Monday, 13 January 2014

What does volunteering say about how much your job means to you, and how well you perform in it?

What motivates someone to volunteer? This question lies at the heart of Jessica Rodell's dissertation research, now published in the Academy of Management Journal. Rodell looked at two differing perspectives on why we take on meaningful activities outside of a paying job. Are we after something we can't get from our nine to five? Or is it that the meaning we taste in our job makes us hungry - voracious, even - for more?

Rodell's first study surveyed 208 people, students who also had jobs that occupied them on average 30 hours per week, all of whom had volunteered in the past year. In a first survey they rated the meaningfulness of their current job, and it trned out that more, not less, job meaning led to more volunteering, measured in a second survey. The second survey also included a measure of voracity for meaning, typified by the item 'I volunteer to acquire more of what I enjoy about my job' and the analysis suggested that this measure was the key mechanism: job meaning increases voracity which leads to more volunteering. 

This finding was replicated in a study of a further 173 participants - three quarters of whom were women, working mostly full-time hours, all of whom had volunteered in the past year. The study incorporated a few additional features. Job meaningfulness was now rated by co-workers in order to avoid self-report bias. And the meaning generated by volunteering - taken as read in the first study - was actually rated by participants. Regardless of how much meaning the volunteering offered, participants were likely to do more of it if their job was more meaningful.  Meaning-rich work doesn't satiate our hunger for meaning, but galvanises us to seek roles that might supply even a little more.

However, the analysis also revealed that when a participant was receiving little meaning from their job, their amount of volunteering was especially driven by how much meaning they felt it offered. So volunteering can also fill a deficit, in addition to feeding a nurtured appetite.

Rodell also asked co-workers to rate the work performance of their volunteering colleagues, who also rated their own absorption in their work. The data showed a relationship, with participants who volunteer more feeling more absorbed and their absorption being associated with better work performance. As with any such results, we should bear in mind that the personal traits that drive someone to volunteering may also influence their absorption, rather than the volunteering itself doing so, but the fact remains: those who volunteered more performed better - in terms of discretional activities, abstinence from unproductive behaviours, and the quality of their work. 

These results have practical implications for any organisation, as people from all walks of life volunteer. We already know that volunteering can help recover resources, and here we see its benefits for performance. And if a manager has cause to worry that volunteering suggests their employee would rather be elsewhere, in Rodell's words, 'the current results suggest that the opposite is more likely—that employee volunteering is an indication that their jobs have inspired them. In the alternative scenario, where employees believe they are lacking desired meaning in their jobs, volunteering may serve to compensate for that deficit.' So in many ways, volunteering is a win-win for organisations.

ResearchBlogging.orgJessica B Rodell (2013). Finding Meaning Through Volunteering: Why Do Employees Volunteer And What Does It Mean For Their Jobs? Academy of Management Journal, 56 (5), 1274-1294 DOI: 10.5465/amj.2012.0611

Further reading:
Clary, E. G., & Snyder, M. 1999. The motivations to volunteer: Theoretical and practical considerations. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 8: 156 –159.

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