A 2012 survey conducted by Right Management found that 65 percent of workers in the U.S. and Canada were either “somewhat or totally unsatisfied” with their jobsi. That is millions of people investing thousands of hours a year in work they find unrewarding. The statistics beg the question: what is the relationship between job satisfaction and worker productivity? Analyzing decades of data and literature, researchers have shown numerous ways of explicating the relationship between satisfaction and performance, from casual, to reciprocal, spurious, and variable among others (Judge; 2001)ii.
At Portland State University, Dr. Liu-Qin Yang studies three ways workers ‘fit’ with their environments: individual characteristics, department/organizational factors, and social/cultural aspects. Yang is an industrial/organizational psychologist and Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychology. By using qualitative and quantitative data collection, sophisticated statistical analysis, and collaborating with researchers in the States, China, and many other countries in the world, Dr. Yang informs academia, the public and private sectors of the practices and methods that promote satisfaction, health, and wellbeing for employees and organizations alike.
Dr. Yang’s research focuses on a number of workplace experiences and their effects on worker health, productivity, and work relationships. She has studied the way personality influences how employees work as a team and their engagement with work. In one study, she investigated how employees with different personalities responded to their experience of interpersonal unfairness in the workplace with different frequencies of deviant behavior (actions intended to harm an organization and/or its members). Another project examined how experience of interactional unfairness triggered subjects' elevated levels of cortisol—a hormone released by the body in response to stress and then resulted in instances of deviant behavior by the target of unfair treatment, indicating a linkage between the hormone and employee actions. And in a cross-cultural comparative project, Dr. Yang and collaborators examined the complexity of work relationships between employees and their coworkers and supervisors at universities in the U.S. and China; data from this project have shown that the quality of such relationships is partially responsible for employees' levels of job attitudes and wellbeing, and frequencies of deviant work behavior. In general, Dr. Yang's studies improve our understanding of how work relationships influence employee health, job attitudes, and behaviors in the workplace.
Here in the Northwest, Dr. Yang leads a multi-year, multi-site study to address workplace aggression experienced by nurses in healthcare settings. Her studies indicate workplace aggression from patients/patients' families or coworkers, such as being pushed or yelled at, is rampant. Dr. Yang’s research suggests that the pervasiveness of such aggression has much to do with job dissatisfaction, safety-related issues, medical errors, turnover, and other negative outcomes associated with healthcare workers. Dr. Yang’s research team is working to prevent acts of aggression and improve workplace conditions for registered nurses and other healthcare workers. Their study project, “Aggression preventative supervisor behavior in nursing: A multi-level examination of preventing workplace aggression,” began in 2009, with the aim of understanding if and how organizational climate and the actions of supervisors, coworkers, and nurses predict reduction of aggression from different sources.
“My team has conducted a series of individual and focus group interviews among healthcare workers to better understand the aggression issue and possible preventative measures,” said Dr. Yang. “Further, we have worked with the Oregon Nurses Association and our colleague Dr. Nanette Yragui (Washinton State Department of Labor and Industries) to survey nurses and other healthcare workers in Oregon and Washington.
“We used the qualitative interview data and quantitative survey data to develop and validate an assessment tool of leadership and supervisor behaviors that workers thought decreased instances of workplace aggression. We’re trying to increase our understanding of the practices supervisors can enact to produce positive outcomes in the workplace. We’re also examining the workers’ own practices—what empowers and motivates them to end stressful or harmful situations in the workplace.”
The data Dr. Yang collects helps inform the development of future interventions that can improve employee workplace experiences, and further bring about better performance and wellbeing outcomes for workers and organizations.
Dr. Yang has also conducted research that examines the role of worker self-identity in predicting workers’ counterproductive work behavior such as stealing office equipment or coming in to work late without permission. According to Dr. Yang, there are some organizations where the effects of a strong sense of individualism can contribute to poor on-the-job performance. Airlines, as noted in one of Dr. Yang’s published studies, may operate better when their employees have a more collective sense of identity. Knowing that a particular type of employee trait fits best within an organization’s culture can help leaders and supervisors make informed employee selection and training choices.
“If our findings are corroborated by future research,” Dr. Yang said, “it will be viable to develop training sessions for supervisors that teach them to manage employees in ways that have positive influences. If, for example, a supervisor’s actions are relation-oriented, employees may identify with the supervisor more strongly. Further, when a supervisor encourages team goals and supportive team climate, it could promote a greater sense of unity amongst the employees and facilitate the team to accomplish challenging goals. This is one of the ways interventions can change the climate of the workplace.”
Understanding the mechanisms that act on job satisfaction and employee wellbeing is complicated: every organization has its own environmental, social, cultural, and organizational factors to consider. Employees identify with their roles within the overall workplace structure to varying degrees. Some are staunchly individualistic; others see themselves as a part of a collective. Dr. Yang works within the context of this abundance of variables, drawling lessons from quantitative and qualitative datasets, devising measures to increase worker health, safety, and job satisfaction, and adding to the collective knowledge of a young, but fast-growing branch of psychology. Through her research, Dr. Yang helps many in the workplace achieve their full potential.
ii. Judge, T. A., Thoresen, C. J., Bono, J. E., & Patton, G. K. (2001). The job satisfaction–job performance relationship: A qualitative and quantitative review. Psychological bulletin, 127(3), 376.