A Practical Guide to the Job Characteristics Model

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The job characteristics model helps make the jobs at your organization more varied, challenging, and motivating. An engaged workforce is happier and more productive but keeping employees happy and engaged is something that HR practitioners and managers struggle with. This is where the job characteristics model comes in. What exactly is this model, and how do you bring the theory into practice at your organization?

Contents
What is the job characteristics model?
What is the purpose of the job characteristics model?
Five core job characteristics in the job characteristics model
Psychological states and work outcomes
Bringing theory into practice

What is the job characteristics model?

In 1975, organizational psychologists Greg R. Oldham and J. Richard Hackman wanted to figure out why employees lost interest in their jobs. So, they studied people and their jobs and came up with a universal model that we still use–more than 40 years later–called the job characteristics model.

You can apply this model to any job and then work to make the job more engaging and, therefore, a job that will keep the employee happier and more productive. It consists of five components:

  • Skill variety
  • Task identity
  • Task significance
  • Autonomy
  • Feedback 

Each one of these components can be adjusted to recalibrate a job, making it more engaging for the employee.

What is the purpose of the job characteristics model?

Oldham and Hackman were looking to reduce the boredom and monotony that comes from working in a factory setting. Instead of getting better and more productive as time passed, they found that employees were becoming bored and unengaged, and their performance dropped. This model helps turn jobs around.

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The job characteristics model can help an HR professional evaluate a job and make it better and more engaging. Managers can work with their employees to create a better situation for everyone–ultimately increasing engagement and productivity.

Sometimes jobs just “happen.” There is a lot of work to be done, so companies hire a new person but fail to conduct a job evaluation and create a position. Using Hackman and Oldham’s job characteristics model, you can sit down and design a job to be more effective.

Here are some of the ways that the job characteristics model can help organizations:

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It helps in creating job design strategies.

Unless your business consists of one solo practitioner, you have multiple people in multiple roles. Tasks assigned to each job can vary from position to position. With the job characteristics model, you look at all the functions and build various jobs around them.

For instance, you can bring in job rotation, which allows a bit of variety in everyone’s day. Or, you can work to simplify some tasks–especially ones that are tedious. You’ll have some areas you will want to expand and make more critical, and you’ll figure out where you need to include employee enrichment.

The job characteristics model recognizes that it’s not just about working today, but developing jobs for the future, so employee enrichment is a critical part of this model.

It improves job satisfaction.

When Human Resources and management work together with the job characteristics model, they design each job to increase job satisfaction. While it’s impossible to do away with all boring or monotonous tasks, this model can reduce those problems.

For example, your busy law firm may have enough work for one person to spend all day filing–a tedious and boring job. You might break that task up so that four people spend two hours per day filing and the other six doing more exciting tasks. The result is higher job satisfaction and better performance.

It enables job enrichment.

This step focuses on taking a regular job and adding additional tasks and assignments to make it a better job. Instead of focusing on making things as easy as possible, job enrichment makes it more motivating. Job enrichment can give purpose to the job. While the job characteristics model comes from the 1970s, it is still very timely. Younger workers place a high value on meaningful work, and job enrichment can do just that. 

Better delegation of tasks.

The job characteristics model uses job design to make jobs better. Jobs are broken down into specific tasks, and employees receive authority to carry those tasks out. This autonomy gives employees more control over their work environment and increases their job satisfaction.

Clear organizational information.

When everyone’s job description is a result of thorough job analysis with clear tasks and responsibilities, it is easier to manage the organization. You can see who is responsible for which duties. It can make general organizational design easier. 

It allows for straightforward performance appraisals and goal setting.

Because each job is designed rather than thrown together, setting goals and evaluating employee performance becomes more manageable in an organization that follows the job characteristics model.

Five core job characteristics in the job characteristics model

The five core job characteristics identified in Oldman and Hackman’s job characteristics theory and model are:

Skill variety This is the amount of variety in any one job. A grocery store cashier may have a job with little variety–they scan groceries and deals with customer inquiries all day. The store manager, on the other hand, need to apply a variety of skills to carry out their daily tasks. They may handle customer complaints, create employee schedules, order product, train new managers, and numerous other tasks.
Task identity Is there a beginning, middle, and end to a task? Can an employee tell where one task ends and another begins? Project-based jobs have high levels of task identity. How much of one task does any individual employee accomplish? For instance, if a designer designs an entire room, that has a higher task identity than just designing the window treatments.
Task significance What type of impact does this task have on the entire company or the customers? Jobs with higher task impact tend to have a broader reach. For example, a chief marketing officer’s work affects the whole company and has high task significance. 
Autonomy How much independence does this job have? Does a manager oversee every tiny thing, or is the employee trusted to accomplish the task? Higher task autonomy brings a feeling of ownership and responsibility. Lower levels of autonomy lead to feeling micromanaged and stifled.
Feedback How much does an employee know about their own performance? Feedback can come from traditional channels, such as manager feedback and customer satisfaction surveys. Or, feedback can come as a natural result of the work. If a janitor’s job is to clean the bathrooms, they can take a look at the bathroom and see how effective they are at their job. On the other hand, someone who works on a manufacturing line may not know how effective they were at their job until the quality assurance people step in and check the work.

Let’s have a look at how these core job characteristics translate into actual jobs:

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Primary school teacher

  • Skill variety. High. A primary school teacher works with multiple children and applies a multitude of skills on a daily basis. Every day there is a new challenge.
  • Task identity. This can depend on the school and the assignment. Each unit can have a beginning, middle, and end so that a teacher can see clear progress.
  • Task significance. While many would argue that a primary school teacher has incredibly high task significance, their impact may be limited to one class. In contrast, a school principal oversees many teachers, students, and grades and has a higher task significance.
  • Autonomy. A teacher who designs their curriculum has a high degree of autonomy. A teacher who must teach a pre-planned curriculum on a school administration schedule, using only rewards and punishments approved by the school board, will have a lower degree of autonomy.
  • Feedback. The primary school teacher receives feedback from a variety of sources. They can see the test scores and progress their students make. They also receive information from their supervisors and parents. All these things work together to provide a high degree of feedback.

Fast food worker

  • Skill variety. If the employee runs a cash register, takes orders, makes sandwiches, helps with inventory, and trains new hires, this job has a high degree of skill variety. If, on the other hand, they stand at the sandwich making station all day, it would be a low level of skill variety.
  • Task identity. This would vary greatly depending on the skill variety. Someone who spends the entire day in one station could have a beginning, middle, and an end but not feel responsible for the whole process.
  • Task significance. The typical fast-food worker makes very few decisions outside of a small set of tasks–should I make the sandwich first or fill the drink cup? These tasks have a low level of significance, as they do not affect the company as a whole.
  • Autonomy. With low variety, task identity, and task significance, this job also comes with low autonomy. The fast-food worker makes sandwiches according to a chart on the wall and fries french fries by pushing a pre-programmed button. 
  • Feedback. The fast-food worker receives feedback based on immediate responses from customers and coworkers. Managers also provide feedback.

HR Generalist

  • Skill variety. The HR generalist scores very high in skill variety, as they are responsible for employee relations, benefits management, employee compensation, and many other tasks daily, having to use multiple skills.
  • Task identity. While there is a strong identity associated with the title, there is very rarely a beginning, middle, and end. An HR generalist can never say, “all employees are engaged and happy, so I’m done with employee engagement tasks.”
  • Task significance. A good HR generalist can help make a company run smoothly. They can coach managers to be better, provide accurate information to the government, and help employees navigate difficult situations at work. A bad one can destroy the morale of the company. Therefore, task significance is high. 
  • Autonomy. This can vary greatly. An HR generalist who runs their department and reports to a supportive company president can have a high independence level. A company that limits the HR generalist’s work and undermines their suggestions can create a job with low autonomy.
  • Feedback. Feedback for an HR generalist can be difficult. Some successes or failures aren’t seen for years, if ever. What’s more, a non-HR supervisor may not understand what they accomplished and give limited feedback. As a result, this can be a difficult job for accurate feedback.

Psychological states and work outcomes

The original development of the job characteristics model searched for how to make jobs better so that employees can be happier and more productive at work. This model can help by affecting the employees’ psychological states. These include:

  • Experienced meaningfulness. When an employee feels that they accomplish something of value, meaningfulness is the result.
  • Experienced responsibility for outcomes. Using the job characteristics model and giving employees autonomy over their tasks, they can feel responsible for their work. If they accomplish the work successfully, that’s a positive psychological outcome.
  • Knowledge of the actual results. In larger companies or siloed organizations, employees often find it difficult to see the consequences of their actions. With good task identity and feedback, an employee can see their impact on the bigger organization.

The updated model defines the following work outcomes:

  • Internal work motivation. Employees whose jobs have been optimized under the job characteristics model feel responsible for their work and find it more meaningful. Therefore, their internal motivation increases.
  • Job satisfaction. Job satisfaction increases when employees experience autonomy, receive meaningful and timely performance, and feel their work is significant. This, in turn, leads to performance. 
  • Work performance. This was a key driver in developing the job characteristics model. The organizational psychologists wanted to increase performance through the careful use of these tools. Evaluating and optimizing jobs for each category improves performance.
  • Low absenteeism rate and turnover. Happy and engaged employees are more likely to come to work and less likely to quit. 
  • Quality and quantity of work. When applied effectively, this model can increase both the quality and quantity of work and employee satisfaction. It brings out the best results for employees and managers alike.

Bringing theory into practice

It’s easy to read about these practices, but it may feel overwhelming to remodel the entire company based on this model. You do not need to do everything at once–you can start with one job at a time.

For the primary school teacher, you can increase task identity by dividing the work among several teachers. By having one teacher teach all the second-grade students math while another tackles physical education, they can improve their identity, gain better feedback, and increase the autonomy (as far as their specific subject is concerned).

For a fast-food worker, you can increase variety by having employees learn each station and rotate through. So, someone may run a cash register on Monday, make sandwiches on Tuesday, and be in charge of the drive-through on Wednesday. This helps keep the job interesting.

The HR generalist can have an enriched job when management trusts them to decide how to approach their job. This increased autonomy will increase identity well.

For instance, by pulling the job characteristics model examples above, you can see how to maximize the model.

There are many different ways to enrich a job. Ask yourself the following questions:

  1. Are there tasks that can be combined to give variety?
  2. Are there tasks that can be separated and divided among employees to increase variety?
  3. Is a siloed function working (everyone on this team makes hamburgers), or would it increase variety, autonomy, and task significance if you had everyone responsible for creating a customer’s entire meal?
  4. Is there an opportunity for growth? Are the skills the employee develops with this job applicable to higher-level positions? If not, what tasks can you add to increase these skills?
  5. Are you providing proper feedback? Is natural feedback occurring? Allowing employees to see how their work fits into the larger picture can increase the feedback organically.
Putting the job characteristics model into practice means implementing various tactics to augment the core job dimensions.

Conclusion

The job characteristics model is a practical tool to analyze your organization’s jobs, which helps you improve your jobs, ultimately leading to increased motivation, satisfaction, and performance.

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