Monday, August 23, 2010

Are You a Misfit?

by Professor Tony Wheeler
Associate Professor of Human Resource Management

I completed my Ph.D. in 2003, and I have worked for three universities since that time, with URI hopefully being final employer. A couple of weeks ago I mentioned to my boss that I had recently experienced a strange feeling at work: job satisfaction. Yes, I teach students about job satisfaction, but I had totally forgotten what it felt like.

I have come to the conclusion that until recently I had been a perpetual misfit. Now people can experience fit in many ways. We can have the right knowledge, skills, and abilities to fit our jobs (unsurprisingly called Person-Job Fit), we can have the right predisposition to fit the career in which we have self-selected (called Person-Vocation Fit), we can share the same values that our employer does (called Person-Organization Fit), and we can have our personal resource needs met by the resources supplied by the organization (think compensation, benefits, work schedule, etc.). There are more ways to experience fit, like with teams and supervisors, but I'll stick with the major research areas within the study of fit and won't bore you with my dissertation on how we can assess multiple dimensions of fit. (Fact or fiction: My dissertation sits next to a toilet in my house so visitors can read it or use it for paper?)

When you fit...on whatever dimension of fit you value the most, which can change, life is good. You feel satisfied with your job, committed to your organization, and willing to help out around the office. We also know that when you fit, you will more likely report that you want to continue working with your organization. But what happens when you don't fit? Is it as simple as having decreased job satisfaction and commitment? Do you always leave your job when you are a misfit? What if you can't leave your job?

I have spent considerable time not just being a misfit but studying misfit. What I have found in my research is that misfit does not always lead to turnover. In fact, it's unlikely that misfit directly leads to turnover at all. Why? First, leaving a job, even when you have several job alternatives, is hard. It affects every part of your life. Just ask my wife. Do you think she's liked moving from California to Illinois to Rhode Island, even as each job got progressively better and we moved progressively closer to our families? Second, no one likes to be a misfit and probably spends time trying to correct the source of the misfit. My primary source of misfit with my previous employers almost always came from disagreements over values, and I spent months trying to persuade others that we should focus more on students than ourselves.

I'm likely not alone (am I?). I recently returned from Montreal, Quebec, where I presented a model of misfit to a symposium at the Academy of Management's annual conference (8,000 academics from all over the world in one place...insert jokes here). I described a series of behaviors triggered by someone feeling like they don't have resources to meet the demands of the environment, which might include passive job search at the beginning. More likely, that first feeling of misfit causes someone to try and adapt to the environment, which might mean trying to actually change the parts of your job that are causing the misfit. Maybe you seek training opportunities. Maybe you ask your boss for some new computer software to help perform your job. Maybe you spend more of your time and effort on the parts of your job that you really enjoy. Maybe you ask your boss to work on a new team, or you volunteer for new assignments. If you successfully re-craft your job, you probably feel like you fit. Life is good again. Congratulations!

If not, you likely engage in a series of either passive or active behaviors. You might simply go into denial (Who's a misfit? Not me.). You might want to hide your misfit for fear of being fired and engage in a lot of impression management (No, really boss, that's a great idea...I love it). Or you might become vocal about the source of the misfit in an attempt to change it (Where is that raise that you promised?). You might even engage in some deviant workplace behaviors (Why do you have so many office supplies from your work at home?). You might do all of these things. Each is an attempt to actively deal with your misfit. All the while your misfit causes you to feel increasingly stressed out, which will lead to burnout. Eventually, you will leave the organization, on your terms (Take this job and shove it, Jet Blue-style!) or theirs (You're Fired!). But this likely takes months if not years.

Maybe it takes a perpetual misfit to understand misfit, which really worries me. Now that I feel like I finally fit, will I no longer understand misfit?

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