Psychological Climate In The Work Setting Research Paper

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Psychological climate is defined as ‘employees’ perceptions of their work environment’ and has been the focus of considerable research in organizational psychology. Measures of psychological climate are intended to assess work environments as they are perceived and interpreted by employees (James et al. 1990). Examples of psychological climate dimensions include, but are not limited to, role clarity, job importance, leader support, and workgroup cooperation.

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Research has linked psychological climate variables to work-related outcomes such as job satisfaction, job involvement, and job performance. Furthermore, research has attempted to determine whether there is a hierarchical model to psychological climate. That is, do the individual climate variables all represent assessments of the degree to which organizational events can contribute to desired ends (as described by one’s personal values) and reflect an underlying higher order construct?

The next sections will examine the development of psychological climate research from its conception to its current state of affairs and probable future research directions.

1. The Origins Of Psychological Climate Research

Beginning with Lewin et al.’s (1939) discussion of ‘social climates’ in the workplace, assessing employee climate perceptions became increasingly interesting to organizational researchers. However, the idea of psychological climate, as it is studied now, was not first comprehensively discussed until the late 1960s. Litwin and Stringer (1968) presented a model of the determinants of motivated Behavior in organizations that included the concept of organizational climate. It should be pointed out that in the early stages of psychological climate research it was referred to as organizational climate, though that term is now used to describe shared perceptions of organizational policies and practices, rather than individual employees’ perceptions of characteristics of the workplace. Ac- cording to Litwin and Stringer (1968), the organization is seen as generating an organizational climate, which in turn either positively or negatively affects particular motivational patterns of employees. They theorized that climate could provide managers with the link between an organization’s procedures/practices and the concerns and needs of individual employees. This link would help managers determine what practices would stimulate employee motivation. Litwin and Stringer (1968) defined several important dimensions of organizational climate, including structure (perception of formality and constraint in the organization), challenge (perception of challenge, demand for work, and opportunity for sense of achievement), reward and support (emphasis on positive reinforcement rather than punishment), and social inclusion (sociability, belonging, and group membership). Finally, Litwin and Stringer (1968) tested their hypotheses in an experiment that simulated eight days of actual organizational life in three companies with very different organizational climates. The organizations differed in terms of the amount of structure (strict procedures vs. more flexible procedures), responsibility given to employees (e.g., low vs. high), reward and punishment (e.g., only punishment vs. a combination of both punishment and rewards), warmth and support (isolated employees vs. friendly workgroups), cooperation and conflict (e.g., cooperation is praised or not), and risk and involvement (e.g., organization stressing conservatism vs. stressing challenge). Litwin and Stringer’s (1968) results indicated that type of organizational climate was related to employee satisfaction and employee performance. Overall, they found that what they called an achieving climate (e.g., high employee responsibility, cooperation among employees is stressed, tolerate conflict and support risk taking) led to the best outcomes for the employees (i.e., high satisfaction) and the organization (i.e., high performance).

Litwin and Stringer’s (1968) work provided the impetus for increased research on psychological climate in work settings. This subsequent research identified several problems that confounded much of the original psychological climate research. The most important of these was a ‘level of analysis’ problem.

1.1 Distinction Between Psychological Climate And Organizational Climate

James and Jones (1974) conducted a review of the climate literature and commented that, while organizational climate research had received a considerable amount of attention, the ‘conceptual and operational definition, measurement techniques, and ensuing results’ (James and Jones 1974 p. 1096) were highly diverse and contradictory. These problems were causing organizational climate to be viewed as a somewhat nebulous construct. James and Jones (1974) argued that previous climate research could be organized into three different, but not mutually exclusive, approaches to defining and measuring organizational climate. They designated these approaches as: (a) the multiple-measurement-organizational attribute approach, which views climate as a set of organizational attributes measured by a variety of methods; (b) the perceptual measurement-organizational attribute approach, which uses only perceptual tools to measure climate but still sees climate as an organizational level variable; and (c) the perceptual measurement-individual attribute approach, which views climate as perceptual and an individual level phenomenon. James and Jones (1974) believed that researchers needed to differentiate between climate measured at the organizational level and at the individual level. They proposed that psychological climate was an individual attribute, whereas organizational climate was a situational attribute of the organization. Furthermore, by establishing these new definitions, researchers would be able to focus on either psychological climate or organizational climate which would, in turn, lead to research that would better be able to define both constructs and how they both related to other variables.

Later studies helped shape the boundaries between psychological climate and organizational climate (Schneider 1975). Psychological climate was defined as individual descriptions of organizational practices and procedures, which are useful in understanding the influence of the organizational environment on individual performance and satisfaction. Organizational climate, on the other hand, refers to a collective description of the organizational environment, and is thought to relate to organizational level outcomes. This distinction allowed psychological climate researchers to focus squarely on individual level issues, such as the relationship between psychological climate and various outcome variables (e.g., individual job performance). However, as the definition of psychological climate became somewhat solidified, researchers began to debate whether there was a distinction between psychological climate and job satisfaction. This debate was settled when researchers reached the consensus, through theoretical arguments (James and Jones 1974) as well as empirical research (Schneider and Snyder 1975), that psychological climate reflected descriptions of the work environment whereas job satisfaction reflected an affective evaluation of the work environment.

1.2 Hierarchical Model Of Psychological Climate

As the definition of psychological climate became generally accepted, researchers began to expand the list of perceptual variables they used to measure individuals’ descriptions of their work environment. However, research on the measurement properties of psychological climate also began to indicate that these psychological climate variables often clustered within four higher order factors: role, job, leadership, and workgroup (James and James 1992). While the exact number and specific names of psychological climate variables clustered under these higher order factors changes depending on the scale used, the following examples should provide a general illustration of these higher order factors. The ‘role’ higher order factor is often made up of role ambiguity, role conflict, and role overload. The ‘job’ higher order factor often comprises job challenge, job autonomy, and job importance. The ‘leader’ higher order factor is most often made up of leader trust and support, leader goal facilitation, and leader hierarchical influence. Finally, the workgroup higher order factor often comprises work group cooperation, work group friendliness, and workgroup pride. Furthermore, this early research viewed these four psychological climate factors as ‘distinct cognitive organizing principles for perceptual variables’ (James and James 1989 p. 93).

However, James and James (1989) argued that there is a further hierarchical relationship among psychological climate dimensions. Specifically, they suggested that the judgment process of appraising organizational events in relation to one’s personal values is common to each climate dimension. These value-based appraisals represent assessments of the degree to which organizational events can contribute to desired personal ends. Moreover, these judgments were hypothesized to reflect an underlying general factor (PCg), which represents an overall evaluation of whether the work environment is personally beneficial or detrimental to one’s well-being. Research by James and James (1989) as well as others (e.g., Brown and Leigh 1996) has shown support for the idea of PCg. The PCg model, because it presents climate as one overarching construct, subsequently made examining the relationship between psychological climate and other variables much simpler.

2. Current Research

Current research falls into two categories: research that focuses on the relationship between psychological climate variables and other constructs (e.g., job performance); and research that focuses on the hierarchical structure of psychological climate.

2.1 Psychological Climate And Work-Related Outcome Variables

Research has demonstrated that psychological climate perceptions provide an important mediating link between organizational characteristics and consequential work outcomes such as employee attitudes, motivation, psychological well-being, and performance. A recent meta-analysis (Parker et al. 1998) examined the relationships between individual-level higher order climate perceptions (e.g., role, job, workgroup, leader) and work outcomes such as employee work attitudes, psychological well-being, motivation, and performance. It was found that individuals’ climate perceptions had significant relationships with their job satisfaction, work attitudes, psychological well-being, motivation, and performance. Furthermore, each of the climate categories exhibited a somewhat different pattern of relationships with the various outcomes. For example, employees’ job (e.g., importance, autonomy) and role (e.g., overload, clarity) perceptions appeared to have the weakest relationships with all of the outcome variables. Interestingly, the leader (e.g., goal emphasis, support) and work group (e.g., cooperation, warmth) constructs were most predictive of employees’ work attitudes. A similar pattern was evident for the relationships of the various psychological climate dimensions with employee motivation and performance. For psychological well-being, however, job and leader perceptions provided the strongest relationships. Overall, it appears that employees’ climate perceptions have stronger relationships with their work attitudes than with their motivation and performance. This pattern of relationships indicates that the effects of climate on motivation and performance may be mediated by employees’ work attitudes. This hypothesis was tested in the study and supported. Thus, the relationship between employees’ motivational and Behavioral reactions to perceptions of their work environment and their motivation and performance does seem to be mediated by their overall evaluations of these perceptions.

Most studies that have considered the relationship between psychological climate variables and work-related outcome variables have assumed a linear relationship. Current research is investigating whether this is the case.

2.2 Nonlinear Relationships Between Psychological Climate And Outcome Variables

Researchers have debated over whether the relationships between certain climate dimensions (e.g., job autonomy) and outcome variables (e.g., job satisfaction) are linear or nonlinear in nature. For example, job autonomy is assumed by some researchers to follow an inverted U shape. That is, while medium levels of job autonomy are thought to be more desirable than low levels, very high levels of job autonomy are potentially harmful since it implies difficulty in decision making and high responsibility on the job. Other researchers, however, have assumed a linear relationship between job autonomy and job satisfaction: the more autonomy workers experience, the more satisfied they are with the job.

Previous studies examining psychological climate variables have shown support for both the linear and nonlinear points of view. However, the nonlinear relationships found in prior research have been somewhat weak, often explaining only a small amount of additional variance (1–2 percent) over the linear model. In summary, the evidence is inconclusive as to which type of relationship exists.

However, research examining methodological problems associated with using a common response format may provide an explanation for these weak curvilinear findings. The use of a common response format has been shown to introduce shared item variance (i.e., common methods variance, or CMV) and elevate relationships among job perceptions (Glick et al. 1986). However, one can measure constructs using a multimethod approach. By measuring constructs with more than a single method one should be able to address the common response format problem mentioned above. A recent study (Baltes et al. 1999b) used both multitrait-multimethod (MTMM) data and monomethod data to test the relationships between climate dimensions that have been hypothesized to have nonlinear relationships with job satisfaction. Strikingly different results were found between the monomethod and MTMM data. Whereas the monomethod results mirrored earlier inconclusive findings, the MTMM data indicated that nonlinear equations explained significantly more of the relationship between all three climate dimensions and job satisfaction. These results suggest the following. First, the use of MTMM data allows one to test for nonlinear effects more effectively. Second, nonlinear quadratic effects better model the relationship between role clarity, role overload, job autonomy, and the outcome variable job satisfaction. These results, of course, have implications for both measurement and interpretation of psychological climate variables and work-related outcomes.

2.3 Hierarchical Structure Of Psychological Climate

As mentioned earlier, recent climate research has used the James and James PCg model to justify collapsing multiple indicators of psychological climate into one overarching appraisal of the work environment (Brown and Leigh 1996, James and James 1992). However, it may be premature for psychological climate researchers to accept the construct validity of PCg because the James and James (1989) study relied on a single response format (i.e., traditional Likert scale). As mentioned earlier, the use of a common response format (i.e., monomethod data) has been shown to introduce shared item variance, which can elevate relationships among constructs. As a result, the intercorrelations among climate dimensions that generate support for PCg may be the result of nonrandom measurement errors caused by common methods variance. The hypothesis that support for PCg is the result of common methods variance has received some support (Parker 1999). However, research efforts that use multiple measures of psychological climate are required to more appropriately test whether PCg is the result of common methods variance (James and James 1989). A study conducted by Baltes et al. (1999b) used multitrait–multimethod data collection to examine the hierarchical model of psychological climate (PCg). Two different self-report response formats were used to measure 12 psychological climate constructs. The PCg model, when tested with multitrait–multimethod data, did not fit the data. The lack of support for the PCg model appears to be caused by a strong common methods bias, which caused a 35 percent bias (i.e., inflation) in the observed correlations among the constructs. These results do not support the practice of collapsing psychological climate dimensions into an overarching construct. Furthermore, support was also not found for collapsing to the aforementioned four higher order constructs: role, job, leader, and workgroup. This result is perhaps the most troublesome given the extent of prior research that has considered the relationship between these higher order constructs and workrelated outcome variables. These results are the product, of course, of one study and need to be replicated before previous research linking higher order psychological climate factors to outcome variables is considered obsolete.

3. Future Research

The results of current and past research will probably lead to three streams of future research. First, with respect to the relationship between psychological climate and various work outcomes, future research needs to test more complicated mediation and/or moderation models that include other work-related variables, such as employee’ work attitudes and/or other individual difference variables. By testing more complicated models researchers will be better able to discern how psychological climate fits into the workplace environment.

Second, if the relationships between these climate variables and job satisfaction are nonlinear then perhaps the important substantive question to ask employees is not the traditional one of how much they have of, for example, role clarity, but how what they have differs from what they would like. That is, the discrepancy between what they would like and what they have becomes the important question to ask since this discrepancy would indicate where they fall along the nonlinear curve. Knowing where an employee falls on the regression curve would allow one to predict what effect more or less of a climate dimension would have. Just knowing how much an employee has of, for example, job autonomy, would not allow a researcher to effectively hypothesize what effect more or less job autonomy would have on the job satisfaction of that employee. Future research should not just ask the traditional question of how much an employee has of certain climate dimensions, but focus on the discrepancy between what they have and what they desire to better understand and predict outcome variables such as job satisfaction.

Finally, future research should assess psychological climate dimensions with other methods, such as essays or interviews, and test the PCg model. Whereas some current research, as mentioned earlier, has called into question the existence of a higher order psychological climate factor, more research with multiple measurement methods needs to be completed to address this issue more adequately.


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