John Meyer

Clara Lee and Timothy Wingate (graduate students from the University of Calgary' s I-O program) met with Dr John Meyer and asked him to share some of his most memorable accomplishments, his ideas about the future of commitment research, advice for students and characteristics of a good supervisor.


John Meyer’s name has become synonymous with commitment in the workplace. An esteemed psychologist hailing from the Western University, one of the most prominent Canadian I-O psychology programs, John Meyer’s work has influenced hundreds of researchers worldwide.

Dr. Meyer earned graduate degrees in personality and measurement from the University of Western Ontario, under the supervision of Dr. Susan Pepper. Upon graduating, Dr. Meyer worked as an assistant professor at St. Thomas University for three years, returning to Western in 1981.

For more than 25 years, Dr. Meyer has developed, validated, and contextualized the three-component model of organizational commitment alongside colleagues like Natalie Allen, also of Western. The three-component model collectively addresses normative (obligation), affective (liking), and continuance (costs of leaving) commitment components, within and across people, workplaces, and cultures. We spoke to Dr. Meyer via telephone to find out what excites him most about the past, present, and future of his work, along with industrial-organizational psychology (and psychology) as a whole. Along the way, we gleaned some advice for hopeful academics, and perspectives on what makes a good researcher and mentor, which we present here in his own words.

What accomplishments in past research are you most proud of?

Unsurprisingly, developing the commitment model is one of John’s greatest accomplishments, and he had a lot of insight to offer on the process through which the model came about. He explained:

It started out when I was supervising my first graduate student, Natalie Allen, and she got interested in commitment. We kind of struggled with what it was and when we got into the literature, we discovered that people were talking about it very differently, using the term in a lot of different ways. The realization, the “eureka” moment that we had, was when we discovered some common themes and that led to the development of the three component model and the development of the measures.

However, characteristic of someone truly invested in, and committed to an idea, John describes the source of his pride being his persistence and perseverance in the pursuit of the model in the face of academic criticism.

…We’ve taken those criticisms and looked at them and said, what can we do to modify the theory or how can we counterargue? We’ve persisted and made refinements and the theory has really stood the test of time, which I’m proud of, as well as the fact that it’s allowed me to branch out to something that I’ve found very satisfying.

How do you think your research interests have changed over the years?

I’ve actually focused my attention on commitment for a long period of time, and it’s allowed me to have an anchor and then to move in different directions. I’ve always been moving it along and seeing how I can delve into other areas with a related theme.

Commitment around the world

Globalization is certainly going to have an important impact on the way we do I-O psychology

We’ve developed this model of commitment – I’m really curious as to whether or not this is North American centric or whether we’ve found something that applies in other cultures…the measures that we’ve used and the model that we’ve developed has been applied around the world, so we have access to these data and things seem to be holding up reasonably well. There are enough exceptions that it makes it kind of interesting and so that always raises new questions . . .and what is it that’s different about other cultures that contributes to the way people experience commitment and the implications that it has.

As people start coming to North America . . .and we have more diverse workforces, I think we need to have a better understanding of where people are coming from.

Integrating commitment and motivation

When we started working on commitment, the major focus was on employee retention and job performance and OCB and all the stuff that’s good for organizations . . .I was gratified to find that the commitments that seem to have the most positive consequences for organizations are also the ones that are best for the employees themselves.

I started thinking, ‘why might it be that people who are affectively committed to their organizations not only stay with them and work hard but also thrive personally?,’ and from self-determination theory it seems that it’s probably due to the fact that being in the kind of situation that creates that kind of commitment satisfies the basic needs we have, and there’s all kinds of evidence showing that need satisfaction leads to well-being.

Person-centered research

We always talked about the fact that if you need to understand someone’s commitment you need to understand to what extent they experience all three [types of commitment] . . .I’ve started to do work on looking at profiles of commitment, and it’s opened up a whole lot of doors. You can look at different profiles of commitment to organizations and occupations and teams and supervisors and . . .when you start putting [commitment types] together you start to realize that . . .the combinations are more than the sum of their parts.

The person-centered stuff is not a replacement for the variable centered approach, but I think it has lots of applications and it’s a different way of looking at things. [If] you put the two together, I think you get a richer picture than if you simply do one or the other.

How do you maintain a work-life balance?

Because I do work long hours, and I could work longer hours, one way of controlling myself a little bit is to try and separate the home from office. When I go home at night and the weekends, I try not to work as much as I might like to. I try to separate home and work, and if I do need to work on the weekend, I’ll often come in just for a few hours and get that done.

What advice would you give those who want to go into research or academia?

You have to love it.

I see some students who come in, and very bright students, who struggle. It’s just not their thing. That’s not to say that they can’t do it . . .but I think if you want to go into academia you’ve got to have a real curiosity.

When I read an article, whether it’s in my area or not, I sometimes struggle to get through the article because there’s a million questions that occur to me. I think you have to have that natural curiosity and desire to want to know, and to be able to persist in a course of action or a line of research . . .It’s a competitive field and if you want to get into academia, it’s a long haul, and whether you go into academia or any career, you want to be able to enjoy it and get a sense of satisfaction. I think that natural curiosity, wanting to know, and being willing to deal with the challenges that come up . . .is crucial.

What are psychology students today doing right, and what are they doing wrong?

One of the things that I see people doing wrong, or at least I think it’s wrong, and it’s not just students: The focus is on ‘what do I need to do to publish in the top tier journals and get a job, and get tenure, and get promoted to full professor,’ and so on, and I just think that’s the wrong way of looking at it. I’m not saying it’s not a good thing to publish in top-tier journals but that shouldn’t be the goal – the goal should be to want to do research and to understand things and use the appropriate and best methods to do it. If you do that, you end up publishing in top tier journals naturally. So the research should drive the outlet, not the outlet driving the research.

You need to realize it’s a marathon, it’s not a sprint, and you need to do things right. It needs to be generated by an underlying interest. It’s not a game that’s played to try and see who can get the most publications in the top ten journals, it’s having an interest in research and science. .and letting that drive you.

If you weren’t a psychologist, what do you think you’d be?

I would probably be in research somewhere else. I can see myself in the physical sciences for example. Maybe in biology or medical research – I’d love to find a cure for cancer or something, but it would certainly be in a research capacity.

Who were your biggest mentors in psychology? Who inspired you?

Dr. Susan Pepper was a Stanford graduate, and she was a relatively new faculty member in our department…

Although she never did publish a lot, she also had an enthusiasm for doing research and was the kind of person who was very patient, and she would look over draft after draft after draft of things I wrote, giving me feedback, but also letting me have my space . . .She really inspired me, not just in terms of her enthusiasm for psychology, but then also training me to think about doing research and how to do research right.

[Also], Douglas Jackson, who’s developed a lot of instruments to measure personality and intelligence . . .I found him a really intimidating individual because he was so intelligent and so sophisticated in terms of the methodology that he used . . .And looking back, he really did shape the way I think about constructs and measuring constructs, and how constructs go together, and what good research is, and so he was another major influence.

Any final comments?

I think that I-O is a really awesome area to be working in. I wasn’t trained in I-O psychology, but whenever I did anything, I was always curious about the “so what” aspect of it and how it could be used. When I was invited to come back to Western, and asked whether I was interested in teaching a few undergraduate courses in I-O Psychology, I didn’t even really know what that was. When I started looking into it and started teaching and working with some of the people here, the thing that really appealed to me was that you could ask interesting questions and the answer had important practical implications. It’s a field that I think is really growing and has lots of potential . . .For anyone who’s interested in doing research, or putting research into practice, I think it’s a great field.