosmer, Fiona Lee, Brian Little, Andy Molinsky, Mike Pratt, Rick Price, Ryan Quinn, Barry Schwartz, Wendy Smith, Scott Sonenshein, Kathie Sutcliffe, Allison Sweet, Amy Wrzesniewski, and three anonymous reviewers. For impactful conversations, I am thankful to Peter Anderson, Tal Ben-Shachar, Eric Best, Ruth Blatt, Bill Boroughf, Kim Cameron, Marlys Christianson, Mark Grant, Susan Grant, Traci Grant, Ben Krutzinna, Joshua Margolis, Lou Penner, Todd Pittinsky, Lilach Sagiv, Lance Sandelands, Gretchen Spreitzer, Palmer Truelson, Karl Weick, the Visible College, the May Meaning Meeting, the Michigan Organizational Psychology Brown Bag, the Quality of Life Interdisciplinary Forum, and members of the Impact Lab (especially Beth Campbell, Grace Chen, Keenan Cottone, Christy Flanagan, Melissa Kamin, David Lapedis, and Karen Lee). 393

press, it is widely assumed that employees want to make a difference (Bornstein, 2004; Everett, 1995; May, 2003; Quinn, 2000). In order to motivate employees, many organizations define their missions in terms of making a difference (Collins & Porras, 1996; Margolis & Walsh, 2001, 2003; Thompson & Bunderson, 2003). Qualitative research and quantitative research reveal that many employees describe the purpose of their work in terms of making a positive difference in others’ lives (Colby, Sippola, & Phelps, 2001; Ruiz-Quintanilla & England, 1996), and research in diverse bodies of literature suggests that this motivation to make a prosocial difference is prevalent in a variety of work contexts. For example, in business, managers often...
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