The Social Construction of PE Fit

Jon Billsberry, Danielle Talbot, Brenda Hollyoak

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingConference proceedingpeer-review


The Social Construction of PE Fit There has been some considerable debate in the PE fit literature as to how research to date has progressed understanding of the subject. Edwards (2008, p. 218) notes that “theoretical progress in P-E fit research during the past century has been meagre” and Judge acknowledges “a certain methodological stalemate in fit research” (2007, p. 419, emphasis in original). This paper puts forward the argument that taking a different epistemological view of organisational fit will further understanding of the concept and that new perspectives can be gained by seeking an idiographic perspective. Meta-analyses of PE fit research (Verquer et al, 2003; Arthur et al, 2006; Hoffman & Woehr, 2006; Kristof-Brown & Guay, 2010) show that researchers have investigated organisational fit from a number of different angles, studying subjective fit as compared to objective fit; recruiters’, job applicants’ and employees’ fit perceptions; supplementary and complementary fit; needs-supplies fit and demands-abilities fit to give some key examples. Personality, values, knowledge, skills and abilities have all been used as measures for how well an individual fits with an employer. These different approaches reflect not only the distinct research questions addressed by PE fit studies but also the differing epistemological positions from which the research has been approached. The majority of organisational fit studies have to date had an underpinning positivist stance (e.g. Cable & Judge, 1996; Chatman, 1991; Judge & Cable, 1997), where the researcher remains neutral whilst testing theories and hypotheses on large samples with the aim of generating generalizable findings (Easterby-Smith, Thorpe, & Lowe, 2002). Some studies, such as Kristof-Brown’s (2000), take a relativist epistemological view, triangulating findings from both quantitative and qualitative studies. Very few, (an exception being Billsberry, Ambrosini, Marsh, Moss-Jones, & Van Meurs, 2005), seek to expose how fit is socially constructed. The positivist epistemological position from which the majority of studies have approached the study of PE fit “holds that there is a straightforward one-to-one relationship between things and events in the outside world and people’s knowledge of them” (Stainton-Rogers, 2006, p. 80). As such, researchers have taken the view that it is possible to show the objective reality of how attributes held by an individual match those held by an organisation. This has led to a tendency towards theory-led research which, for example, suggests that optimal fit results from a match between the individual and the organisational environment and that this leads to positive affective outcomes (e.g. Chatman, 1991). Such studies are underpinned by the notion that “there is a straightforward relationship between the world (objects, events, phenomena) and our perception, and understanding, of it” (Willig, 2001, p. 3). However, inconsistencies and contradictions in PE fit theory have been identified such as where the correspondence or matching of the person and environment does not lead to the maximisation of affective outcomes (Edwards & Cable, 2009). Additionally, it can be argued that all PE fit studies are dependent on people’s perceptions of their, or others’, match to or compatibility with the organisational environment. Meta-analyses of the organisational fit literature have reported that direct measures of perceived fit have stronger effects on affective outcomes than indirect, supposedly ‘objective’ measures (Kristof-Brown et al, 2005; Kristof-Brown & Guay, 2010) . With perceived fit “the assessment is all done in the head of the respondents” (Kristof-Brown et al, 2005, p. 291) and the lack of clarity as to how organisational fit may be conceptualised, measured and delineated may be due to a lack of understanding of the cognitive processes that underpin the “in the head” fit assessments being made by individuals at work. It is argued here that approaching organisational fit research from a predominantly positivist epistemological viewpoint limits understanding of the person-environment relationship, in particular, precisely how and why people cognitively arrive at perceptions of organisational fit or misfit. Taking a social constructivist view, where “the process of understanding is not automatically driven by the forces of nature, but is the result of an active, cooperative enterprise of persons in relationship” (Gergen, 1985, p. 267) gives a different perspective on fit research; one where fit is construed rather than existing as an objective reality. Individuals make sense of their experience at work and the ways in which they fit and misfit by sharing their thoughts and feelings through communication with others. One of the reasons that explanatory research, where the aim is to reduce the complexity of individuals’ organisational fit to one, universal law, struggles to arrive at explanatory theory (Edwards, 2009), is because it is not possible to accommodate the complexity and detail of people’s organisational fit experiences. Constructionist methods however, allow for explicatory research which “involves deliberately looking for ‘the irritating little bits and bats that can not be neatly accommodated within pre-existing theoretical frameworks’” (Stainton-Rogers, 2006, p. 85). Our presentation aims to shed light on the benefits to PE research of identifying employees’ experience of fit and misfit without imposing pre-conceived frameworks. This will be illustrated with examples of research where idiographic data from employees was gathered using causal mapping. Idiographic causal mapping is a particularly appropriate tool for eliciting how individuals perceive the factors affecting their fit and misfit at work without externally imposed boundaries or prompts. Although there is a clear distinction between idiographic and nomothetic research designs, it has been argued that idiographic studies can give rich insights to suggest what may be relevant not just to the individuals, but larger populations (e.g. Zevon & Tellegen, 1982). We will argue that taking an interpretive approach, so that individuals’ experience and perceptions of fit and misfit are the focus of attention (Locke & Golden-Biddle, 2002), will open up new avenues for nomothetic PE fit research.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationAcademy of Management Journal - AMJ
Publication statusUnpublished - 12 Aug 2011


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