Sometimes in life, and especially my professional life, I make things more complicated than they need to be. I often think that concepts have to be slippery and sophisticated in order to be of value. This is, surely, one of the curses of being entrenched in academia. However, something that helps me to embrace seemingly obscure business concepts is to bring them down to ground level – like waaay down – where real people take off their suit jackets, and curl up on the couch with a Lean Cuisine and re-runs of Sex and the City.
In fact, that’s exactly where I found myself while preparing a lecture on organizational commitment for my class of second-year undergraduate business students. Organizational commitment is a tri-dimensional construct that represents a person’s psychological attachment to their workplace. Pretty dry stuff in those terms. But as I prepared my lecture I was surprised to find myself drawing parallels between organizational commitment and what I was watching on TV. Was it possible that Carrie Bradshaw and her pals had more to offer modern women than fashion tips? After an episode or two I was convinced that organizational commitment plays out exactly like the relationships on Sex and the City.
Samantha and Smith – Normative Commitment
Samantha and Smith have been dating for years. When Samantha had cancer Smith stood by her, a pillar of strength. But their connection is gone now and Samantha sits with her girlfriends, lamenting about the good ol’ days when there was passion in her relationship. Recently her eye has been wandering, and she wonders what it would be like to sleep with her sexy next-door-neighbor. She hasn’t acted on her impulses, but she has checked out of her relationship on an emotional level. She feels a sense of moral obligation toward Smith, noting that he stayed with her through chemotherapy and that she should be able to stay with him now. Never missing an opportunity to state the obvious, Carrie pipes in, “Sweetie, you just compared your relationship to chemo.”
Samantha’s feelings toward Smith represent normative commitment. This exists when a person feels they ought to stay in a relationship with their workplace out of some sense of obligation. This might be you if you stick it out due to a sense of duty (perhaps because your employer paid for your graduate degree, or took a chance on you for the big promotion), all the while secretly wondering what it would be like to be with the guy down the street. It’s not particularly romantic, but it could be worse, which brings us to Big and Natasha.
Big and Natasha – Continuance Commitment
Big is unhappy in his marriage. He’s canoodling with Carrie on the side. He has completely checked out of his relationship with Natasha, both mentally and emotionally, but he refuses to physically leave. He calls Carrie from the back of his chauffeured town car, saying, “I can’t leave. I’ve got too much to lose.” Too many of his assets are tied up in his joyless marriage and to leave now would be a financial nightmare.
Big’s feelings toward Natasha represents continuance commitment. This exists when a person feels they have to stay in a relationship with their workplace because there’s too much to lose if they leave. This may be you if you feel like you want to leave your job, but have too much on the line to leave—perhaps a generous benefits package, or union security in a shaky job market. So you stay even though the spark is gone. You show up to work in the physical sense, but not truly engaging yourself fully on a mental or emotional level. This is called presenteeism in the management literature. It’s a soul-sucking experience.
Charlotte and Harry – Affective Commitment
Finally, we see Charlotte and Harry. After many failed relationships and a lot of heartbreak, Charlotte finally found ‘the one’ in Harry. She feels deeply connected to him emotionally and finds that her values align with his. Heck, she even converted for him. Charlotte and Harry are blissfully in love and are both fulfilled by their relationship.
Charlotte’s feelings toward Harry represent affective commitment. This exists when a person feels a strong identification with their workplace and truly wants to be there. And isn’t that what we all want? This may be you if you show up at work every day not because you have to or because you feel ought to, but because you want to. You probably share some of the same values as your workplace, and you contribute to and draw energy from that relationship, resulting in a deep sense of belonging and satisfaction. We should all be so lucky.
Most people have varied levels of all three types of commitment, making each situation unique. It’s worth considering what kind of relationship you have with your own workplace. Does your job light your fire? Are there a few slow-burning embers remaining? Is the spark totally gone? Whatever your situation, own it. Once you acknowledge how you really feel about it you can either work toward making incremental improvements (asking for different projects, making a move to another internal position), or start thinking about making larger changes (like leaving your job for a new one or even switching careers entirely…gulp!). The prospect and process is scary, but certainly more hopeful than sticking it out in a dispassionate relationship.
Sarah Vermunt is a PhD candidate in Organizational Behaviour and Human Resources Management at Wilfrid Laurier University. She is a management/career coach, and has presented her research to the Academy of Management, the Administrative Sciences Association of Canada, the Society for Industrial Organizational Psychology, and the Organizational Behaviour Teaching Society for Management Educators. Follow Sarah on Twitter @CoachAspire.