Thriving in the Workplace: The relationship autonomy, task identity, and mentoring have in job satisfaction

Jiang, Z., Di Milia, L., Jiang, Y., & Jiang, X. (2020). Thriving at work: A mentoring-moderated process linking task identity and autonomy to job satisfaction. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 118, 103373.

Summarized by Ariel Ervin

Notes of Interest: 

  • Many practitioners and researchers agree that wellness in the workplace is essential for organizational success and for employees’ mental health 
  • This study examines task identity and autonomy as precursors to thriving at work with job satisfaction as the outcome measure.
    •  Researchers also paid close attention to how mentoring functions as a mediator 
  • This article presents findings from two studies 
    • Study 1: The purpose of the first study is to examine the mediating role of thriving on job satisfaction as promoted by autonomy (which refers to the degree of freedom a job allows an individual to have) and task identity (the extent in which a position expects work to be completely finished by understanding the full scope of the task). Findings indicate that autonomy and task identity positively correlates with thriving, which in turn predicts job satisfaction 
    • Study 2: Purpose of the second study was to replicate the mediation mechanism of thriving on job satisfaction from Study 1. Findings showed that the quality of mentoring depletes the effect of task identity on thriving, as well as the indirect impact of task identity on job satisfaction, through thriving
      • In other words, people who undergo poor-quality mentoring are more likely to place more emphasis on job task identity in order to thrive more at work, as well as feel more satisfied about their positions
      • For people who experience high-quality mentoring, the mediation of thriving is weakened, but the overall mechanism of thriving still reinforces the general roles of autonomy and task identity in job satisfaction  
  • Results generally indicate that people, who identify with their job responsibilities and feel like they have a decent amount of their autonomy in their workplace thrive more, which can make that person feel more satisfied with their work. 

Introduction (Reprinted from the Abstract)

Building on two studies, this research explored thriving at work by considering task identity and autonomy as its antecedents and job satisfaction as its outcome, with a focus on the moderating role of mentoring. Through a three-wave survey conducted among 140 Chinese university students with volunteer work, Study 1 found that task identity and autonomy positively predicted thriving, which in turn was positively related to job satisfaction. This mediation effect of thriving was verified in Study 2 with a sample of 522 Australian student nurses undertaking a clinical placement job. Supporting the moderating role of mentoring, Study 2 also found that the effect of task identity on thriving as well as its indirect effect on job satisfaction via thriving became weaker when the quality of mentoring increased. These results not only offer important theoretical insights by confirming relatively new antecedents of thriving and their boundary condition (i.e., mentoring), but also generate practical implications regarding how to use motivating job characteristics and relational resources to foster positive individuals with enhanced well-being at work.

Implications (Reprinted from the Discussion)

First, this research enriches the socially-embedded model of thriving (Spreitzer et al., 2005) by confirming that thriving at work serves as a mediation process that transmits the positive effects of motivational job characteristics to enhance job satisfaction. By introducing job characteristics to empirically advance the socially-embedded thriving model, the present research also broadens the scope of contextual enablers for thriving, which are currently limited to decision making, information sharing, trust/respect climate (Spreitzer et al., 2005), workplace support (Zhai, Wang, & Weadon, 2017), and human resource practices (Taneva & Arnold, 2017). Specifically, our results suggest that individuals who identify more with their job tasks and who perceive more autonomy on the job thrive more at work. As a consequence, this heightened level of thriving could lead to increased job satisfaction. Indeed, these results have also reflected an integration of prior theoretical perspectives such as SDT (Ryan & Deci, 2000) and the job characteristics model (Hackman & Oldham, 1980). For example, the motivational functions of job characteristics, and those of task identity and autonomy in particular, may have facilitated individuals in fulfilling their psychological needs to stay thriving and satisfied at work. While the job characteristics–job satisfaction relationship (see studies summarized in Judge et al., 2000) and the thriving–job satisfaction relationship (Porath et al., 2012) have been reported separately, our findings extend prior research by verifying a more integrative model that relies on the thriving-based mediation mechanism to explain the impact of job characteristics on job satisfaction.

We found that task identity is more likely to motivate individuals who receive lower-quality mentoring to thrive, but the motivational role of task identity is less salient when they are well mentored. This finding is consistent with the mentoring theory (Kram, 1985) and SDT (Ryan & Deci, 2000), which collectively suggest that relational resources (e.g., high-quality mentoring) in work contexts could generate strong psychological nutriments that fulfill one’s needs in order to thrive, as could motivating job characteristics. High-quality mentoring functions provide mentees with psychological support in terms of building confidence, developing skills, and demonstrating a positive role model (Higgins & Kram, 2001). In light of SDT (Ryan & Deci, 2000), quality mentoring has the potential to build mentees’ feelings of competence, autonomy and relatedness. Therefore, as shown in our research, high-quality mentoring may shift individuals’ attention from task identity in the process of their pursuit of a thriving status. This role of mentoring in suppressing the effect of task identity is also in accordance with prior findings that the job itself matters less (more) in driving psychological responses when relational resources are rich (scarce) (Lentz & Allen, 2009; Van Emmerik, 2004). However, it appears that the effect of autonomy on thriving is not sensitive to the quality of mentoring. This observation indicates that the autonomy in a job may be such a powerful motivational force in driving individuals’ thriving experiences that its influence could persist whether or not an employee is well mentored.

Lastly, our research contributes to a complex but fine-grained understanding of the conditions under which thriving is more likely to serve as a mediation mechanism that links job characteristics (e.g., task identity) to job satisfaction. In light of the present findings regarding task identity, the moderating role of mentoring in the first-stage (i.e., the task identity–thriving relationship) of the mediation is powerful enough to extend to the entire mediation process. More specifically, under low-quality mentoring, thriving at work plays a strong role in explaining the positive relationship between task identity and job satisfaction. The implication is that poorly-mentored individuals are likely to place value on the task identity of their jobs in order to thrive in the workplace and thereby experience job satisfaction. In contrast, under high-quality mentoring, thriving at work still serves as a mechanism to explain the effect of task identity on job satisfaction, but its mediating role becomes less powerful. These findings may suggest that when relational resources are more limited or ineffective, the socially-embedded model of thriving (Spreitzer et al., 2005) tends to be more applicable. However, this view should be treated as indicative only, for whether or to what extent workplace thriving can explain the effect of autonomy on job satisfaction seems independent of mentoring. Clearly, the conditional effects of relational resources in the nomological network of thriving warrants further verification by considering a fuller range of antecedents of thriving, given that our research focuses only on job characteristics.


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