Job Satisfaction and Job Performance: Do They Have a Causal Relationship?

Key Points:

  1. Work attitudes do seem to have a small causal impact on job satisfaction.
  2. Job satisfaction does not seem to cause an improvement in work attitudes.
  3. The impact of attitudes fades over time.

Everyone on Earth has probably experienced just how much our attitudes can impact our work. Many of us have elucidating moments that change our perspective of our work that can have a dramatic impact  . How we think and feel often impacts our behavior. Prior research finds that job attitudes and performance share a positive relationship. But which comes first, job satisfaction or job performance?

Michael Riketta and a “chicken or the egg” sort of problem…

To answer this question, Michael Riketta of Aston University conducted a meta-analysis looking at the relationship between job performance and attitudes across time. This allows researchers to understand which, if either, variable comes first – inferring causation. Riketta limited his study to job satisfaction and organizational commitment. Job satisfaction is how people think and feel culminating in a more or less positive or negative evaluation of their job. Organizational commitment is how strongly someone identifies with and wants to be a part of an organization. Riketta also narrowed his study of job performance to include only two forms of job performance. The first, in-role performance, is work described in a person’s formal job description. The second, extra-role performance, is work-related activities that go above and beyond their stated requirements. Sixteen experiments were in Riketta’s meta-analysis (11 of the studies focused on in-role performance; another 5 looked at extra-role performance). The studies were performed in different countries and different industries, including telephone operators to hospital employees. Job performance measures ranged from self-reports, supervisor ratings, and to peer ratings of performance.

Riketta found a small, but significant positive effect of job attitudes on performance over time. This means a small effect of job attitudes causing performance. More specifically, the effects were strongest for attitudes of job commitment rather than job satisfaction; they were stronger for shorter (1 to 6 months) rather than longer (over one year) lags in time; and they impact both in-role and extra-role performance equally.

Riketta was unable to find much support for a causal effect in the opposite direction. Performance did not cause subsequent work attitudes. Riketta found one significant effect under very specific contexts: performance only seemed to cause job satisfaction, only with a moderate time lag. Most surprising is the direction: higher job performance predicted more negative job satisfaction. Beside this exception, no other evidence supported performance causing job attitudes.  This might come from high performers feeling poorly rewarded after high performing work. This may contribute negatively to their job attitudes.  However, further research is certainly needed here.

Tick-Tock, The Attitude-Effect Has an Expiration Date

A key take-away for managers would be that the effects of work attitudes of job commitment and job satisfaction on performance have a shelf life. Job attitudes may impact performance, but only so long as attitudes are recently and actively connected to performance.  On one hand, employers may need to constantly consider employees’ thoughts and feelings to keep positive work attitudes to retain performance enhancements.  On the other hand, work attitudes and their effects are likely to be replaced by new attitudes. This should give leaders peace of mind; they have many opportunities to make better decisions and generate more positive attitudes.

This research shows people’s thoughts and feelings about work impact how well they perform.  Also, performance does not seem to impact people’s work attitudes much at all. Finally, the effects of job satisfaction and commitment on performance seem weak.

How people think and feel about their jobs impacts how well they perform. Thus, managers can use many different ways to influence people’s attitudes.  For example, research has consistently shown that attitudes can be improved in a variety of ways, like by tying them to people’s personal identity or by increasing or repeating exposure. Given what we know, managers could experiment with giving people more frequent and positive exposure to new work tasks or colleagues to improve attitudes related to tasks or teamwork.

Performance does not seem to drive work attitudes. This is important; managers shouldn’t try to win over employees by doling out inflated performance reviews. It seems you can not buy employees’ satisfaction or commitment by saying they’re good at their job.  If you do not compensate them appropriately for high performance, it may backfire in the long run.  Often, organizations are so concerned with performance they are blind to other improvements that drive costs down and profit margins up (either directly or indirectly). Psychological safety, creativity and innovation, knowledge sharing, strong mental models, reward, and job characteristics all drive the bottom line without falling under the umbrella of “performance”. More attention can be paid to how intermediaries (e.g., job satisfaction and job commitment) impact performance rather than applying laser-like focus to direclty trying to increase performance while hoping that everything else will somehow, magically sort itself out.

As always, these findings should be taken with a grain of salt. But they can certainly help make better informed decisions in the meantime. The most limiting features in this study were about the method. For example, there are additional forms of job attitudes beyond job satisfaction and commitment omitted here. People have attitudes about their boss, their team, their work environment, their coworkers, their organizational culture, and likely every aspect of their work.  It is unclear whether including these other attitudes would have affected the results. Some attitudes may have stronger relationships with performance which may increase the strength of this relationship; other attitudes may have a weaker relationship with performance which may decrease the stregth of this relationship if included in a similar review. Only time and science will tell.

For now, positive work attitudes do seem to cause increases in performance and negative work attitudes seem to drive decreases in performance. However, these effects are smaller than most would expect.

Takeaways for you and your practice

  • The good thing seems to be that efforts made by leaders to improve the attitudes of their employees with hopes that it may lead to an increase in employee performance doesn’t seem to be completely unsupported. Although this study indicates that the size of this relationship may be small, it is both significant and in the expected direction. Which is somewhat expected given the complexity and general poor measurement of performance.
  • Expectations should be hopeful but restrained. Although job satisfaction and commitment did have an effect on both in-role and extra-role performance, the effect was so small that it was described as “among the half of employees with higher job attitudes, 53% also belong to the half with higher performance; whereas, among the half of employees with lower job attitudes, 47% belong to the half with higher performance.” Although there is evidence of work attitudes causing performance, it may not have much practical significance. But keep in mind, that practical significance is relative; small effects in large organizations may have substantial results.
  • Since job attitudes tend to lead to a small increase in performance and not the other way around, this informs managers that any attempt to influence employees’ attitudes by suggesting that they are performing better than they actualy are may be hopelessly misguided.
  • The study of attitudes is an entire school of research all its own. Social psychology in particular has some really good insights on how people’s attitudes can be influenced to become more favorable. Here is tiny sample of what insights this body of research has to offer:
  1. Familiarity and the Mere Exposure Effect: The more people are exposed to something and the more they become familiar with it, the more they tend to like it. New work can often be scary, but give them plenty of time to be exposed to it and get to know it better and they may grow to enjoy it.
  2. Social influence: People’s attitudes towards their work can be influenced by their colleagues, managers, and the broader social culture. If people show that they perceive a role as more valuable, people begin to desire it more.
  3. Cognitive dissonance: Cognitive dissonance can be used to promote attitude change in employees who may be resistant to new workplace policies or practices. For example, if an employee is resistant to a new work process, a manager could introduce new information that highlights the benefits of the change. This new information could create cognitive dissonance, prompting the employee to reconsider their attitude towards the new process.
  4. Self-perception theory: People infer their attitudes from their behavior. This can be used to improve employee attitudes towards their work by encouraging them to engage in behaviors that you want them to like. If they do it, they may eventually infer that they enjoy it. Maybe all you have to do is ask them to give it a try.

Trustworthiness score:

The trustworthiness of the study is of a high standard and quality (90%). This means there is a 10% chance that alternative explanations for the effect found are possible.

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Riketta, M. (2008). The Causal Relation Between Job Attitudes and Performance: A Meta-analysis Of Panel Studies. The Journal of Applied Psychology, 93(2), 472–481.

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