Complex Conversations on a Train

Suppose you’re on a train, having a telephone conversation with a friend who has just started in a new job. You ask her what her job is like, and she says:

“This job turns out to be pretty complex. I really—it!”

Unfortunately, your phone connection is unstable, and you couldn’t quite make out what she said. She really—what? Hates it? Loves it? Your friend seems very eager to tell you more, so you decide to say something neutral yet supportive, like “yeah, of course you would.” Your friend continues: “I know, right? I have all of these different tasks and responsibilities, and it’s up to me to figure it all out. It’s just —” and there goes the connection again. It’s just what? Terrible? Fantastic? Fortunately, your train has just entered a tunnel, and your connection is completely lost for a while. How to save yourself from embarrassment when the conversation resumes?

This could be a good moment to consult your inner organizational psychologist. After all, organizational psychologists are fascinated by the question of how contextual factors (such as job complexity) affect people’s work motivation and performance.

Organizational psychology has been asking questions like “Is job complexity good or bad for motivation?” for a long time. Since the 1950’s, many researchers have looked into the effects of job complexity, and several studies that are now classics of the field have found it to be an important source of motivation and job satisfaction.[1] People who work in a complex job often enjoy the feeling of responsibility, autonomy, and variety it gives them. In contrast, working in a simple, routine job with few opportunities to exercise and develop different skills can be very demotivating, or even frustrating.

Then again, things are never as simple as they seem, especially in psychology. For one thing, no matter how motivating job complexity may be, too much of a good thing is—well, too much. Isn’t it possible that people are most motivated when their job is neither boring nor too complicated? In other words, perhaps the relation between job complexity and motivation isn’t linear, but curvilinear, with the point of highest motivation lying somewhere in the middle. And sure enough, several studies suggest that this is the case.[2] What would this mean for your friend? Where on the curve might she be?

Need for Structure

The issue is made even trickier by the fact that not everybody is the same, or has the same preferences. Some people just can’t deal with complexity; they hate it. They prefer to work from a manual, with clear explanations and with solid rules about how to do things. For them, a simple task is ‘nice and straightforward’, and complexity is a ‘mess.’ The real mystery for these people is that there seem to be people who actually love complexity, or even crave it: people who enjoy puzzles, who like to figure things out, and who hate to be handed ready-made solutions. For those people, simple tasks are ‘boring’, and complex situations are ‘fascinating’ or ‘a challenge.’

These differences between people are measured and studied under different names, such as Openness to Experience, Need for Cognition, or Need for Structure. What we know about these traits is that they really matter at work; not only because they cause people to behave differently, but also because they shape people’s reactions to their work environment.

For example, research done in our department has shown that Need for Structure affects the way people react to autonomy, which is often considered to be an important component of job complexity. Often, when our autonomy is threatened (for example, by a leader who is constantly monitoring or evaluating us), we get demotivated. However, this does not seem to be true for people with a strong Need for Structure. In fact, our work shows that having a controlling leader who leaves little room for autonomy can even make these people feel more motivated, because such leaders also leave little room for ambiguity. After all, if somebody tells you exactly what to do, at least you know exactly what to do.[3][4]

Your train is almost clear of the tunnel, so you had better think fast before your friend is on the phone again. What kind of person is she? Does she enjoy a mystery? Or does she get upset when the rules in a situation are unclear? Does she thrive on chaos, or does she keep her life neatly organized?

The phone rings; it’s your friend. You decide to take the plunge, and say:

“So, you were saying how you hate your new job because it’s so complex.”

She replies:

“Yes, I don’t understand how they think anyone could function properly in a mess like that. Do you?”

But of course you do.



[1] See Hackman, J.R., & Oldham, G. R. (1976). Motivation through the design of work: Test of a theory. Organizational Behavior and Human Performance, 16, 250-279.

[2] For example, see Chung-Yan, G. A. (2010). The nonlinear effects of job complexity and autonomy on job satisfaction, turnover, and psychological well-being. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, 15, 237-251.

[3] Slijkhuis, J. M., Rietzschel, E. F., & Van Yperen, N. W. (2013). How evaluation and Need for Structure affect motivation and creativity. European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology, 22, 15-25.

[4]Rietzschel, E. F., Slijkhuis, J. M., & Van Yperen, N. W. (2014). Close monitoring as a contextual stimulator: How need for structure affects the relation between close monitoring and work outcomes. European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology, 23, 394-404.


NOTE: “Puzzle pieces” by Velkr0 is licenced under CC BY 2.0.

Eric Rietzschel is an assistant professor in Organizational Psychology. He is interested in (and so does research on) creativity. Some of his research questions are: does it help to generate a lot of ideas (for example in a brainstorming session), or is this a waste of time? Why is it that people often reject creative ideas in favour of boring ones? Does creativity benefit from total freedom, or do people perform better when they receive a bit of structure? Is there ‘one best way’ to stimulate creativity, or does it depend on the characteristics of the person you’re dealing with? And what does it even mean for somebody to call an idea ‘creative’?

For more information on Eric’s research, please visit here.

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  • Femke Kraaijvanger April 16, 2014'


  • Maarten Derksen April 17, 2014  

    I have a question! I think there are (at least) two different kinds of complexity in the workplace. The first is represented by the jigsaw puzzle picture above your blog post. This is the situation where there are lots of unordered elements to the task (it’s a mess, as your’re friend says) but at least there is a solution that we can agree on. There is a right way to do the job. This is the situation you face in a badly managed bureaucratic organisation. The other is the kind of situation where it’s not necessarily the number of task elements or the lack of order that is the problem, but the fact that there is no agreed upon solution, for example because it is your job to propose a solution. This is the situation that people in creative jobs face. So my question is: is this a distinction that you people in the need for structure field make as well? Or is this the kind of muddled thinking that you joke about on conferences?

  • Eric Rietzschel April 17, 2014  

    Good question, Maarten. There certainly are different aspects to job complexity, such as autonomy, task variety, information processing load, etc. The presence or absence of a demonstrably correct solution might be one of those aspects, although in some theories (e.g., Fiedler’s Contingency Theory of leadership) it is called a component of task structure rather than complexity (which raises the question what the relation between complexity and structure actually is – are they opposites, or is it possible to have a task that is both complex and structured?).

    Fiedler (1965) argues that work tasks are highly structured when there is (a) high decision verifiability (solution correctness can be objectively verified), (b) high goal clarity (it is clear what the desired endpoint is), (c) low goal path multiplicity (there is only one way to do the job), and (d) high solution specificity (i.e., there is only one correct solution, rather than an infinite number of correct solutions). As far as I know, however, little or no research has systematically addressed these different components, let alone their interaction with individual differences in Need for Structure. An exception would be a forthcoming paper by Marjette Slijkhuis, Nico van Yperen, and myself, in which we study the effects of different kinds of task structure on creativity. I may have to write another blog post about that some day. 😉

  • Maarten Derksen April 17, 2014  

    Wouldn’t Fiedler’s theory also imply that there are different kinds of Need for Structure? So that someone can be fine with low goal path multiplicity, as long as there is only one correct solution, while another prefers low solution specificity, as long as there are enough tools around to work with?

  • Eric Rietzschel April 17, 2014  

    Well, yes, that might be the case. The Need for Structure construct (as it is commonly measured) actually is pretty context-independent, and not specifically geared towards work- or task-related needs. Thus, with the existing instruments (such as the Personal Need for Structure scale devised by Thompson et al., 2001) we would not be able to see such differences; we might have to develop an instrument that specifically asks about work- or task-related needs for structure. Then again, theoretically distinct task characteristics don’t necessarily map reliably onto empirically distinct psychological needs.

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