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Motivation Overview

Contact information:

Dr. Richard W. Scholl
36 Upper College Road
Kingston, RI 02881

p. 401.874.4347
f. 401.874.2954

What is Organizational Commitment?

Organizational commitment is one of those concepts that is used in a number of different ways. In most cases, we use the term to refer to a type of employee, that is, an employee with high organizational commitment. In this case, we generally refer to three observable patterns of behavior. When we see an employee exhibiting these patterns of behavior, we attribute these patterns to something we call commitment and we say that individual is committed. More recently, these behaviors have been termed organizational citizenship behaviors. The three components of commitment are:

Identification with the organization's goals and/or mission manifested in pride in and defense of the organization.

Long-term membership in the organization and intention to remain with the organization, often termed loyalty

High levels of extra role behavior, that is, behavior beyond required performance- Often referred to as citizenship behavior or pro-social behavior.

It is important to note that each of these behaviors can be explained from a traditional motivational perspective. For example, many people might work hard to ensure that the organization's mission is realized, not because of any dedication to the organization itself, but because they have identified with that particular social mission. In this case, we must distinguish between commitment to organization (local orientation) and commitment to a profession (cosmopolitan orientation). Likewise, long-term membership can be explained in terms of a continued positive exchange with the organization. In other words, the individual remains satisfied with his or her job and the inducements/contributions balance. It is what happens when individuals become less than satisfied, or potentially better opportunities come along, but the individual continues to remain with the organization that is not easily explained by traditional motivational theories. Loyalty is more than maintaining a relationship. It is maintaining a relationship despite some degree of dissatisfaction with one's benefits from that relationship and/or the existence of better opportunities. High levels of extra role behavior can be explained simply by the desire to succeed (success been anything that individual values). As explained by the expectancy theory of motivation, we would expect extra role behavior to be exhibited when the individual perceives high expectancy (the belief that his or her efforts will lead to high performance), high instrumentality (the belief that his or her high performance believed to valued outcomes such as pay raises, promotions, or recognition, and a high valence or value for these outcmes. However, commitment exists when individual maintains high levels of extra-role behavior in spite of low expectancy, low instrumentality, and/or low valence (i.e., low motivational force)

Important question is: "What drives these patterns of behavior?" One view is that individuals exhibit these patterns of behavior because of their personality or something in their disposition. Those who ascribe to this view devote time and energy attempting to recruit and select "committed" people to become their employees. While it is safe to assume that there are individual differences (dispositions) that contribute to high levels of organizational commitment, most scholars and practitioners believe that employees become "committed" to the organization as a function of their interaction and relationship with that organization in much the way people become "committed" to any relationship. Furthermore, this view holds that commitment is result of a set of carefully designed human resource strategies that work over time to build commitment to the organization among employees.

Commitment Forces

An alternative explanation of behavioral stability lies in the concept of commitment. As a force directing behavior, it must be conceptually differentiated from current motivation models - specifically, expectancy and equity. For this reason, commitment will be defined here as a stabilizing force that acts to maintain behavioral direction when expectancy/equity conditions are not met and do not function. The question arises. If commitment is to be considered an alternative stabilizing force, what mechanisms, independent from both the behavior and expectancy, increase an individual's commitment to a given behavioral direction? Again, these mechanisms must be distinct from simple exchange mechanisms. Scholl (1981) posits there are at least four possible commitment mechanisms: (1) investments, (2) reciprocity, (3) lack of alternatives, and (4) identification.


Based on Becker's (1960) early arguments, a number of empirical investigations have attempted to verify the proposition that individual investments into a particular organization act as a stabilizing or maintenance mechanism. Specifically, investments (termed "side bets" by Becker) are posited to decrease an individual's propensity to leave the organization. Investments can be thought of as contributions whereby a future gain from present participation is tied to continuance of membership (Kantor, 1968). In terms of inducements/contributions, there is a time lag in the exchange: the individual makes a contribution today in expectation of future inducements. This is posited to tie the individual to the organization, even when the individual becomes dissatisfied with aspects of the exchange. The concept of "paying dues" nicely captures this idea. Investments can also be viewed in terms of alternative opportunities forgone (Blau, 1967)

Although the literature does not deal specifically with reciprocity as a mechanism of organizational commitment, one can clearly see how the norm of reciprocity would act to hold individuals into a system when either exchange relationships were dissatisfying or more attractive opportunities existed. The most specific theoretical formulation of the norm of reciprocity has been presented by Gouldner (1960), who holds that reciprocity is a generalized and probably universal norm. Specifically, the norm is that (1) people should help those who have helped them, and (2) people should not harm those who have helped them. Whereas investments accrue as individuals make contributions that will be rewarded at a future time, reciprocity would work in the opposite fashion: an individual would receive a benefit, such as training or an opportunity beyond his or her current ability, and would expect to repay it through future performance. If the norm of reciprocity holds, we would expect that the debt incurred through advance rewards would act to hold the individual into a particular system until the debt was repaid. Additionally, we would not expect individuals to leave if doing so would cause any harm to an employer who has helped them.
Social Identity

As Friedman and Havighurst (1954]) discovered, work is a major source of status and identification for a large number of individuals. It seems likely that, as an individual becomes more embedded in a social identity, change would become more difficult. This notion has been difficult to test empirically because a number of conceptualizations of commitment include identification as a component of commitment (Buchanan, 1974; Porter et al., 1974; Sheldon, 1971). If we stick to the concept of commitment as a force leading to consistency of action, it seems reasonable to view identification as a process that increases commitment. Specifically, identification can be defined as the linking of one's social identity to a specific social role. In operationalizing this definition, Stevens, Beyer, and Trice (1978 ) found that identification was one of a number of factors leading to a decreased propensity to leave the organization among federal service managers. Thus, we can posit that if an alternative opportunity does not allow for maintenance of a particular social identity, we would expect that an individual's commitment to that opportunity would be increased.

lack of Alternatives

In the course of their careers, individuals development job related skills and abilities. Some of these skills sets are based what Becker (1993) termed general training; training for skills applicable to many organizations and even many career paths. Pursuing an MBA degree is an example of general training. Becker also identified a type of training he called specific training; training for skills that are use explicitly while employed by one's current organization. These skills are general non-portable and non-transferable to other organizations. I will refer to the skill sets developed through these two types of training as general skills and specific skills. As employees develop more specific skills and fewer general skills, they tend to limit their ability to move laterally among organizations. Thus, when employment options are limited, employees becomes more committed to remaining with their current employers. See Scott Brum's (MS '07) Seminar Paper for an excellent analysis of the effects of general and specific training.

Another factor creating the limited options or perceived lack of alternatives scenario part of an individuals cognitive style. Employees with a cognitive preference for judging on the judgment-perception dimension of cognitive style tend to commitment to existing courses of action because they tend not see viable alternative actions. These individuals tend to think vertically rather than laterally, or to use a terms common in today's business-speak, tend not to think out-of-the-box. When, through, the cognitive process, individuals do not see, create, or recognized viable alternative employment options, they tend to feel trapped in their current jobs.

Building Commitment among employees

While commitment to an organization, a relationship, or a course of action may develop naturally over time, there are way in which some organizations actively seek to develop the level of commitment among employees. Walton (1985) presented two fundamental approaches to workforce management: the control approach and the commitment approach. These two approaches present two integrated human resource strategies for the selection, development, motivation and retention of employees. The fundamental difference between these two strategies lies in the overriding philosophy and values regarding the employment of people and organizations. Control and commitment represent two distinct approaches to shaping employee behaviors and attitudes at work.

What are the ways in which employees actually develop or build commitment. Various practices can be divided into categories based on the four commitment mechanisms.

Investment based Practices

In most cases, employees make investments over time in the form of paying dues, investing in skills specific to a company, or building reputations with a company. Many investments are made without consideration and only become apparent when an employee is faced with strong dissatisfaction and think about leaving. However, employees who do not see a successful and satisfactory future with an employer (high expectancy) are generally unwilling to make large personal investments with that employer.

Reciprocity Based Practices

Like investments, employers do not often develop explicit strategies to make employees feel indebted, however whenever employers go beyond normal expectations is treating employees well, such as extra training, benefits to employees without apparent organizational gain, indebted can develop. This is especially likely to happen when an employee believes that an employer has given him or her a special chance. This basis of commitment can also be to a leader, supervisor or work team.

Limiting Alternatives

Two of the most common alternative limiting actions are developing specialized skills that are only of value to a specific employer and providing rewards and benefits that are difficult to match elsewhere in the labor market.

Developing Social Identity

The development of one's social identity in terms of an employing organizations is the most potent commitment mechanism. When individuals define their identities in terms of their employing organizations, a strong bond is created. Sociologists have referred to this type of identification as a local orientation, while identification with one's profession is considered a cosmopolitan orientation. Identification is more likely to occur when;

  1. Identification: Individual identifies with the mission of the organization and the mission is consistent with his or her personal values
  2. Success/Status: Individual develops a sense of pride through inclusion in the organization associated with organization's accomplishments and status. The power of this element is increased by perception that the individual is in part responsible for organization's accomplishments and status through participation and empowerment
  3. Security: Individual feels a sense of security and can envision a career path within the organization
  4. Validiation: Individual experiences validation of his or her skills and worth by leaders and peers feeling a strong fit with and acceptance by the workgroup. Another form of validation comes when employees are able to use expertise and discretion (leading to ownership of and personal responsibility of outcomes and are able to see to positive outcomes of their effort (Knowledge of results).
  5. Trust: One of the most important sources of individual validation is the perception that one is trust. Trust is one of the focal elements of a commitment strategy. When employees are not trusted, organizations develop extensive control systems. A control system is one of the clearest way to telling someone he or she is not trust: an invalidating act.

Many of these elements are developed through the leader/employee relationship. This is why many commitment-based organizations place a great deal of emphasis on developing transformation and participative leadership styles.

Commitment and Human Resources strategies

The following table contrast the different human resources strategies and approaches used by commitment-based and control-based employers. In most cases, actual organizations tend to use some of both approaches, but the most effective commitment-based organizations use an integrated approach in which most, if not all, or the strategies used attempt to increase commitment. Generally no one approach or technique can develop commitment across a broad range of employees.

  Control Commitment
Philosophies and Mental Models



Employee Motivation Theory X assumptions;
Target Sources of Motivation- Instrumental
Theory Y assumptions;
Target Sources of Motivation- Self concept; Goal Identification
Performance Expectations Define minimum expected performance standards Set "growth" objectives
Quality of Work Life (QWL) Important only if QWL is viewed as a means to productivity Is an important organizational goal
Recruitment Attract on the basis of pay and benefits Attract on the basis of career potential and growth and culture
Selection Control-based employers rely mainly and person-job fit model. Select for skills and ability to do one specific job. Most commitment-based organizations use a person-organization fit model (along with a person-job fit approach). The intent to the PO model is to select individuals that match the organization's culture and have potential for leadership positions in the future. Select for skills, ability, and potential to develop a career
Training & Development Training offered on skills to meet minimum current job requirements; skill based training. Training designed to help employee reach full potential. Emphasis on decision-making, problem solving, and interpersonal skills, as well as operational skills. Preparation for jobs beyond current job.
Performance Evaluation Behavioral Based
Used to differentiate pay
Goal Based
Used for development and performance improvement
Compensation Individual-based pay, Incentive pay based on individual performance; Job-based pay Team-based pay; Skill-based pay; Incentive pay based on team or organizational goals.
Leadership Styles Transactional; Maintain psychological distance Transformational; work to develop high quality relationship
Job Design Fragmented work designs; fixed job definitions; high specialized task; low task identity; emphasis on doing Emphasis on whole tasks, utilization of full range of employee skills; emphasis on thinking.
Decision Making Autocratic Participative; Empowered
Control System Bases of power: Reward, Coercive, Authority
Mechanisms: Centralization, Formalization
Bases of power: Expect, Referent
Mechanisms: Goals, Shared Values
Labor Relations Approaches Union avoidance; Union acceptance Union acceptance; Labor-Management cooperation; Joint planning and problem solving
Employee Voice Limited employee input using structured approaches such as attitude surveys, suggestions boxes, and grievance procedures Employee participation encouraged; Employee input sought when solving problems and making changes
Conflict Management Forcing; Compromise; Appeal to authority or procedure Problem-solving; Search for win-sin solutions for mutual gain.
Communication Closed. Major changes communicated as "orders" when plan are fully formulated
Business data and information communicated on a "need to know" basis
Open. Employees informed of problems and encouraged to participate in generating solutions. Plans for change communicated during al steps of planning process.
Business data shared widely
Expected Outcomes
Employee Behavior Adequate Role Behavior; Bottom-line behavior- Stick to minimum job requirement Extra Role Behavior; Do whatever is required to accomplish goals, satisfy customers, help co-workers.
Identification Low Identification with Organization- Employees do not see their self concepts tied to organization success. Little pride or "ownership" in organizational success. High Identification with Organization- Employees see their social identities tied to the employing organization
Longevity Stay as long as satisfied Long term commitment to remain
Leader-Member Relationships Instrumental relationship based on specific need of parties High Quality characterized by high trust, mutual respect and self concept validation
Labor-Management Relationships Adversarial; Low trust; Emphasis on controlling behavior of by contract Cooperative; Mutual trust


Ashford, B. E., & Mael, F. 1989. Social identity theory and the organization. Academy of Management Review, 14: 20-39.

Becker, G. 1993. Human Capital: A Theoretical and Empirical Analysis with Special Reference to Education (3rd ed.). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Scholl, R. W. 1981. Differentiating organizational commitment from expectancy as a motivating force. Academy of Management Review, 6: 589-599.

Staw, B. M. 1981. The escalation of commitment to a course of action. Academy of Management Review, 6(4): 577-587.

Walton, R. E. 1985. From control to commitment in the workplace. Harvard Business Review, 63(2): 77-84