In the 1970s and 1980s, an abundance of psychological research was being conducted investigating what factors cause people to feel connections towards their workplace. The results manifested in organizational commitment theory, which divided commitment into two categories: attitudinal commitment and behavioral commitment. Academics Lyman W. Porter and Richard M. Steers defined attitudinal commitment as a mindset where individuals consider whether their goals and values are congruent with their employing organizations. They defined behavioral commitment as the process through which an individual’s past behavior binds them to their organization. For example, behavioral commitment can be as simple as signing a job offer, as it can make someone feel committed to their work.3
In 1990, Canadian organizational psychologists Dr. John Meyer and Dr. Natalie J. Allen believed that the existing model of organizational behavior was lacking. They identified three distinct ways individuals could feel psychologically committed to their organization, with each one being the result of a different emotion.4
The pair suggested that individuals, as a result of need, feel a sense of continuance commitment. Continuance commitment refers to how much people feel as though they have to stay at their organization. It was first defined in 1970 by sociologist Robert Stebbins as “the awareness of the impossibility of choosing a different social identity […] because of the immense penalties involved in making the switch.” 4 This need to stay may be caused by financial circumstances or a lack of other work prospects. Essentially, the perceived costs of leaving the company make employees stay. While continuance commitment does make employees stay at their job, they do so out of a sense of compulsion, which can cause them to feel dissatisfied with their work.1
Meyer and Allen also proposed that people become bonded to work as a result of obligation, which they called normative commitment. Normative commitment is similar to continuance commitment, as it depends on the degree to which employees feel as though they must stay at their company. However, the basic driving motivation behind the commitment differs. Normative commitment spawns from feelings of guilt, rather than someone wanting to continue fulfilling basic needs. Normative commitment occurs because employees feel that leaving their company would hinder its performance or put added pressure on colleagues. It stems from our sense of morality; we might feel that the right thing to do is stay at the company. While guilt can extend an employee’s longevity at a company, it can also cause stress and dissatisfaction at work.1
Finally, individuals can demonstrate commitment as a result of individual desire. Affective commitment describes how people can show affection and commit to their organization because they believe it upholds similar values to their own. This positive emotional commitment to one’s company can increase job satisfaction. People stay because they truly want to, not because of a sense of need or obligation.5
Meyer and Allen believed all three forms of commitment occur as the result of a psychological state, rather than any concrete or tangible attachment. Furthermore, whichever one is felt will characterize an employees’ relationship to their organization, and can have implications for their long-term commitment to the organization. The three are not mutually exclusive; employees likely feel a combination of these components of commitment. 4
Meyer and Allen stated that there were many different factors that act as antecedents to commitment, which impact what sense of commitment someone feels. These antecedents included personal characteristics, previous work experiences, workplace culture, and side investments.4 For example, someone who tends to feel threatened by authority might have a stronger sense of normative commitment. On the other hand, someone with strong financial investments might feel less continuance commitment, as their finances aren’t completely tied to their work. Someone who has numerous positive experiences with their boss might feel greater affective commitment. Further factors that can influence how likely an individual is to feel these different psychological commitments include differences in gender, age, and ethnicity.