Coping With Conflict: Examining the Influence of PSM on Perceptions of Workplace Stressors

AuthorEdmund C. Stazyk,Emily Neuhoff,Allysha Kochenour,Randall S. Davis
Published date01 September 2020
Date01 September 2020
Subject MatterArticles
Review of Public Personnel Administration
2020, Vol. 40(3) 405 –425
© The Author(s) 2018
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/0734371X18820096
Coping With Conflict:
Examining the Influence
of PSM on Perceptions of
Workplace Stressors
Randall S. Davis1, Edmund C. Stazyk2,
Allysha Kochenour1, and Emily Neuhoff1
While the presence and degree of workplace stress poses a significant problem for
organizations in all sectors, scholarship frequently acknowledges that responses to
workplace stress vary significantly across individuals. However, public sector human
resource management (HRM) research, relative to generic HRM research, invests
comparatively less attention toward understanding individual differences in response
to perceived stressors. We employ the relational model of stress developed by
Matteson and Ivancevich and Lazarus to examine how one dispositional characteristic
commonly examined in public sector HRM research, public service motivation (PSM),
influences the stress process. Results obtained using data from the 2010 U.S. Merit
Principles Survey reveal that individuals with higher than average PSM experience
more pronounced negative emotions when they perceive heightened workplace
conflict, which subsequently increases their intent to separate from the organization.
job stress, public service motivation, job satisfaction, turnover/organizational mobility,
labor relations
Although not widely examined in public sector human resource management (HRM)
scholarship, occupational stress represents a significant problem for organizations.
Researchers often characterize occupational stress as a workplace epidemic that
1Southern Illinois University, Carbondale, USA
2University at Albany, NY, USA
Corresponding Author:
Randall S. Davis, Department of Political Science, Southern Illinois University, 1000 Faner Drive, Mail
Code 4501, Carbondale, IL 62901, USA.
820096ROPXXX10.1177/0734371X18820096Review of Public Personnel AdministrationDavis et al.
406 Review of Public Personnel Administration 40(3)
degrades the physical and psychological health of employees (Cavanaugh, Boswell,
Roehling, & Boudreau, 2000; Dawson, O’Brien, & Beehr, 2016; Matteson &
Ivancevich, 1987). In addition to the health-related drawbacks employees experience
as a result of occupational stress, estimates suggest that its deleterious side effects may
cost organizations up to US$300 billion per year resulting from lost productivity
(Cynkar, 2007; Dawson et al., 2016). Given that the psychological and physiological
by-products of the stress process compromise both employee health and organiza-
tional performance (Lazarus, 2000; Matteson & Ivancevich, 1987; Spector & Fox,
2002, 2005), public sector HRM scholarship can benefit from cultivating strategies
designed to remediate the more damaging outcomes of occupational stress.
Unfortunately, attempts by public sector HRM scholars to build strategies for effec-
tively addressing workplace stress confront three interrelated challenges. First, the
term stress represents one of the most misunderstood concepts in organizational stud-
ies. According to Matteson and Ivancevich (1987), “[t]he word stress means so many
things to so many different people that it has been described as the most imprecise in
the scientific dictionary” (p. 9). Second, adequately understanding the stress process
requires analyses of complex combinations of situational characteristics, individual
dispositional differences, and one’s behavioral responses to their perceptions (Lazarus,
2000; Matteson & Ivancevich, 1987). Finally, generic expectations regarding how
individuals appraise and respond to the situations they confront may not apply to every
work context. As such, scholarship must identify those salient elements of work with
an increased likelihood of initiating the stress process to best understand the relation-
ship between stress and other important work outcomes (Fairbrother & Warn, 2003).
Our article seeks to address these three challenges in an effort to contribute to a
more comprehensive understanding of how individuals respond to perceived stressors
in public sector work environments. First, we seek to clarify the meaning of work
stress in the public sector by drawing from transactional—or process—models devel-
oped in psychology and organization behavior (Lazarus, 2000; Matteson & Ivancevich,
1987; Spector & Fox, 2002, 2005). The transactional approach views stress as “an
adaptive response, moderated by individual differences, that is a consequence of any
action, situation, or event that places demands upon a person” (Matteson & Ivancevich,
1987, p. 10). We then slightly modify this definition based on subsequent work and
employ the definition throughout the remainder article to broadly examine differences
across individuals as they navigate the stress process.
Next, with respect to the second challenge, we explore the following question:
What intra-individual characteristics common in public sector work environments
moderate how employees appraise work situations? Occupational stress researchers
often coalesce around the assertion that broad categories of personality differences,
such as dispositional hardiness or locus of control, provide a common cognitive lens
that influence how individuals appraise external demands (Matteson & Ivancevich,
1987, see especially chap. 5; Spector & Fox, 2002, p. 274). Yet, more narrow intra-
individual differences common in public work contexts may also influence the stress
process. One individual characteristic frequently studied in public HRM research,
public service motivation (PSM), may offer some insight into how employees respond

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