PhD Proposal – Assessing the Personal-Relational Equilibrium Model in the Public and Private Sectors: a Qualitative Study of Employees in Two Large Organisations.
A proposal for a PhD which draws upon the personal-relational equilibrium model designed by Kumashiro et al (2008) as a way of analyzing data to be collected from employees. Workers in the public and private sectors are compared in terms of their attitudes to personal and relational issues and the relationship between these. The proposal sets out the research context, explains why the area is important, and suggests a methodology for collecting and analyzing the data.
The current economic recession has seen many changes in working practices for employees, whether in the private or the public sector. Employees are increasingly dissatisfied in their work, with approximately half of UK employees saying they are unhappy in their role, according to a recent study (Mercer 2011). As such, there is a continuing need to understand the factors which motivate employees in work. The public sector is under particular pressure in the UK due to cuts in funding and consequent job losses (Stewart 2012).
There is therefore an advantage to carrying out this study. It will help develop a more adequate understanding of what makes employees happy in work, more productive and more motivated. The study is therefore of benefit to both employers and to academics.
Kumashiro et al (2008) put forward a new model to explain motivation, suggesting that people seek a balance between personal and relational concerns. However, this model is relatively untested, and has not yet been applied to employees. This research proposal sets out a study which compares the experiences of public and private sector workers in terms of their experience of personal and relational equilibrium. The academic context for the study is described, and a methodology suggested. Finally, limitations and some other points are explored.
2. Academic Context
Kumashiro et al (2008) introduced a concept of personal-relational equilibrium, and developed a model which suggests that the need to balance personal aims (career, personal life, etc.) against interpersonal goals (romantic relationships, family and friends) is something carried out continually by all individuals. They also suggest that the self-regulation involved in this model can take two forms. On one hand, self-regulation can take the form of personal concerns, that is, actions which serve individual ends, motivated by the need for autonomy or power over others, and focused upon personal goals including that of improving the self. On the other hand, there are relational concerns, which are actions designed to further relationships of one kind or another (driven by, for example, the need to belong or for more intimacy, and with goals including supporting a partner). The model of personal-relational equilibrium also predicts that people are motivated by the desire to maintain a balance between the two spheres, although the balance can vary from person to person. In practice, it is predicted, when an individual’s balance between personal and relational concerns is incorrect (that is, they are in a state of disequilibrium), they will act to reinstate the ideal balance (Aarts and Elliot 2011), as it is not always possible for both sets of needs to be satisfied simultaneously (Kumashiro et al 2008).
According to Kumashiro et al (2008) people ’regulate tradeoffs between potentially competing classes of concern‘ (Kumashiro et al 2008, p. 96). They bring about a balance by developing adaptations and acquiring strategies of regulation. The authors propose an ’optimal equilibrium standard,’ or individual interpretation of three variables (these being the importance given to personal and relational domains, the extent to which the domains are perceived as compatible, and the extent to which the individual is sensitive to disequilibrium).
The model seems useful, as it offers a way to combine the benefits of a number of other theories of human behaviour. For example, it embraces the idea, popularized by Maslow and others (Maslow 1943), that humans are motivated by distinct needs, for example the need for shelter, the need for respect from others and the need for self-actualisation. It also acknowledges work on the role played by social concerns in shaping human behaviour, for example Bakan’s (1966) analysis (and subsequent exploration by McAdams 1997) of the difference between communion (the individual’s need to be part of a larger whole, merge with others, and have intimate and close relationships with others) against the tendency of individuals towards agency (the separation of self from others to attain self-assertion and power) (Bakan 1966; McAdams 1997).
Although the personal-relational equilibrium model has only been in existence for 4 years, a number of studies, devised by Kumashiro et al (2008), provide empirical evidence. One study looked at the individual’s potential for future personal and relational disequilibrium and its impact upon motivation; another examined the consequences of personal-relational disequilibrium; a third investigated the pursuit of personal goals; and a fourth study considered whether disequilibrium predicts changes in indices of well-being (Kumashiro et al 2008). However, despite the existence of these studies, there remain many uninvestigated areas. For example, in Kumashiro et al’s studies, the participants are mainly undergraduates. While the results are interesting, there is a need for further studies to look at the model in the context of employment and HR.Additionally, all the research material so far seems to have been provided by Kumashiro et al (documented in the 2008 paper where the model is also introduced) rather than verified across a number of studies by different researchers.
There is, therefore, a need to carry out empirical studies of this area, not only generally but also across the field of employment motivation and human relations. Another area of particular interest is the extent to which this model can explain differences between the private sector and the public sector. Intuitively, it might be assumed that individuals who work in the public sector are more altruistic and socially minded than those in the private sector, and this seems, to some extent, to be supported by research (Corriere 2008; Brewer et al 2000). However, existing research focuses on alternative models of human behaviour. For example, Manolopoulos and Paraskevi (2008) found that public sector workers in Greece preferred extrinsic to intrinsic rewards. So far, no studies have looked at the extent to which Kumashiro et al’s model (2008) could potentially shed light on the perceptions of public sector and private sector employees towards personal or relational direction.
3. Research Questions
It is therefore proposed that this dissertation will investigate the differences between the way employees in the private and public sectors view the equilibrium between personal and relational concerns. Expressed as a research question, this can be stated as follows:
Do workers in the private and public sectors view the ideal equilibrium between personal and relational concerns similarly, or differently?
This broad question can be divided into sub-questions as follows:
What is the importance given to personal domains and relational domains by individuals working in the public sector and those working in the private sector?
To what extent are the personal domain and the relational domain perceived as compatible, and does this differ dependent upon whether the person works in the public, or the private sector?
To what extent are individuals sensitive to disequilibrium between the personal and relational domains, and does this differ dependent upon whether the person works in the public, or the private sector?
The proposed study assumes a post-positivist research philosophy. Post-positivist research can be seen as an extension of positivism. Positivism was first proposed by Auguste Comte as a research method suitable for the social sciences. It shares key assumptions with the natural sciences, for example the assumption of an objective world about which facts can be known, and the assumption that the scientific method provides a model for how knowledge comes about. Positivism assumes that hypotheses about the world, determined in advance of research designed to test them, can be tested by observation (Hammond and Wellington 2012). Positivism is frequently associated with quantitative research and the collection and analysis of numerical data (VanderStoep and Johnson 2008). Post-positivism shares many of the assumptions of positivism, for example that objective knowledge is possible, but allows more scope for subjectivity and holds that while reality is objective, our subjective experience of it is ever-changing and dependent upon individual perspectives, and as such our knowledge is fallible (Saini and Shlonsky 2012).
The proposed research aims to identify the way the personal and relational domains apply across different employment sectors, and in doing so to provide a body of knowledge which can be shared by others and tested across different situations. However, the aim is also to examine the subjective experience of employees. As such, the post-positivist approach was felt to be most fruitful. Interpretivist approaches to research, under which there is no objective world independent of human experience (and which knowledge is always relative to subjective experience) (Cryer 2006), is rejected.
The study will gather qualitative data, that is, information collected in the form of text, rather than numbers. Qualitative research allows a more detailed and richer insight into human experience, rather than the broad sweep allowed by quantitative methods (Babbie 2010). However, it has the disadvantage that it can be less reliable and verifiable than numerical data, particularly when the latter is subject to statistical testing (Rubin and Babbie 2009). Because the proposed study is designed to examine employees experience of balancing relational and personal concerns, it was determined that the disadvantages of qualitative methods were outweighed by the advantages.
The study will employ the use of primary research data, specifically through semi-structured group interviews (focus group discussions). Two groups will be interviewed: (a) a group of employees in a sales department from the private sector, and (b) a group of employees dealing with vulnerable members of the public from the public sector. It is expected that public sector employees have daily personal contact with the elderly, disadvantaged youth, or people with mental health difficulties.
The interviews will be loosely guided by a set of questions, designed to cover areas involved in the personal-relational equilibrium model described above, for example, what facets of the personal and relational domains are important to respondents, and the extent of sensitivity to disequilibrium. Semi-structured interviews were chosen to allow respondents to give more detail in their answers than might be the case for structured interviews, and to allow the researcher more flexibility in responding to topics as they develop in the group. They were chosen over unstructured interviews as the researcher is relatively inexperienced and it is suggested that semi-structured interviews allow some guidance for the interviewer (Babbie 2010).
Purposive rather than probability sampling techniques will be used (Dawson 2002). The researcher will first contact large (over ?1,000,000 turnover) private sector companies, and public sector agencies in appropriate fields, to assess interest in taking part in the study. Once two bodies have agreed to take part, 5 to 6 respondents from each will be selected, with the Human Resource departments as a first point of contact. Because it is anticipated that it will be relatively difficult to secure co-operation (the face-to-face interviews will take more time than a questionnaire distributed by email), the first 5 or 6 employees who agree to take part will be included as respondents. The criteria for selecting respondents is therefore fairly loose, in order to ensure that sufficient people agree to take part. If, in the event, there is a great deal of interest in taking part, more restrictive criteria might be considered. Everyone who takes part will be informed of the purposes of the research, their right to withdraw at any time, and what will happen to data collected. They will also be assured that their answers will be confidential. Each participant will be asked to sign a form to agree that they understand what they are doing and that they give consent for their replies to be used. The respondents will also be assured of anonymity and that any personal information will be kept confidential.
The interviews will be audio-recorded and the recording transcribed. Thematic analysis will be used to analyze interview results. The data collected will be coded into key themes and ideas. The data will be re-examined in terms of these categories, and new categories can added and existing ones refined. This method was chosen as it is relatively open, and allows themes to emerge from the data in response to what respondents said. It is also flexible and easy to learn, and can be used by researchers with little experience. However, it is important to be aware of bias introduced by the researcher, and to make sure the analysis remains clear and focused (Braun and Clarke 2006). The more structured method of framework analysis, in which codes and categories are devised before the data is collected, was rejected (Green and Browne 2005). The data thus extracted from the interviews will be set in the context of the extended literature review.
5. Scope and Limitations
There are some obstacles to the research. In terms of the literature review, because the Kumashiro et al (2008) model has been in existence for only 4 years, there is only a limited number of research studies exploring the model. In order to counter this, the literature review will look at a broad range of empirical studies that investigate employee motivation. Additionally, as the model is quite new, it might be argued that it provides only limited insight into employee motivation. This will be addressed by considering the wider research context in the literature review, including general theories of employee motivation, particularly theories of agency and community, which influenced the Kumashiro model.
There are also some practical obstacles. It may be difficult to achieve the agreement of large organisations to the research, as they might not have the time to take part in the study or they might be reluctant to allow their staff to disclose details about how happy or unhappy they feel at work. It is anticipated that this can be overcome by contacting a larger number of organisations and by carefully explaining the benefits of conducting this study.
The above has set out a proposal for a PhD study. The study looks at the equilibrium between personal and relational concerns using a model suggested by Kumashiro et al (2008). The proposal above gives a brief overview of the academic context and explains the methodology which will be used in the study. Finally the scope and limitations are considered.
Aarts, H and Elliot, A J (2011) Goal Directed Behaviour, Psychology Press, Bristol
Babbie, E R (2010) The Basics of Social Research (5th edn.), Cengage Learning, Mason, CA
Bakan, D (1966) The duality of human existence: Isolation and communion in Western man, Beacon Press, Boston
Braun, V and Clarke, V (2006) ‘Using thematic analysis in psychology’ Qualitative Research in Psychology 3:2,77-101
Brewer, G A, Selden, S C and Facer II, R L (2000) ‘Individual Conceptions of Public Service Motivation’, Public Administration Review, 60, 254–264
Corriere, M A (2008) Public Service Motivation and Leadership Styles in Military Medicine, ProQuest, USA
Cryer, P (2006) The Research Student’s Guide to Success (3rd edn.),
McGraw-Hill International, USA
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Manolopoulos, D and Paraskevi, A (2008) ‘An evaluation of employee motivation in the extended public sector in Greece’, Employee Relations, 30:1,
Maslow, A H (1943). ‘A Theory of Human Motivation’, Psychological Review 50:4, 370-96.
McAdams D P (1997) Stories we live by: Personal myths and the making of the self, Guildford, New York.
Mercer (2011) “What’s Working”, Mercer, London.
Rubin, A and Babbie, E R (2009) Essential Research Methods for Social Work (2nd edn.),Cengage Learning, Mason, CA
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Oxford University Press, Oxon
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Kumashiro, M, Rusbult, C E and Finkel, E J (2008) ‘Navigating personal and relational concerns: The quest for equilibrium’, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 95:1, 94-110
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