Classics – Theory of Work Adjustment

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If only it were that easy!

You may have noticed the theme of compromise that I have been developing over the latest few posts. Given the economic conditions, it is very likely that people will be forced to make more compromises in their careers. So it seems to make sense to explore the notion of compromise and examine how to do it well.

I’ve decided to continue this theme by introducing another classic theory. This one is primarily a matching theory, but with a bit more to it.

I have included a brief summary of the Theory of Work Adjustment (TWA) in the resources section and you might want to read that first if you are unfamiliar with it. Here I will concentrate on why I think it is interesting.

The first reason is that it doesn’t just focus on the fit between the person and the occupation, but on the fit between the person and the whole working environment. In the post on Constructing successful careers I looked at research indicating that career success and satisfaction may be more likely if you enter work thinking about what it takes to get on within the organisation rather than just thinking about the specific role.

The next reason why TWA is interesting is that it looks at matching as a dynamic give-and-take process from both sides. The working environment offers something (rewards or reinforcers) and expects something in return (requirements). The individual offers abilities and, in return, expects to have their values satisifed by the work environment. This transactional approach is a nice way of thinking about job satisfaction and success.

However, the most important idea is that of adjustment. Unlike many other matching approaches, TWA sees matching as a process rather than an event, and it sees people and environments as dynamic rather than static. It’s not about finding a square hole for a square peg — it’s about finding a squarish hole for a squarish peg and then seeing if you can change the shape of the peg or the hole (or both) so that they fit better.

It backs away from the myth that there is an ideal job out there waiting for you. Instead, an ideal job is one that you make by changing yourself or changing your environment. This is vitally relevant to the idea of compromise. People may have to accept jobs that they would otherwise not have gone for if conditions had been better. That doesn’t mean they are stuck. There may be the option of making things better by making some adjustments.

As a P.S., I’m also interested in how it links to other theories such as Modes of Growth. You could see the Performance Mode as an emphasis on reactive adjustment by the individual to a new role. The Learning Mode is a period of active adjustment by the individual, when they try to mold the working environment to their strengths and values. The Development Mode is the point at which an individual stops trying to adjust and thinks about a transformational change instead, i.e. they reach their limit of persistence.

  • Are we guilty of propagating the myth that everyone has an ideal job role out there waiting for them?
  • Do we encourage the false assumption that peoples values and the nature of jobs are unchanging?
  • How often do we make people realise that they could change something about the situation they are in rather than assuming that they need to leave for something different?

Photo credit: uglyhero

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  1. #1 by Aminder K Nijjar on 1 November 2009 - 16:40

    Thanks David.
    Your description and analysis provides a positive and realistic explanation of how many of us actually experience our careers.
    1. Yes some of us are guilty of propagating the myth that everyone has an ideal job role out there waiting for them, although I think it’s more a case of wanting and needing to achieve and grow through our careers (which is perhaps another post).
    2. I think we can and should pay more explicit attention to people’s values and the nature of jobs and
    3. how we need to more often discuss how people can and do influence/change something, and in some cases that may be leaving for something different, but crucially to understand the reasons for doing so.

    PS. Thanks for including the spell checker!

  2. #2 by Tristram Hooley on 15 December 2009 - 12:05

    Yes, OK. I see why this is a more subtle version of the matching theories. It stresses the dynamic nature of both the working environment and the individual. However, I think that most matching theories would have to accept this as soon as you start to apply them. Alec Rodger sort of does (see although he tries to have it both ways by arguing that planned procrastination will essentially lead to a better match. i.e. matching is flawed because it is done too early. Obviously something like Work Adjustment goes beyond that as it also opens up the possibility that both subject and environment might change. I’d agree that a theory needs to acknowledge this if it is going to be credible.

    In your summary of the theory you talk about “Active adjustment” ie actively having an impact on your work environment. Do you think that this can include fairly radical and collective bits of adjustment i.e. trade union action, campaigning against the environmental impact of your organisation etc? Or is it really meant to be about individual movements through the system?

    • #3 by David Winter on 15 December 2009 - 15:54

      Most matching theories grudgingly accept the dynamic nature of personality and the workplace but do their best to ignore it when they can. Many of them have within their founding assumptions something about human personality being fairly constant in adulthood and an assumption that personality is a singular thing rather than a multiple, context-dependent construct. With the Theory of Work Adjustment the dynamics are explicit in the name – no chance of escape from this idea.

      I suspect in the original theory active adjustment was more about changing elements the individual role (as in Nicholson and West’s role innovation). Only when these attempts at change had reached their limits does the theory talk about individuals moving to different roles. However, I don’t see why it couldn’t include more radical actions to bring about change whilst staying in the same nominal role.

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