Sandra Kiffin-Petersen


Work design has largely overlooked cognitive—emotional interactions in understanding employee motivation and satisfaction. My aim in this chapter is to develop a conceptual model that integrates what we know about these interactions from research on emotions and neuroscience with traditional and emergent work design perspectives. I propose that striving for universal goals influences how a person responds to the work characteristics, such that an event that is personally relevant or “selfreferential” will elicit an emotional reaction that must be regulated for optimal performance, job satisfaction, and well-being. A Self-Referential Emotion Regulatory Model (SERM) of work design is presented.

Keywords: Work design; affective events; neuroscience

New Ways of Studying Emotions in Organizations Research on Emotion in Organizations, Volume 11, 241—269 Copyright © 2015 by Emerald Group Publishing Limited All rights of reproduction in any form reserved ISSN: 1746-9791/doi:10.1108/S1746-979120150000011010


‘"present-day abstraction of work has shut out feelings from the job content.” (Herzberg, 1987, p. 120)

Work design has been defined as “the content and organization of one’s work tasks, activities, relationships, and responsibilities” (Parker, 2014, p. 662). Prior research has demonstrated that work design is critically important to achieving key employee outcomes including improved performance, motivation and job satisfaction, and reduced stress and burnout (Grant & Parker, 2009). However, we know little about how cognitions and emotions interact to influence these outcomes (Saavedra & Kwun, 2000; Seo, Barrett, & Bartunek, 2004). Cognition generally refers to thought processes such as memory, attention, planning, and problem solving in humans (Pessoa, 2008). Emotions on the other hand are subjective experiences that are of shorter duration, greater focus and intensity than moods or affect, have a clear cause, person or object, and importantly, create a state of action readiness (Frijda, 1988, 1994). There is reason to believe based on research into emotions in organizations (e.g., Affective Events Theory, AET: Weiss & Cropanzano, 1996) and neuroscience (Pessoa, 2008) that interactions between cognitions and emotions are influential in how work characteristics affect important individual outcomes.

To address this evident research gap, I develop a theoretical model proposing that desirable outcomes, including increased motivation, job satisfaction, and aspects of performance, are influenced by a self-regulatory process involving the pleasantness of emotions evoked in response to, and shaped by social contextual factors. A focal point of new research into emotions in organizations should therefore, be on understanding how to combine tasks, activities, and relationships (i.e., work design) in such a way as to promote pleasant emotions and meaningful work (Parker, 2014). Hedonic tone or the pleasantness of an emotion, and intensity or the degree of activation, is often used to differentiate between discrete emotions (Larsen & Diener, 1992; Russell, 1980). Emotions with a pleasant hedonic tone such as joy, interest, and pride are often grouped together as positive emotions, in contrast to those commonly labeled as negative or unpleasant emotions (e.g., frustration, anger). In this chapter, I also use the term “work design” over job design because it encompasses the more proactive or self-initiating aspects of employees’ work, as well as the technical tasks that are more typically included in a job description (Morgeson & Campion, 2003; Parker, 2014).

Examining the role of emotions in work design is temporally relevant for two reasons. First, accumulating evidence supporting the stress buffering effects of positive emotions, particularly in light of increased stress at work (Cavanaugh, Boswell, Roehling, & Boudreau, 2000) and potentially “mindless” tasks associated with excessive workloads (Elsbach & Hargadon, 2006), cannot be ignored (Fredrickson, 1998, 2001, 2013a; Vacharkulksemsuk, & Fredrickson, 2013). Positive emotions also help promote creativity and greater flexibility in problem solving, as well as having a positive effect on intrinsic motivation and performance even when the task is complex and difficult (Isen, 2000; Isen & Reeve, 2005). Metaanalytic findings have also found happier individuals’ are more likely to experience job satisfaction, fulfilling relationships, superior work performance, and improved general health (Lyubomirsky, King, & Diener, 2005). Frequent, long-lasting positive emotions are thought to be more influential on long-term happiness, than infrequent high-intensity positive emotions (Diener, Sandvik, & Pavot, 1991).

The second oft cited reason emotion should be central to work design is because changes in the way work is organized means previous models and theories do not necessarily reflect current realities (Grant & Parker, 2009; Humphrey, Nahrgang, & Morgeson, 2007). There is a need to better understand emotional and interpersonal tasks in service jobs, given their prevalence (Grandey & Diamond, 2010; Grant, Fried, Parker, & Frese, 2010; Oldham & Hackman, 2010) and adverse effect on employees’ emotional exhaustion (Bono & Vey, 2005; Hulsheger, & Schewe, 2011; Mesmer- Magnus, DeChurch, & Wax, 2012; Wang, Seibert, & Boles, 2011). Ideally, new research should go beyond motivational models of work design to incorporate approaches that also seek to enhance the physical and mental health of employees (Parker, 2014). My examination of the role of emotions in work design in organizational settings is therefore, timely.

My purpose in this chapter is twofold. First, I aim to reconcile divergent research streams to present some broad propositions as a first step toward clarifying the role of emotion in work design. Our emotional reactions provide us with critical information and feedback about our behavior and interactions with others, including colleagues and the public that I argue has been insufficiently addressed in mainstream work design research. Second, I seek to refine our understanding of the relationship between emotions and work design by drawing on recent findings from neuroscience (Becker, Cropanzano, & Sanfey, 2011; Cropanzano, & Becker, 2013). Neuroscience recognizes that human actions are the result of cognitive and emotional pathways in the brain interacting in complex ways (Lindquist,

Wager, Kober, Bliss-Moreau, & Feldman Barrett, 2012; Ochsner & Gross, 2008; Pessoa, 2008) and hence, such research may explain “how the brain and its messengers (the neurotransmitters) respond positively to work” (Nicholson, 2010, p. 425). Management (Waytz & Mason, 2013), leadership development (Boyatzis, Smith, & Blaize, 2006; Waldman, Balthazard, & Peterson, 2011), and behavioral economics (Camerer, Loewenstein, & Prelec, 2005) have all drawn from neuroscience research methods.

The conceptual model I propose is different from traditional motivational theories of work design for several reasons. First, it is embedded within an AET framework (Weiss & Cropanzano, 1996) whilst also drawing on theories of cognitive appraisal (e.g., Lazarus, 1991; Roseman, Spindel, & Jose, 1990) and emotion regulation (Gross, 1998, 2013), to afford a more central role for cognitive—emotional interactions in work design. In line with AET, emotion regulation processes determine, in part, how perceived work characteristics translate into emotional reactions and work attitudes, such as job satisfaction. Emotion regulation is conceptualized as a proactive internal process directed at regulating either the magnitude or duration of an emotional response during work activities, tasks, and relationships (Gross, Sheppes, & Urry, 2011). Positive emotions can become self-energizing and self-sustaining via an upward spiral, as well as counteracting negative downward spirals (Garland et al., 2010). Second, I draw on recent findings from neuroscience and motivational theories to highlight how the self-referential nature of an event (i.e., its importance to the individual’s goals, motives, or concerns, Frijda, 1994) is critically important in evoking an individual’s emotional response. My approach therefore departs somewhat from traditional models of work design in that I assert that the pleasantness of emotional experiences is an integral influence, parallel to key psychological states (Barrick, Mount, & Li, 2013; Hackman & Oldham, 1980), on key individual outcomes.

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