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The psychology behind job satisfaction

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Suppose that you work at a company that has recently received some negative attention in the media. You’re on a solid career path and each day brings with it satisfaction in your achievements.

Imagine that you are at a cocktail party and someone asks you where you work. Despite having a good job and positive career prospects, you find yourself hesitating before mentioning the name of the company.

Now let’s suppose that you work for a company that has just been voted as one of the most innovative companies to work for. Your job is fine, although, if you’re honest, at times frustrating. And yet the same question posed at the same cocktail party might evoke a very different response in you. According to one of the theories of industrial and organisational psychology, the company that we work for represents a concrete, public expression of our values, and can be more important than the job itself, says Prof Anton Grobler, area head of Organisational Behaviour and Leadership at Unisa’s Graduate School of Business Leadership (SBL).
What is important to the company at which we work sends a signal to society about who we are, and has implications for our own self-definition, regardless of the job level. Termed ‘value congruence’, this can be more important than the job itself.
The way we look for jobs and seek job satisfaction is a complex psychological and behavioural process upon which we embark from the moment we read the job specification. This journey continues throughout our duration of employment at the company.
This complex process can be distilled into three probable behaviours: conform; confront; capitulate. These behaviours provide insights into what we do when we look for our perfect job and how we appraise it – often without consciously acknowledging that we’re doing it.
Good job fit boils down to a ‘sameness’ or similarity that we recognise in the organisation and ourselves. As individuals, we use our personal values as criteria to select and justify actions and to evaluate people and events. ‘Person-organisation fit’ (P-O fit) ascertains how congruent our values are to the norms and values of the organisation. This P-O fit is dynamic and can change over time. It can become better or worse, as the company or individual changes. Furthermore, as they go along, both the individual and the organisation seeks to attain higher levels of fit. For the individual this might mean conforming, confronting or capitulating in various ways which can mean leaving the organisation to seek a higher level of fit somewhere else.
There are two ways to conform. One way is healthy, and signifies the typical adjustment to workplace realities that is required of any working individual. The other is known as dysfunctional conforming and occurs when the individual behaves in a way that is not appropriate to their own values, but is behaviour that is practised and reinforced by the organisation, a relatively new construct within the business ethics domain. Known as prosocial rule-breaking, it describes an act that is motivated less by deviant intention and more by a desire to assist the organisation in meeting its objectives. We would say that prosocial rule-breaking is the knowing violation of a formal organisational policy, regulation, or prohibition in order to promote the welfare of the organisation or one of its stakeholders. Prosocial rule-breaking brings to mind the crash of financial markets in 2008, which unearthed widespread rule-breaking among financial institutions in the United States.

Confronting is the second probable behaviour outcome. This will occur when the individual becomes aware of a dissonance between the values of the organisation and themselves. The individual will feel their own internal pressure to take steps to set the balance right. They might attempt to change things in the organisation – at the extreme level consider the whistle-blower who takes things beyond the internal organisational structure in the attempt to effect change – or they could decide to leave the organisational environment altogether. While leaving the organisation might seem like the easier route, it can have momentous consequences for the individual, both practically (how easy it is to leave; what are the alternatives?) and psychologically (a shock to the system which prompts reassessment of values).
The final behaviour is one of capitulation. Staying in an organisation where poor P-O fit manifests
has negative effects. The individual might withdraw from their job. On a physical level this would include absenteeism, and on the psychological level this could present as lowered levels of job commitment. Research has shown that capitulating has the potential to negatively impact on the emotional psychological states and well-being of the individual.

P-O fit is a powerful aspect not only when choosing a job, but staying in it. Companies have a responsibility to ensure that the P-O fit remains positive for employees and encourages behaviour in sync with their values. Programmes such as the Unisa Graduate School of Business Leadership (SBL) Master of Business Leadership (MBL) propel leaders to adopt innovative business approaches that can support enhanced selection systems and ensure alternatives are created for their employees beyond confrontation and capitulation.