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‘A key aspect of the management task is to secure employee commitment to the organisation. Critically comment on some of the various forms of commitment and outline the problems involved in gaining employee commitment to an organisation’.


Employee commitment is a crucial ‘work attitude’ (Morris et al, 1993:22). It has been defined in several similar ways to emphasise its behavioural and psychological moorings. For instance: “… a stabilizing force that acts to maintain behavioural direction when expectancy/equity conditions are not met and do not function” (Locke, 1976: 1298) and; “… a psychological state that binds the individual to the organization” (Allen & Meyer, 1990:4).

The level of commitment relates to several aspects such as satisfaction, turnover, cognitive resonance between different hierarchical levels, and performance on the job (Kreisman, 2002). The complexity in and importance of understanding employee commitment thus makes it a key feature of managerial task. This essay examines the body of knowledge from past research to reflect on such commitment and issues in harnessing it.

Forms of Employee Commitment

There has been extensive work in the area of dimensionality or typology of employee commitment (e.g. Vandenberg and Scapello, 1994; Williams and Hazer, 1986; Johnson and Yang 2010). This is drawn from, and has also in turn informed the understanding difficulties in gaining managerial commitment. Employees maybe committed for different reasons and thus different forms of commitment need to be contextualised. There is considerable overlap in the ‘architecture of forms’ posited by different writers as they have come to grips with this concept that is crucial for organisational performance (e.g. Bennett, 2000; Meyer et al., 2004).

The three dimensional framework presented by Meyer and Allen (1997) and taken further the workplace model of Meyer and Herscovitch (2001), are central to most conceptualisations presented in extant research.

The three dimensional framework posited the following as dimensions based on employee mind-sets:

1. Affective commitment: Is understood as the employee’s constructive emotional bonding to the organisation. Such an employee strongly associates himself/ herself with organisational goals and seeks to stay with the organisation because he/she wishes to do so.
2. Continuance commitment: Here the emotional quotient is largely moot and the employee perceives it to be very costly to lose organisational membership. This could be for a host of reasons – right from financial costs of salary and benefits to social costs of ties and reputation. Such an employee stays with the organisation because he or she is tied in.
3. Normative commitment: There is an obligatory notion at play here. The employee feels to return the value commitments made in him/ her by the organisation. The loyalty aspect is strong- either due to individualised value perceptions that direct behaviour or due to social norms that apply to the context and relate with the environment the organisation belongs to.

The fundamental basis of distinguishing between these is that they have very contrasting impacts on/ implications for behaviour (Meyer et al, 2004). This behaviour in turn has very important implications for the work environment and subsequent performance. Extant research indicates that affective commitment is strongly associated with not only job performance, but also with organisational citizenship, and often is a precursor to normative commitment. Continuance commitment is negatively associated with these aspects and usually needs to be moderated in favour of the other two forms of commitment (Johnson and Yang, 2010; Morris et al, 1993). This assertion also suggests that while all three forms of commitment are useful to operationalise they need to be scoped and balanced carefully.

Employee commitment: The Pillars of Conceptualisation

Another significant development in understanding employee commitment has been the approach to directing commitment towards specific targets or “foci”, that relate to employee behaviour at workplace (Johnson and Yang, 2010:230; Meyer et al, 2004:998). The theorisation in the area of employee commitment thus stands on two pillars- that of form and of focus. There is an arguably third pillar that is about the “bases of commitment” (Allen and Meyer, 1990: 3). These bases refer to factors that lead to development of the aforementioned forms of commitment. For instance, affective commitment can seem to be developed based on alignment of individual values with organisational values, and extent of personal involvement. On the other hand, normative commitment can be seen to be a function of social processes and cultural orientation that orients individuals towards reciprocation (Bennett, 2000). Continuous commitment which is a contrast to these two more constructive forms of commitment is a function of stakes that an employee builds in, or employee investment in a course of action (Meyer et al, 2004).

The essence of conceptualisation around employee motivation is thus about variables of ‘form’, ‘foci’ and of ‘bases’. Recent work has tried to integrate commitment and motivation theories. This is to posit that there is a recursive and mutually enabling relationship between the two (Johnson and Yang, 2010). The contribution of this research has been to embed commitment as a subset of motivation and explain how “employees’ relationships with social foci influence behaviour relevant to the foci” (Meyer et al, 2004: 1003). Such integration provides for levers to augment commitment by providing variables such as goal choice, self-efficacy and goal directedness. It is particularly useful in developing the directional paradigm that is associated with commitment towards tasks or ‘foci’ (Johnson and Yang, 2010; Lawson and Price, 2003).

Good Practice Prescriptions for Managers

Such recent research has also followed up on Meyer et al, (2004) call for examining the motivation and commitment nexus to operationalise and deliver practice relevant levers for employee commitment. Johnson and Yang (2010) provide a perspective in this light by explicitly pinning down different motivations that influence the different forms of commitment. Their empirical analysis provides a model that can predict behavioural response to initiatives directed towards augmenting, reinforcing or balancing the different forms of motivations.

Based on work that seeks to identify levers behind employee commitment the following practice relevant aspects can be identified for improving commitment (e.g. Vandenberghe et al, 2007).

• Clarity in communication about how organisational goals align with individual goals. This calls for the right-kind of “capacitated middle managers (Shibata et al, 1991).
• Building a legacy, and working on developing value based practices that see the organisation as a function of its members.
• Developing a trusting environment where communication is seen, heard and decisions are perceived as being fair.
• Building a community structure around work processes and across disciplinary areas- where people share and relate to their team and the broader organisational context.
• Enrich employee development on the job and through the job. This is by a reward and challenge environment -where developmental needs are encouraged to arise from the employees themselves

Barriers to/Problems in achieving Employee Commitment

The barriers or difficulties in eliciting employee commitment stem from several sources. The most cited one is that of organisational focus on achieving short term performance goals at the expense of long term employee development, and low investment in building shared vision and community like schemas (Breukelen, 1996). This barrier is manifested more specifically in the role description and performance assessment criteria of middle managers that are both highly measurable and short term oriented. The leadership role that the middle manager needs to play in aligning individual goals with the organisational goals is often on a back burner (Shibata et al, 1991; Locke, 1976).

Another barrier that follows is the potentially low importance given to: internal signals about reputation; management’s demonstration of concern for employees’ vis-à-vis concern for performance and; willingness of top management to be inclusive of views and opinions of employees. Such signals directly affect employee perception of their position in the organisational scheme of things. In context of the forms of commitment discussed before this can be about: being an integral part of the organisation contributing to something they value; feeling gratitude for what the organisation has offered to them and/or being tied in only for the direct benefits they receive from what is they perceive as their best choice as an employer given the risks of disassociation (Lawson and price, 2003; Johnson and Yang, 2010).
It is clear that poorly managed signals can lead to lower levels of commitment or a sub-optimal balance between favourable and less favourable forms of commitment.

Still another difficulty relates to the right kind of employees and the right kind of mix of employees that is created overtime. Lack strategic thinking on recruitment policies to align with the requirements of the organisation – as a social milieu and as an economic entity may also create a mismatch between the organisation and its employees (Allen and Seinko, 1997).

The organisational appeal to the employees for contribution and performance is usually leveraged on explicit or implied tangible outcomes for the employee. This is a barrier in itself as it leads to sub-optimal performance outcomes. Psychological attachment led on the job performance by employees improves overall organisational performance. This is because the employee feels to have shared the outcome in a more socio-cognitive manner by having a feeling of belongingness (Bennett, 2000; William and Hazer, 1986). This right kind of commitment is also compromised by a legacy of rewards to tangible outcomes and target achievement vis-à-vis say good citizenship behaviour (Wright, 2001).

Barriers to or difficulties in employee commitment are also contextual, and have been of particular interest in extant research with reference to management of change (Strebel, 1996)*). In the case of the turnaround undertaken at Lufthansa in early 1990s research has identified the emphasis on communication and capacitated middle managerial roles as crucial to sustaining and garnering employee commitment during the turnaround. A similar emphasis on employee commitment was seen at Saatchi and Saatchi for regaining a focus on its creative businesses portfolio albeit with a drive on aspects to do with the right signalling mechanisms to create greater trust (Mintzberg et al., 1990) getting it had been seen at Saatchi and Saatchi but with an emphasis (Mintzberg et al, 2003)change.

The difficulties identified in light of the above instances, because of which the relevant drivers of commitment were focussed upon, fall under what are identified as generic barriers to employee commitment in times of change. These are ‘disruptions to relationship’; threat of statuses; the desire to retain status-quo’ and; ‘tangible benefits’ related adverse consequences (Bennett, 2000:127,128). Different forms of commitment are affected differently in times of change, and overall commitment and its impact on change itself is a function of existing levels and combination of the different forms. The nature of business and industry culture also influence such an impact. However, there is some consensus in research that the initial levels of commitment, if not overtly led by the form of ‘continuance commitment’, tend to contribute affirmatively to change (Zell, 2001:78; Caldwell, 1990).


It has been clearly established that the different forms of commitment demand a balancing act by managers so that a right mix is arrived at. While ‘continuance commitment’ is one form that is not seen in very positively light- it is also a lever to be engaged when an organisation wants quick and organisation-wide uptake and sanction for initiatives. That affective and normative commitment should lead the mix is irrefutable. However, initial dispositions of the employees, the legacy of organisational human resource strategy, and the social and culture milieu influence and pre-ordain a lot of what can be done to influence such a mix (Caldwell, 1990).

Garnering employee commitment is a process that requires time and conscious effort, and because it is not (usually) subjected to measurement, managerial roles and tasks oriented towards it suffer because of the “objectivity of performance parameters” that are set for managers (Allen and Meyer, 1990: 4). Advances in measurement of employee commitment, and in predictive models that provide a cause effect relationship to inform the highly socio-cognitive arena of employee commitment, have changed this scheme of things. A better interface with the field of motivation, task mandates (foci), and understanding of the bases behind forms has also matured in research. This has bridged the gap between theory and practice. Middle managers are becoming very central to employee commitment related initiatives. The ever important top management sanction for investment in time and resources towards employee commitment is also at an all-time high. This is particularly because of the present recessionary times where the pressures of change and adaptation have amplified the difficulties in and importance of harnessing and sustaining employee commitment.


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