Unlocking Employee Motivation with the Job Characteristics Model

Written By Sophia Thomson
Organizational psychologists J. Richard Hackman and Greg Oldham.

Meet Sarah, an administrative assistant at a large accounting firm. She spends her days in a small cubicle, repeatedly entering data into spreadsheets – the same mind-numbing tasks day after day. Sarah dreads waking up for work each morning, counting down the minutes until she can clock out each afternoon. Her productivity has plummeted, and she has started calling in sick more frequently just to avoid the office.

Unfortunately, Sarah’s experience is all too common. Many employees feel disengaged and unmotivated by repetitive, boring job duties that provide little challenge or meaning. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Job characteristics theory provides a framework for diagnosing and redesigning jobs to be more engaging for employees like Sarah, resulting in better work related outcomes.

Developed in the 1970s by organizational psychologists J. Richard Hackman and Greg Oldham, the model outlines five core job characteristics that contribute to an employee’s psychological state and motivation level: skill variety, task identity, task significance, autonomy, and feedback. When these five components are optimized, studies show that employees experience greater meaning, responsibility, and knowledge of results in their roles. Human performance increases, leading to positive outcomes, including improved job satisfaction, increased motivation, higher performance, and reduced absenteeism.

In this article, we’ll explore how each of the five job characteristics impacts motivation according to the model. We’ll also discuss strategies managers can use to enrich jobs by enhancing these five factors. With small, incremental changes, we can create roles where employee satisfaction thrives. Let’s get started unlocking the full potential of your team!

What is the Job Characteristics Model?

The job characteristics model was developed in the 1970s by organizational psychologists J. Richard Hackman and Greg Oldham. During this time, many jobs had become overly simplified and systematized in an effort to maximize efficiency and productivity. However, this led to unchallenging, monotonous work that often left employees feeling unmotivated and dissatisfied.

Hackman and Oldham sought to address this issue by studying how certain job characteristics impact motivation. Their research led to the job characteristics model and theory, which outlines five core job dimensions that contribute to internal work motivation. These include:

Skill Variety

This refers to the degree to which a job requires an employee to use different skills, talents, and abilities. Jobs that require a greater variety of skills are likely to be more meaningful and intrinsically motivating. In contrast, repetitive jobs with little demand for skill variety can lead to boredom.

Task Identity

The degree to which a job involves completing an identifiable piece of work from start to finish. Employees tend to feel more engaged when they fully own a task and can see the tangible results of their efforts, as opposed to only working on a fragment of a project.

Task Significance

How substantially the job impacts other people, whether inside or outside the organization. Employees often find more meaning when their work benefits others beyond just themselves. Understanding the broader impact provides purpose.


The level of freedom and independence an employee has in carrying out work activities. Jobs that allow for more autonomy satisfy an employee’s need for control and self-direction. In contrast, tightly monitored jobs can feel constraining.


The degree to which the job provides clear information about the employee’s performance. Regular feedback enables employees to adjust efforts to improve outcomes. Lack of feedback can leave employees guessing about effectiveness.

According to the model, these five characteristics impact employee motivation through three critical psychological states:

Experienced Meaningfulness – The extent to which the employee feels the job is worthwhile, valuable, and important.

Experienced Responsibility – How personally accountable and responsible the employee feels for the results of their work.

Knowledge of Results – The degree to which the employee knows how effectively they are performing their job.

The five core characteristics are combined into a motivating potential score (MPS) calculated as follows:

MPS = (Skill Variety + Task Identity + Task Significance) / 3 x Autonomy x Feedback

This formula demonstrates that autonomy and feedback have an outsized impact on motivation compared to the other three factors. Optimizing these two areas can dramatically increase an employee’s motivation potential.

In summary, Hackman and Oldham’s job characteristics model demonstrated that when jobs are redesigned to score highly on these five characteristics, employees experience meaningfulness, responsibility, and knowledge of results. This leads to higher workplace motivation, satisfaction, and an improvement in organizational behavior – the key outcomes the model aims to achieve.

Applying the Model in Real Jobs

The job characteristics model is a practical framework that can be applied to any role in an organization. A job diagnostic survey can highlight areas for improvement. By analyzing the five core components, managers can pinpoint deficiencies and enrich jobs to be more satisfying and engaging.

Let’s examine how the model can be used across three very different jobs:

Elementary School Teacher

Skill variety – Teaching requires a broad range of skills, including instructional, interpersonal, classroom management, assessment, and more. Most teachers rely on a diverse skill set daily.

Task identity – Lesson planning, instruction, and evaluating student work provides task identity. Teachers own the full learning process.

Task significance – Shaping young minds has tremendous significance, though limited to one classroom.

Autonomy – Autonomy depends on the school. Strict requirements may limit teacher discretion over curriculum.

Feedback – Teachers receive feedback from test scores, supervisors, and parent engagement.

To optimize motivation, schools could offer more curriculum autonomy while ensuring best practices are shared between teachers. Additional training opportunities also promote growth and feedback.

Fast Food Worker

Skill variety – Limited skill variety if focused only on one station, like the fryer or cashier.

Task identity – The Assembly line approach divides work into fragments. No holistic product ownership.

Task significance – Low impact on customers and restaurant success.

Autonomy – Strict rules limit worker discretion. Reliant on manager instructions.

Feedback – Minimal feedback outside of customer complaints.

This job could be enriched by cross-training employees in all stations to increase variety and task identity. Giving workers more discretion over quality checks and inventory also boosts autonomy and significance. Adding performance metrics provides feedback.

HR Generalist

Skill varietyHR roles demand a wide range of capabilities, from recruiting to compensation analysis.

Task identity – Complete ownership of employee programs and workflows.

Task significance – HR decisions impact the whole company. High significance.

Autonomy – Autonomy varies based on organizational structure. Usually moderate discretion.

Feedback – The impact of HR initiatives may take years to materialize, making feedback difficult.

Additional employee surveys and pulse checks would provide more feedback about HR’s impact. Involving the generalist in strategic planning gives more autonomy over long-term workforce direction.

In summary, the model gives us a framework to diagnose any job and assist in job design research. We can identify weaker areas among the five characteristics and tailor job enrichment efforts like training, teamwork, and increased employee input to heighten motivation potential. With incremental improvements, managers can develop roles where employees thrive.

Strategies to Implement the Job Characteristics Model

The job characteristics model provides a roadmap for enriching roles to improve motivation and performance. While wholesale job redesign may not be feasible, managers can implement small changes that go a long way. Here are some common tactics:

Push Tasks Down the Organization

Empowering employees by delegating tasks pushes responsibility and autonomy to lower organizational levels. Although counterintuitive, this distribution of control often increases accountability and engagement among frontline workers. Assigning discrete projects with clear deliverables is ideal.

Increase Task Variety

Build in task and skill variety by cross-training employees in different roles or responsibilities. Job rotation programs are a systematic approach to avoid monotony. Just be sure to provide proper training before employees take on new activities.

Implement Job Enlargement

Similar to job rotation, job enlargement expands the scope of a role by adding new, value-adding tasks. This increases identity and significance. For example, clerical workers could take on data analysis, giving them ownership over actionable insights.

Use Autonomous Teams

Reorganize individual jobs into self-directed teams that manage their own workflows and assignments. Teams should have visibility into how their work fits into departmental or organizational objectives to boost significance.

Facilitate Employee-Customer Interactions

Employees gain a deeper understanding of their impact when they engage directly with customers. Insights from the customer experience provide meaningful feedback. This could involve client meetings, user panels, or customer surveys.

Provide Ongoing Performance Feedback

Create mechanisms for regular employee feedback beyond just annual performance reviews. This includes daily check-ins, project debriefs, skill assessments, monthly one-on-ones, and more. Feedback should be clear, constructive, and tied to goals.

Ask for Employee Input

Seek employee input on boosting autonomy and ownership. Identify areas where they may want more control or opportunities to demonstrate different skills. Implement suggested changes when possible and explain why if not.

While wholesale job redesign may not be feasible, small enhancements make a difference over time. The key is focusing on the job characteristics model’s dimensions of autonomy and feedback. Getting these two elements right unlocks motivation and performance potential.

Outcomes of Effective Job Design

When managers successfully apply the job characteristics model to enrich roles, employees and organizations reap significant rewards. By tuning jobs to increase skill variety, task significance, autonomy, and feedback, employees gain greater meaning and control over their work. This unlocks key outcomes, including:

Increased Internal Motivation

Employees experience higher intrinsic motivation when their job aligns with the core characteristics. Internal desire to perform comes from within rather than relying on external rewards and pressures. This type of motivation drives greater engagement.

Greater Satisfaction

Employees feel more satisfied and fulfilled when they find their job to be meaningful, are accountable for results, and understand their effectiveness. Higher satisfaction reduces frustration and burnout risk.

Improved Performance

With increased skills, freedom, and purpose, employees exert greater discretionary effort, make better decisions, and produce higher-quality work. Performance accelerates when employees are motivated to do their best.

Reduced Absenteeism

Bored, dissatisfied employees are more likely to miss work. When jobs are engaging, employees want to show up consistently. This improves productivity, continuity, and workplace culture.

Lower Turnover

Nothing disrupts organizational performance like high turnover. But when employees feel connected to their team and empowered by their job, they are less likely to leave. This saves significant replacement and training costs.

Boost to Entire Organization

The positive ripple effects of thoughtful job design spread throughout the company. Innovation accelerates, collaboration improves, and customer satisfaction increases thanks to motivated, thriving employees.

However, it’s important to note that individual differences affect how employees respond to enriched jobs. Moderating factors like growth needs and skills determine the degree to which enhancements impact motivation and performance.

Employees with high growth needs are more receptive to job upgrades leveraging autonomy and skill development. Providing contextual support like coaching and communication enables all employees to benefit from role changes.

In summary, optimizing the five core job dimensions pays dividends through a more dedicated, productive workforce. The beauty of the model is that even minor job tweaks can have an outsized impact on performance when aligned with the characteristics that truly drive engagement.

Unlocking Employee Potential

The job characteristics model gives us a research-backed framework for designing motivating, satisfying roles that bring out the best in employees. By tuning the five core components of skill variety, task identity, significance, autonomy, and feedback, managers can reshape jobs to drive engagement and performance. While a wholesale redesign may not be possible, even small enhancements to focus on autonomy and feedback make a big difference. Equipped with the model, managers can pinpoint problem areas and implement changes like cross-training, role expansion, and increased employee input. Remember Sarah from the beginning of the article? After her manager worked with HR to implement some of the strategies discussed, Sarah was cross-trained to take on some basic HR duties like new hire onboarding. She also joined a workplace committee to provide input on software improvements. These changes boosted her skill variety, autonomy, and task significance. With a monthly one-on-one added for feedback, Sarah feels re-energized and motivated again. The job characteristics model provides a blueprint to create roles where employees thrive and reach their full potential. Investing time upfront to thoughtfully design each job pays off exponentially through performance. Evaluate where your teams may be lacking autonomy, feedback, or meaning. Then, make incremental improvements. With the right job design, your employees will be ready to succeed.