Players on the same wavelength

How might compatibility between cognitive style and cognitive climate influence individual job satisfaction and loyalty to employers?

Amongst business leaders and HR professionals, the need to understand what drives people to think and act in different ways at work is something of a never-ending task. Do people in similar jobs perceive and process information in the same way? What happens if people exhibit cognitive styles reckoned to be less suited to the jobs they do, or if they work in cognitive climates that seem alien to them but perfect for their colleagues? And which functional teams or employees should management watch more closely than others if they’re to avoid losing them to competitors?

A study by researchers at Vlerick Business School shows that employees with a creating-oriented cognitive style (typically intuitive and receptive to change or new ideas) are more likely to want to change jobs if they find the predominantly cognitive climate not to their liking. But those with a knowing-oriented style (logical and objective) or planning-oriented style (structured and orderly) are less likely to make a dash for it.

However, cognitive style and cognitive climate appear to have separate influences on people’s attitudes to their work – which means that, regardless of the predominance of one climate over another, understanding those relationships is essential for job design, selection, assessment, training and workforce planning.

You Don’t have to be Mad to Work here, But…

While people might consciously change their behaviour or make different decisions, cognitive style itself typically remains unchanged, regardless of workplace environment. A good fit between cognitive style and cognitive is likely to result in better job satisfaction and greater employer loyalty, and even more successful careers. A mismatch might precipitate high staff turnover, low levels of motivation, more interpersonal conflict and higher levels of work-related stress.

An emphasis on workplace culture and employer branding as part of wider talent attraction and retention strategies illustrates the importance companies attach to providing environments conducive to a happy, motivated, productive workforce. However, people with different cognitive styles typically prefer and respond differently to different stimuli – often with inexplicable inconsistency. Analytical thinkers may like the certainty provided by stability, structure and order, while more intuitive types prefer (and thrive on) flexibility, autonomy and dynamic change. But, people being people, complacent stereotyping is a dangerous game for employers. It might often help if everyone’s on the same wavelength – but without proper management insight, a workplace of clones may simply mark time, and might even do more harm than good.

Understanding the impact of cognitive fit on performance is important for management development, industrial and organisational psychology and entrepreneurship. But with so many potentially influencing factors, it’s an inexact science. For instance, do people who enjoy their work perform better as a result – or do people who perform well enjoy their work more? What impact might a good supervisor or mentor have on a worker’s performance or job satisfaction? And how might supervising or mentoring workers who have made up their minds to leave affect supervisors or mentors’ own performances? What difference would it make if supervisors or mentors haven’t yet been made aware that workers want to leave?

Favourable cognitive fits may well enhance productivity and performance alongside commitment and retention, and generally make for a happier place to come to work. But the potential magnitude of the impact expected from a mismatch is less certain – especially as cognitive climates are often subject to significant variations within the same organisation, or even within functional teams.

Coping with Mismatch: Lost Cause or Necessarily Evil?

Workers who find themselves in atmospheres to which they’re plainly unsuited don’t necessarily make immediate plans to leave. Even if they wished they could, a perceived lack of alternative jobs elsewhere may hold them back. Some might decide to wait until whatever or whoever they hold responsible for their unhappiness or frustration disappears. Others may decide it’s worth holding on for the sake of their long-term prospects, or hope for a sideways transfer. But even those who proactively start scouting around for new opportunities may have to wait for several weeks or months before a satisfactory offer transpires. How do they – and their colleagues who for their own reasons decide to stick it out – cope with the negative impact of the cognitive mismatch?

People may be capable of making short-term adjustments to their behaviour (and performance) until they’re ready (or able) to safely jump ship from the cognitive climate they’ve been enduring rather than enjoying. But everyone’s tolerance threshold is unique; for many, trying to suppress their natural behaviour at work may simply generate unhealthy, self-perpetuating stress. Does it follow that their job satisfaction will suffer, or that their desire to leave will intensify, to the extent that they might even make poor decisions about their career?

Climate change: Time to take Action or Time to be Sceptic?

Vlerick’s researchers found that certain cognitive climates were more common amongst some job functions than others:

  • Knowing-oriented cognitive climates prevail in finance and technology teams.
  • Administrative, technical and production functions typically work in a planning-oriented climate
  • Salespeople, marketers and especially general managers tend to flourish in creative-oriented climates, particularly in companies or teams where innovation is ever-present and highly valued
  • No one single cognitive climate seems to be aligned with HR, countering conventional wisdom that places HR people firmly amongst knowing-oriented staff
  • Research and development (R&D) people are typically at odds with assumptions linking them to creating-oriented styles

However, cognitive climate alone appears not to be a reliable indicator of job satisfaction, intention to leave or job search behaviour. Those with creating-oriented cognitive styles demonstrate stronger intentions to leave mismatched climates and look for new jobs than their peers with knowing or planning styles. But the impact on job satisfaction is more consistent - the results indicate that a snug cognitive fit doesn’t automatically confer higher levels of job satisfaction than a misfit.

Informing Strategic Thinking

A deeper understanding of the relationships between cognitive styles and cognitive climates can only serve to enlighten all those with a stake in effective talent attraction, performance management and retention. This includes individual workers themselves, not just their managers. But whether selection processes are built to match people with the right technical skills to jobs, or jobs to people with the right cultural affinity, there are advantages and disadvantages to the quest to find the perfect match. And in any case, even if all the boxes are ticked, cognitive fit may occasionally – for reasons both random and unexpected – still have little bearing on the intentions, actions and feelings of workers.

Transformation is one of the key drivers of the business world – and more so as national and global economies recover. And the employment landscape is increasingly characterised by mobility, flexibility and transience. With that in mind, everyone – employees and their colleagues, senior management teams and business owners – will always need to anticipate, embrace and adapt to new norms, even where cognitive climate and cognitive styles are compatible.


Researchers used data collected from people looking to change jobs or manage their long-term careers (ie not students or the unemployed) on, a Belgian website:

  • Nearly 25,000 online assessments (submitted to the website over four years) were studied, 62% men and 38% women, with nearly nine in 10 (86%) aged 21-45, and 37% university graduates
  • Researchers also analysed data from a survey about career decisions, drawing on some 2,200 completed questionnaires, with roughly similar male-female ratios, age profiles and proportion of graduates
  • All respondents completed Cools and Van den Broek’s own Cognitive Style Indicator (CoSI), used to determine knowing, planning and creating styles; respondents to the second study were also questioned about job satisfaction, intention to leave and job search behaviour
  • Limitations of the various research methods used meant the study was unable to drill down to differences between job functions and working environment; it also can’t be assumed that intention to leave and job search behaviour result in departures from companies, nor that workers outside Belgium would behave in the same way
Related article:

Cools, E., Van den Broeck, H., & Bouckenooghe, D. (2009). Cognitive styles and person-environment fit: Investigating the consequences of cognitive (mis)fit. European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology, 18, 2, 167-198.

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