Looking at OB textbooks, you will easily discover that for most textbook authors commitment is about organizational commitment. In this sense, commitment is usually presented as the bond that individuals develop towards the organization they are working for. So, organizational commitment means for example to identify with a particular organization and its goals, while wishing to maintain membership in the organization (e.g. Robbins et al., 2017). This identification can have different types, such as affective commitment (an emotional attachment to the organization), continuance commitment (the economic value of staying), and normative commitment (based on moral or ethical obligations) (see Meyer & Allen, 1991, for these types). Implicit in many textbook chapters is the assumption that organizational commitment is a valid construct to understand the attitudes of employees in long-term and full-time salaried employment contracts.
However, taking into account the developments within the field of work commitment – and I am not talking about most recent developments but those that are observable for many years – I wonder why OB textbooks continue to provide a quite narrow perspective to students. We hardly read – and therefore teach our students – about the processual nature and dynamic interplay between affective, continuance and moral commitment, relational and transactional commitment, as well as other targets of commitment than the organization, such as the work group or the work itself.
Many of these ways to address work commitment differently originate from the research of non-standard employees (see e.g. Ashford et al., 2007; Guest, 2004; Thorsteinson, 2003). Due to employers’ continuous efforts to make the organization, the work, and the employment relationship more flexible, we see more and more temporary work arrangements, part-time and project-based contracts, the leasing of labour (e.g. agency work), and subcontracting in today’s world of work.
These work settings are fundamentally different from the standard employment relationship, because workers are employed in work arrangements other than full-time wage and salaried jobs and in jobs that are of limited or uncertain duration (Hudson, 2001). As a consequence, workers (the term employee is probably no longer valid in this context) undertake work differently, connect to firms differently, and pursue careers with a different outlook (Ashford et al., 2007).
Referring to the above-sketched contemporary work settings, many authors challenge the understanding of commitment as a rather stable bond to the organization because such an understanding has been developed from the assumption of permanent and full-time salaried jobs. In a recent review, Van Rossenberg et al. (2018) aim to consolidate the current knowledge on work place commitment in what they refer to as temporary work and cross-boundary work. Regarding temporary work, they propose that “workers are more likely to develop transactional types of workplace attachment and develop lower levels of commitment” (p. 156), that workers are committed to multiple employers over time, and that they develop commitment to multiple targets. This, in turn, suggests that commitment scholars should also have an eye on possible conflicts between commitments.
On a broader plane, I would like to suggest that the new and different understandings of work commitment, which the research on non-standard employment introduced, might also have value for our general understanding of workplace commitment. For example, do workers (no matter if they have a standard or non-standard employment contract) really only develop commitment to the organization? What about their commitment to other targets within the organization, such as their department, the work group, or particular individuals? How about commitment towards customers or suppliers, hence, targets outside the immediate realm of the employer? And what if workers feel commitment towards the work itself? It might be fruitful thinking of commitment as being developed towards multiple targets, not only the organization. Furthermore, commitment should not be treated as static concept but as shifting between targets, inside and outside the organization. For example, during time of managerially imposed changes, workers may still be dedicated to their work but feel less committed to the organization but perhaps shift their focus of commitment to the immediate work group that is affected by the change.
I also suggest seeing commitment as neither being only affectual, continual or moral, but as a combination of all three aspects. This is not really new, I believe, but I sometimes experience people thinking of commitment as just being either one of these three types. Moreover, the combination of affectual, continual or moral commitment, which might be unique in a given situation, is neither fixed nor stable but may as well change over time. I remember the time when one of my former employers, without negotiating other possibilities with the employees, began to dismiss people for pure economic reasons. Due to this experience, my previously moral obligations to this employer became quite low. I continued working there, however, as I did not have any alternative. Hence, my continuance commitment became rather dominant, whereas both my moral and my affective commitment, which had been quite strong before the incident, almost vanished.
Finally, the potential conflicts between various commitments should be another aspect to learn from the above. Being in various and shifting ways committed to multiple targets may create conflict between the numerous commitments that workers develop. Such conflicts and how workers and organizations attempt to address them should therefore constitute another perspective when we talk to our students about work commitment.
Summarizing, for me the above suggests providing our students a much broader understanding of commitment in organization than the one offered by many current OB textbooks. A multi-facetted or multi-dimensional view on commitment may be better suited to enable our students to understand work organizations.
Ashford, S. J., George, E., & Blatt, R. (2007) Old Assumptions, new work. The Academy of Management Annals, 1(1), pp. 65-117.
Guest, D. E. (2004a) Flexible employment contracts, the psychological contract and employee outcomes: An analysis and review of the evidence. International Journal of Management Reviews, 5/6(1), pp. 1-19.
Hudson, K. (2001) The disposable worker. Monthly Review, 52(11), pp. 43-56.
Meyer, J. P., & Allen, N. J. (1991). A three-component conceptualization of organizational commitment. Human Resource Management Review, 1, pp. 61–89.
Stephen P. Robbins, Timothy A. Judge, Timothy T. Campbell (2017) Organizational Behaviour, Pearson (2nd edition)
Thorsteinson, T. J. (2003) Job attitudes of part-time vs. full-time workers: A meta-analytic review. Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology, 76(2), pp. 151–177.
Van Rossenberg, Y. G. T., Klein, H. J., Asplund, K., Bentein, K., Breitsohl, H., Cohen, A., . . . Yalabik, Z. Y. (2018). The future of workplace commitment: key questions and directions. European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology, 27(2), pp. 153-167.