Relational Job Characteristics and Prosocial Motivation: A Longitudinal Study of Youth Care Professionals

Published date01 March 2021
Date01 March 2021
Subject MatterArticles
Review of Public Personnel Administration
2021, Vol. 41(1) 57 –77
© The Author(s) 2019
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/0734371X19862852
Relational Job Characteristics
and Prosocial Motivation: A
Longitudinal Study of Youth
Care Professionals
Joris van der Voet1 and Bram Steijn2
This study examines how changes in relational job characteristics relate to the
prosocial motivation of public professionals. Drawing on relational job design theory,
changes in job contact and job impact are hypothesized to covary with prosocial
motivation. With a unique longitudinal design, we study youth care professionals in
The Netherlands, who are embedded in a reform aimed at decentralizing youth care
to bring professionals closer to their clients. Quantitative data were collected through
a three-wave survey prior to the reform implementation and at, respectively, 1 and 2
years after its implementation. The results indicate that changing levels of job contact
and job impact are related to changes in prosocial motivation. The study contributes
to academic debates regarding the dynamic nature of prosocial motivation and our
findings provide longitudinal evidence for relational job design theory.
public service motivation, prosocial motivation, job characteristics, relational job
Prosocial motivation is a motivational force that drives effort based on meaning and
purpose. Grant (2008a) defines prosocial motivation as “the desire to expend effort to
benefit other people” (p. 49) or “the desire to benef‌it others or expend effort out of
concern for others” (Bolino & Grant, 2016, p. 604). The notion that prosocial motiva-
tional dispositions are especially present in public sector workers is reflected in the
1Leiden University, Leiden, The Netherlands
2Erasmus University Rotterdam, Rotterdam, The Netherlands
Corresponding Author:
Joris van der Voet, Institute of Public Administration, Leiden University, Turfmark 99, 2511 DP, The
Hague, The Netherlands.
862852ROPXXX10.1177/0734371X19862852Review of Public Personnel Administrationvan der Voet and Steijn
58 Review of Public Personnel Administration 41(1)
public management literature, although most studies use the public service motivation
(PSM) concept to refer to these dispositions (Ritz, Brewer, & Neumann, 2016; Wright
& Grant, 2010). Contemporary scholarly inquiry has questioned to what extent proso-
cial motivation should be seen as a relatively stable disposition or whether it is dynamic
and changeable over time. In this respect, several authors have argued how environ-
mental and organizational factors may contribute to changes in prosocial motivation
over time (Moynihan & Pandey, 2007; Perry, 1997). A limitation of much of the exist-
ing evidence is that most studies are based on cross-sectional rather than longitudinal
research designs (Wright & Grant, 2010). Nevertheless, more recent longitudinal
research suggests that prosocial motivations are to some extent dynamic in the face of
workplace experiences and external shocks (Brænder & Andersen, 2013; Kjeldsen &
Jacobsen, 2013; Oberfield, 2014) but that prosocial motivation appears to be relatively
stable in the long run (Vogel & Kroll, 2016).
In seeking to uncover what factors may be related to prosocial motivation, scholars
have highlighted a number of factors associated with the design of jobs. Specifically,
relational job design theory states that public sector jobs may contain a number of
characteristics that contribute to the cultivation of prosocial motivation (Grant, 2007,
2012). A distinction is made between two relational job characteristics: job contact
with beneficiaries and job impact on beneficiaries (Grant, 2008a). Contact with bene-
ficiaries enables employees to better understand the perspective and needs of clients,
and provides employees with feedback about client experiences. Impact on beneficia-
ries means that employees can observe the difference their job makes for others and
thus makes employees feel that their work is significant and important (Grant, 2008a;
Steijn & van der Voet, 2019; Taylor, 2014). Particularly in a public sector context,
these factors are of importance as employees are believed to have a strong need to
make a prosocial difference but may simultaneously lack the possibilities to connect
with beneficiaries and observe the impact of their work (Grant, 2008c).
Our study contributes to the literature on prosocial motivation and relational job
characteristics because (quasi-)experimental work has only examined how relational
job characteristics can be used to activate prosocial motivation in the short term to
increase work effort and task performance (Bellé, 2014; Grant, 2012). Other studies
have examined prosocial motivations over time as a consequence of organizational
experiences but do not explicitly consider variables that may explain changes in moti-
vation over time (Brænder & Andersen, 2013; Vogel & Kroll, 2016). We explicitly
assess relational job characteristics as a mechanism that may account for variability in
prosocial motivation over time. In doing so, we thus provide a longitudinal test of
relational job design theory (Grant, 2007), which has not been done before. For the
purpose of this study, we draw on panel data that were collected in three yearly mea-
surements in the context of an ongoing youth care reform in The Netherlands. Our
main research question is as follows:
Research Question: To what extent are changes in relational job characteristics
related to prosocial motivation of youth care professionals?

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