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When the job is a calling: The role of applying one’s signature strengths at work

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This study investigates the role of applying the individual signature strengths at work for positive experiences at work (i.e. job satisfaction, pleasure, engagement, and meaning) and calling. A sample of 111 employees from various occupations completed measures on character strengths, positive experiences at work, and calling. Co- workers (N = 111) rated the applicability of character strengths at work. Correlations between the applicability of character strengths and positive experiences at work decreased with intraindividual centrality of strengths (ranked strengths from the highest to the lowest). The level of positive experiences and calling were higher when four to seven signature strengths were applied at work compared to less than four. Positive experiences partially mediated the effect of the number of applied signature strengths on calling. Implications for further research and practice will be discussed.
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This manuscript was published as:
Harzer, C., & Ruch, W. (2012). When the job is a calling: The role of applying
one’s signature strengths at work. Journal of Positive Psychology, 7, 362-
371. doi:10.1080/17439760.2012.702784
Running Head: WHEN THE JOB IS A CALLING 1
When the Job is a Calling: The Role of Applying One’s Signature
Strengths at Work
Claudia Harzer and Willibald Ruch
Department of Psychology, University of Zurich, Zurich, Switzerland
Claudia Harzer*, Section on Personality and Assessment, Department of Psychology,
University of Zurich, Binzmuehlestrasse 14/ Box 7, 8050 Zurich, Switzerland, E-mail:
c.harzer@psychologie.uzh.ch, telephone: 0041 44 635 75 26, fax: 0041 44 635 75 29
Willibald Ruch, Section on Personality and Assessment, Department of Psychology,
University of Zurich, Binzmuehlestrasse 14/ Box 7, 8050 Zurich, Switzerland, E-mail:
w.ruch@psychologie.uzh.ch, telephone: 0041 44 635 75 20, fax: 0041 44 635 75 29
* Corresponding author. Email: c.harzer@psychologie.uzh.ch
Running Head: WHEN THE JOB IS A CALLING 2
When the Job is a Calling: The Role of Applying One’s Signature
Strengths at Work
The present study investigates the role of applying the individual signature
strengths at work for positive experiences at work (i.e., job satisfaction, pleasure,
engagement, meaning) and calling. A sample of 111 employees from various
occupations completed measures on character strengths, positive experiences at
work, and calling. Co-workers (N = 111) rated the applicability of character
strengths at work. Correlations between applicability of character strengths and
positive experiences at work decreased with intra-individual centrality of
strengths (ranked strengths from the highest to the lowest). Level of positive
experiences and calling were higher when four to seven signature strengths were
applied at work compared to less than four. Positive experiences partially
mediated the effect of the number of applied signature strengths on calling.
Implications for further research and practice will be discussed.
Keywords: character strengths; signature strengths; job satisfaction; calling;
pleasure; engagement; meaning; VIA-IS; positive psychology
Introduction
Peterson and Seligman (2004) introduced the Values in Action (VIA) classification of
strengths to describe the good character as an important instance of optimal human
functioning. Character strengths represent the components of the good character as
measurable positive individual differences that exist as continua and not as categories
(McGrath, Rashid, Park, & Peterson, 2010). The VIA classification describes 24
character strengths. Peterson and Seligman (2004, p. 18) stipulate most people have
between three and seven core or “signature” strengths among the 24. Signature strengths
are the ones “[…] that a person owns, celebrates, and frequently exercises”. Seligman
(2002, 2011) highlighted that the application of signature strengths leads to pleasure,
engagement, and meaning. People most prefer a job congruent to their signature
WHEN THE JOB IS A CALLING 3
strengths (Park & Peterson, 2007) and the deployment of character strengths is related
to job satisfaction and meaning at work (Littman-Ovadia & Steger, 2010). Taken
together, positive experiences at work (e.g., job satisfaction as well as pleasure,
engagement, and meaning at work) are facilitated when the individual signature
strengths (i.e., those strengths that are most central for an individual) are applied at
work.
Job satisfaction is the domain specific global, cognitive assessment of the
quality of life relating to work (Diener, Suh, Lucas, & Smith, 1999). Pleasure
(hedonism), engagement (flow), and meaning (eudemonia) were summarized to the
orientations to happiness, describing three separate yet related routes of life to obtain
happiness (Peterson, Park, & Seligman, 2005b). Furthermore, positive experiences at
work (pleasure, engagement, meaning, and job satisfaction) are inherent aspects of a
calling (e.g., Bellah, Madsen, Sullivan, Swidler, & Tipton, 1985; Novak, 1996;
Wrzesniewski, McCauley, Rozin, & Schwartz, 1997). Individuals with a calling regard
their work to be their purpose in life rather than a means for financial rewards (job) or
advancement (career; Elangovan, Pinder, & McLean, 2011; Wrzesniewski et al., 1997).
A calling or vocation is a “function or career toward which one believes himself to be
called” (Novak, 1996, p. 17; see also Dik & Duffy, 2009). Calling in this sense does not
necessarily entail the religious connotation of being called by god (cf., Bunderson &
Thompson, 2009; Weiss, Skelley, Haughey, & Hall, 2004), but refers to having
uncovered the “personal destiny […] something that we are good at and something we
enjoyed” (Novak, 1996, p. 18; i.e., pleasure and satisfaction) entailing one’s work. The
work is also perceived meaningful, due to helping other people or the broader society
(directly or indirectly; Dik & Duffy, 2009). The engagement in the calling is central to
WHEN THE JOB IS A CALLING 4
one’s identity when experiencing a calling (Dobrow & Tosti-Kharas, 2011). Therefore,
one might expect that higher levels of positive experiences at work are associated with a
calling orientation. The present study investigated this assumption by examining the
associations between the positive experiences at work and calling.
It was also highlighted that a calling orientation requires a match between a
person and his/her job (Nowak, 1996; Weiss et al., 2004). In terms of Weiss et al., it is
important how our personal gifts and talents fit into our vocation. According to Nowak
(p. 34) “a calling […] must fit our abilities“. We studied this match with respect to
character strengths. The question arises, whether the application of one’s signature
strengths at work facilitates a calling orientation. However, it was also hypothesized that
the application of one’s signature strengths at work relates to positive experiences at
work, which also relate to calling. This leads to the question whether the relationship
between the application of one’s signature strengths at work and calling is mediated by
positive experiences. The present study addressed these questions by examining a
mediation model of the effect of the application of signature strengths at work on calling
mediated by positive experiences at work.
The application of character strengths at work
The application of a character strength depends on two conditions (see Harzer, 2012;
Harzer & Ruch, in press). Firstly, the individual needs to possess the strength to a
certain degree to be able to show strength-relevant behavior (i.e., applying it; also see
Fishbein & Ajzen, 2010; Saucier, Bel-Bahar, & Fernandez, 2007). The Values in Action
Inventory of Strengths (VIA-IS; Peterson, Park, & Seligman, 2005a) is the standard
measure for the possession of character strengths (as defined in the VIA classification)
WHEN THE JOB IS A CALLING 5
in adults for basic research. A variety of studies show its reliability and validity (e.g.,
Güsewell & Ruch, 2012a; Müller & Ruch, 2011; Park, Peterson, & Seligman, 2006;
Peterson, Park, & Seligman, 2006; Peterson et al., 2005a).
Secondly, the situational circumstances in a certain environment (e.g., at the
workplace or in private life) need to allow for the expression of a strength, as trait-
related behavior needs conducive circumstances to be displayed (Saucier et al., 2007;
Ten Berge & De Raad, 1999). Therefore, the applicability of a given character strength
was defined as the degree to which situational circumstances allow an individual to
display strengths-relevant behavior (Harzer, 2012; Harzer & Ruch, in press). The
situational circumstances at the workplace can be both, externally relating to aspects
mostly independent from the individual and internally referring stronger to the
individual’s perception (cf., Saucier et al., 2007). Harzer and Ruch (in press) focused on
the individuals’ perception of two external and two internal influences (see Harzer,
2012). The two external influences were (a) the normative demands at work and (b) the
appropriateness of strength-related behavior at work. The two internal influences were
(c) the perceived presence of factors that may facilitate or impede strengths-related
behavior like time pressure and (d) the intrinsic motivation to show certain behavior.
The Applicability of Character Strengths Rating Scales (ACS-RS; Harzer, 2012; Harzer
& Ruch, in press) reliably and validly measures those influences.
While it might be more parsimonious to ask for the use of strengths in general
(Wood, Linley, Maltby, Kashdan, & Hurling, 2011), or to utilize single item measures
for the frequency of strength application (Littman-Ovadia & Steger, 2010), such
approaches do not allow for the discrimination of the various influences on behavior
(i.e., external and internal, as well as degree of possession). The combination of the
WHEN THE JOB IS A CALLING 6
VIA-IS and the ACS-RS allows for an operationalization of the strengths-related
congruence between an individual and the situational circumstances at work. This
congruence is proportional to the extent to which a job allows for the application of
one’s signature strengths (Harzer, 2012; Harzer & Ruch, in press). It increases with the
individual centrality of the character strengths that are applicable at work. The higher
the position of a strength in one’s individual rank-order, the more central and important
is its degree of applicability at work for positive experiences and calling. The
correlation coefficients representing the association between applicability of strengths
and positive experiences at work indeed increased with the centrality of the strengths
(irrespective of their nature; Harzer & Ruch, in press).
Another way of operationalization for the congruence between an individual and
the situational circumstances at work is the number of signature strengths that can be
applied at work (cf., Harzer, 2012; Harzer & Ruch, in press). The signature strengths
were operationalized as the seven character strengths with the highest degree of
possession within each individual (i.e., rank 1 to 7 in the VIA-IS). Those strengths were
only defined as being applied, if (a) the ACS-RS score was 4 or higher (i.e., this is equal
to an applicability that is a least rated as “often”) and if (b) the VIA-IS score was 3.5 or
higher (i.e., this is equal to possessing a character strength at least slightly). It was
assumed that people can apply character strengths-relevant behavior only if they possess
the strength at least to a small degree. The resulting score varies from 0 to 7 applied
signature strengths at work. Harzer and Ruch (in press) studied more than 1’000 adults
of different occupations to examine the relationships between the application of
individual signature strengths and positive experiences at work. Job satisfaction as well
as pleasure, engagement, and meaning at work were combined to a composite score for
WHEN THE JOB IS A CALLING 7
positive experiences at work via principal component analysis to examine the influence
of those experiences at work in general. Data analysis showed that the higher the
number of signature strengths was that could be applied at work, the higher the reported
level of positive experiences at work. However, this relationship was not strictly linear,
as there seemed to be a satiation point between three and five applied strengths where
the increase in positive experiences flattened for further signature strengths that could
be applied at work. Consequently, there might be a critical minimum number of applied
signature strengths, likely around four character strengths, which fosters positive
experience at work.
The present study
The present study examines the role of applying one’s individual signature strengths and
positive experiences at work for a calling orientation. The purpose was threefold.
Firstly, the relationships between the applicability of character strengths and
positive experiences at work were investigated. This is replicating the findings reported
by Harzer and Ruch (in press), but with an added degree of sophistication in the
measurement. In contrast to Harzer and Ruch who reported self-rating data only, also
peer-rating data was utilized as well, preventing the artificial inflation of relationships
due to the common method variance (Doty & Glick, 1998). Co-workers experience the
workplace every day (i.e., external influences) and can observe the individuals’
behavior within this context (i.e., internal influences). Therefore, they can validly rate
the applicability of character strengths at work. Self-ratings were used for the ratings
concerning the possession of character strengths, the positive experiences at work, and
calling. As positive experiences are subjective perceptions, the self-rater is the most
WHEN THE JOB IS A CALLING 8
valid judge. Furthermore, the workplace is a formal situation that does not always
encourage behavior suiting an individual’s trait pattern (Ten Berge & De Raad, 1999).
Consequently, strengths-relevant behavior might not always be observable and co-
workers might not be able to provide a full reflection of the self-raters’ possession of the
character strengths.
In line with Harzer and Ruch (in press), it was expected that (a) the correlations
between applicability of strengths and positive experiences at work (i.e., a composite
score of job satisfaction, pleasure, engagement, and meaning) would increase with the
centrality of the strengths. It should be highest for the signature strengths and lower for
the lower ranked strengths within an individual. (b) Positive experiences at work are
expected to increase with the number of signature strengths that can be applied at work.
It was hypothesized that there might be a critical minimum number of applied signature
strengths, which may be expected to be located around four character strengths.
The second and the third aim add something new to the research on character
strengths. The second aim refers to the examination of the relationships between calling
and the positive experiences at work as well as the number of applied signature
strengths at work. Based on the theoretical assumptions concerning calling described
above, positive associations between calling and the positive experiences at work were
expected. Furthermore, we hypothesized that the minimum number of applied signature
strengths for positive experiences at work would also differentiate between the people
seeing their work as a calling and those who do not see their work as a calling.
Thirdly, we wanted to find out whether the number of signature strengths that
can be applied at work directly facilitated a calling or whether this relationship was
mediated by the enhancement of positive experiences. A path model was utilized to test
WHEN THE JOB IS A CALLING 9
this with the number of applied signature strengths as independent variable, positive
experiences as mediator, and calling as dependent variable. It was examined how the
direct relationship between the number of applied signature strengths and calling
changed when positive experiences at work entered the analysis as mediator.
Method
Participants
Self-raters. The sample consisted of 111 German-speaking adult volunteers (60 men,
51 women). Their mean age was 47.21 years (SD = 8.70; range 25-64 years). Self-raters
were highly educated as n = 70 indicated having a Master’s degree and n = 20 a PhD;
n = 14 had finished an apprenticeship, and n = 7 the A-levels. Participants represented a
wide array of occupations (e.g., like medical doctors, lawyers, mechanists, and office
workers). The most prevalent occupational fields (n 5) were n = 10 teachers, n = 6
professional advisers, and n = 5 consultants.
Peer-raters. The sample consisted of 111 co-workers (51 men, 60 women) of the
self-raters. Their mean age was 42.82 years (SD = 10.64; range 19-71 years). Peer-raters
were highly educated as n = 68 indicated having a Master’s degree and n = 11 a PhD;
n = 24 had finished an apprenticeship, and n = 8 the A-level. Mean rating of how well
they know the self-raters was 6.88 (SD = 1.23; range 5-9; rating from 1 = not at all to 5
= to some extend to 9 = very well). That indicated that the peers knew the self-raters
well and were therefore able to judge their behavior at the workplace.
Instruments
Self-rating measures
WHEN THE JOB IS A CALLING 10
The Values in Action Inventory of Strengths (VIA-IS; Peterson et al., 2005a) is a
questionnaire consisting of 240 items in a 5-point Likert-scale format (from 1 = very
much unlike me to 5 = very much like me) measuring the 24 character strengths of the
VIA classification (10 items for each strengths). A sample items is “I am always coming
up with new ways to do things” (creativity). The 24 scales of the German version of the
VIA-IS (Ruch, Proyer, Harzer, Park, Peterson, & Seligman, 2010) showed high
reliability (median α = .77) and high stability over 9 months (median test-retest
correlation = .73). Self- and peer-rating forms correlated in the expected range (median
correlation = .40). In the present study, internal consistencies ranged from .61
(prudence) to .91 (religiousness) with a median of .76.
The Job Satisfaction Questionnaire (JSQ; Andrews & Withey, 1976) consists of
five items in a 7-point Likert-scale (from 1 = terrible through 7 = delighted) measuring
job satisfaction. Sample items are “How do you feel about your job?” or “How do you
feel about the people you work with- your co-workers?” The responses are averaged to
provide a total job satisfaction score. The JSQ showed high reliability (α = .81) and
convergent validity (r = .70) to other measures of job satisfaction (Rentsch & Steel,
1992). The German version of JSQ used here showed high reliability (α = .80) as well
(Harzer & Ruch, in press). Internal consistency was .74 in the present study.
The Work Context Questionnaire (WCQ; Ruch, Furrer, & Huwyler, 2004) is a
three-item questionnaire measuring the extent to which one’s job allows for pleasure, to
which it fosters one’s potentials (engagement) and to which it allows for meaning.
Answers are given on a 5-point Likert-scale (1 = totally disagree through 5 = totally
agree). Validity of the ratings was shown, as they were meaningfully associated with
other variables (Ruch et al., 2004). For example, engagement was positively related to
WHEN THE JOB IS A CALLING 11
the promotion level of employees. Pleasure and meaning were positively related to
satisfaction with the job.
The Work-Life Questionnaire (WLQ; Wrzesniewski et al., 1997) is a three-item
questionnaire measuring the stance towards work as a job, career, and calling. Three
brief scenarios, which describe individuals who approached work as a job, a profession,
or a calling, are rated on a 4-point Likert-scale (1 = not at all like me through 4 = very
much like me). The WLQ scenarios scores were meaningfully related to items asking
about specific aspects of relations to work that are relevant to the distinction of job,
career, and calling (Wrzesniewski et al., 1997). A German version of WLQ was utilized.
Three psychologists translated the WLQ, and the initial version of the German WLQ
was created by committee approach (Butcher & Pancheri, 1976). A bilingual
retranslated this version, a few modifications were made and items were checked for
understandability. In the present study, only the calling scenario was examined.
Peer-rating measure
The Applicability of Character Strengths Rating Scales (ACS-RS; Harzer & Ruch, in
press) measures the extent to which each of the 24 character strengths of the VIA
classification is applicable at work1. For each of the character strengths, short
paragraphs are provided describing character strengths-relevant behavior based on the
definitions by Peterson and Seligman (2004; e.g., kindness: Being nice, helpful, kind,
and caring without expecting any reward). These behaviors are rated on a 5-point
Likert-scale (1 = never though 5 = [almost] always) for (a) normative demands of a
situation (actual wording: “it is demanded”), (b) appropriateness of the behavior (“it is
1 Another environment or situation (e.g., leisure time, project a vs. project b) can be studied by
emphasizing it in the instruction of the ACS-RS.
WHEN THE JOB IS A CALLING 12
helpful”), (c) perceived presence of factors that may facilitate or impede the behavior
(“I do it”), and (d) intrinsic motivation to show it (“it is important for me”). As these
ratings are very abstract and the actual wording in everyday language is very superficial,
their meaning is described in the instruction with an example highlighting the
differences between those ratings and that the answers might differ across those
ratings2. A total of 96 items measures the applicability of the 24 character strengths with
the 4 ratings for each of the strengths. The ARC-RS showed satisfactory internal
consistency and inter-rater agreement judging the same workplaces (Harzer & Ruch, in
press). Internal consistencies ranged from .77 (zest) to .93 (religiousness) with a median
of .83 in the present study.
Procedure
Data collection
Participants completed the questionnaires and provided information on demographics
via the Internet. Testing via the Internet has been criticized in different occasions (e.g.,
for sample biases), but standards for the implementation of Internet-delivered-testing
(Coyne & Bartram, 2006) facilitate this way of data collection. Furthermore, there is
empirical evidence that data collected via the Internet leads to similar findings as more
traditional paper-pencil methods (Gosling, Vazire, Srivastava, & John, 2004).
2 Example given in the instruction is about kindness rated by a nurse: A nurse’s job description
entails many comments about hygiene but less about kindness and they do not talk much about
it in the team. That is why she would rate “it is demanded” as seldom (rating = 2). As she
realized that caring for patients is easier when being kind to them she rates that “it is helpful”
often (rating = 4). Furthermore, it is usually important for her to interact with patients in a kind
way and she therefore would rate “it is important for me” as 4 = often. However, the workload
is very high and therefore impedes kind interactions some of the time (“I do it” = 3). In total
kindness would have an applicability score of 3.25, which means that kindness is sometimes
applicable at work.
WHEN THE JOB IS A CALLING 13
Self-raters were acquired through press coverage (e.g., newspaper and several
magazines) highlighting the requirement for participation of having a job with a
percentage of employment of at least 50%. After filling in the questionnaires, the self-
raters asked a co-worker to fill in the peer-ratings. Matching of ratings was done by
means of a code that the self-raters created themselves and told the peer-raters. Peer-
ratings were given anonymous and both, peer- and self-raters were informed about this
beforehand. Hence, self- and peer-rates filled in the questionnaires independent from
each other. Neither self-raters nor the peer-raters were paid for participating, but self-
raters were given a feedback of individual results when expressing interest. Peer-ratings
were not part of the feedback and both self- and peer-raters were informed about this
beforehand.
Composite score for positive experiences at work
A composite score for the positive experiences at work was computed by conducting a
principal component analysis using the JSQ and the three WCQ scales as variables to
compute factor scores (cf., Harzer & Ruch, in press). One Eigenvalue exceeded unity,
and the Scree-plot (Eigenvalues were 2.49, .71, .52, and .28) and a parallel analysis
(Horn, 1965; Eigenvalues were 1.21, 1.06, 0.94, and 0.74) suggested unidimensionality.
This single factor explained 62.31% of the variance and the loadings of the variables
ranged from .67 (pleasure at work) to .82 (engagement at work). The factor was labeled
“positive experiences at work”.
WHEN THE JOB IS A CALLING 14
Results
Preliminary analyses
The means ranged from 2.83 (religiousness) to 4.13 (curiosity) in the VIA-IS, and from
1.93 (religiousness) to 4.09 (honesty) in the ACS-RS. Means in the measures for the
positive experiences were 3.98, 4.08, and 3.80 for WCQ pleasure, engagement, and
meaning, respectively, as well as 5.66 in the JSQ. WLQ calling had a mean of 2.57.
Thus, the means were slightly above the scale midpoint of 3 in the VIA-IS and the
ACS-RS (except for the religiousness scales) as well as in the WCQ. In line with
frequent observations on satisfaction scales, the mean in the JSQ was considerably
higher than the scale midpoint of 4. However, the analysis of skewness and kurtosis still
indicated normal distribution for all the scales.
Correlations of all the scales with age, gender, and educational level were
modest in size; shared variance between scales and demographics rarely exceeded 5%
(maximum was 10%). However, some correlation patterns were noteworthy: For
example, females had systematically higher scores in the scales appreciation of beauty
and excellence in the VIA-IS, and love in the ACS-RS. Age was positively related to
forgiveness in the VIA-IS as well as to engagement, and meaning at work. Finally,
higher levels of education went along with love of learning in the VIA-IS and in the
ACS-RS as well as with meaning at work. Hence, it was decided to control for
demographics in the subsequently conducted analyses.
Applicability of character strengths and positive experiences at work
It was expected that the correlations between applicability of strengths and positive
experiences at work would increase with the centrality of the strengths (irrespective of
WHEN THE JOB IS A CALLING 15
their nature). It should be highest for the signature strengths and lower for the lower –
ranked strengths. This was tested by means of partial correlations (controlled for age,
gender, and education) between the applicability of the strengths (ACS-RS scores)
sorted by rank3 and the factor ”positive experiences at work”. This yielded 24
correlation coefficients between the applicability of the individuals’ highest (rank 1),
second highest (rank 2), and so forth up to the 24th character strength (rank 24) and
positive experiences at work. A first inspection of the correlation coefficients indicated
that correlation coefficients decreased numerically as the rank of character strengths
increased. To test the statistical significance of the decrease, Spearman rank correlation
was computed between the 24 ranks and the corresponding correlation coefficients that
verified the impression of the first inspection (R[24] = -.46, p < .05).
Number of applied signature strengths and positive experiences at work
It was expected that positive experiences at work would increase with the number of
signature strengths applied at work and that there might be a crucial number of applied
signature strengths. To examine these assumptions, groups were computed defining
participants that can apply none to seven of their seven highest character strengths. A
character strength among the seven highest within an individual was only defined as
being applicable, if (a) the ACS-RS score (peer-rating) was 4 or higher (i.e., this is
equal to an applicability that is at least rated as “often”) and if (b) the VIA-IS score
(self-rating) was 3.5 or higher (i.e., this is equal to possessing a character strength at
least slightly).
3 Ratings of the applicability of the character strengths were restructured from a content wise
order (i.e., for creativity, curiosity, etc.) to a rank wise order (i.e., applicability of character on
rank 1, rank 2, etc.). The character strengths at rank 1, rank 2, etc. up to rank 24 differs
individually. Ranks were derived from the VIA-IS scores that were rank ordered within each
individual.
WHEN THE JOB IS A CALLING 16
A univariate ANCOVA was performed with the number of character strengths
that are applicable at work as independent variable (8 groups: 0 to 7 strengths
applicable) and the factor scores of positive experiences at work as dependent variable.
Age, gender, and education were used as covariates. Repeated contrasts were utilized
testing whether neighboured groups differed.
The ANCOVA indicated a large effect (Cohen, 1988) of the number of strengths
applied at work on positive experiences at work, F(7, 110) = 2.36, p = .029,
partial η2 = .142. Figure 1 shows how the degree of positive experiences varied as a
function of number of the applied character strengths among the seven highest.
Insert Figure 1 about here
Figure 1 shows that the group means in the factor scores in positive experiences at work
ranged from -.41 to .54 when applying none to seven of the highest strengths, which
was a range equivalent to nearly one standard deviation. Moreover, there was a strong
increase of positive experiences in the amount of more than 2/3 of a standard deviation
when applying four instead of three of the highest strengths. Repeated contrasts
revealed that using four instead of three strengths significantly increased positive
experiences at work (p = .045). The repeated comparisons between all other
neighboured groups failed to be significant. Group sizes dropped for the groups
applying five to seven strengths, indicating that the application of five, six or seven
signature strength was relatively rare.
Number of applied signature strengths and calling
The application of at least four signature strengths defined a good strengths-related
congruence between an individual and the workplace, as this went along with higher
WHEN THE JOB IS A CALLING 17
degrees of positive experiences at work. To find out whether this number of applied
strengths at work was crucial for callings as well, a univariate ANCOVA with the same
specifications as the one computed before was performed but with the WLQ calling
score as dependent variable. The number of applied signature strengths was the
independent variable (8 groups: 0 to 7 strengths applicable); age, gender, and education
entered the analysis as covariates. Again, the ANCOVA indicated a large effect (Cohen,
1988) of the group membership on the calling ratings, F(7, 110) = 3.28, p < .01, partial
η2 = .187. A planned comparison contrasting the groups of “poor congruence” (0 to 3
strengths applied) vs. “good congruence” (4 to 7 strengths applied) yielded a significant
difference between those applying 0-3 and those applying 4-7 signature strengths, F(1,
110) = 11.11, p < .01. The group that applied up to three strengths did not perceive their
jobs as a calling (M = 2.27; 95% confidence interval ranging from 2.03 to 2.50; below
the scale midpoint of 2.5). The group that applied four to seven strengths clearly
indicated seeing their job as a calling (M = 3.05; 95% confidence interval ranging from
2.76 to 3.34; above the scale midpoint of 2.5).4
4 Peterson, Park, Hall, and Seligman (2009) showed that zest is the character strength of the
VIA classification that plays the most important role for calling. The question arises how the
relationship between the number of applied signature strengths and calling changes when zest
is controlled for. We highlighted that the application of signature strengths is important for
calling irrespective of the strengths’ content. Therefore, if the results remained the same when
controlling for zest, it would be a support for this statement. Analyses of the data were
conducted with two different changes in data analyses to check for the influence of zest on the
results. These were that (a) zest was not included when computing the number of applied
strengths at work and (b) zest entered the analysis as covariate in an ANCOVA (UV = number
of applied signature strengths; AV = calling rating). The results remained the same (version a:
F[7, 110] = 2.13, p = .048, partial η2 = .130; version b: F[7, 110] = 2.60, p = .017, partial
η2 = .155). Again, planned comparisons (all p < .001) showed that especially those employees
applying four to seven of their signature strengths see their work as a calling compared to
those applying none to three strengths at work irrespective of the influence of zest (0-3
strengths vs. 4-7 strengths: [version a] M = 2.31 vs. 3.05; [version b] M = 2.32 vs. M = 2.95).
WHEN THE JOB IS A CALLING 18
Number of applied signature strengths, positive experiences, and calling
Two steps of analysis were conducted to explore whether positive experiences at work
mediate the association between the number of applied signature strengths at work and
calling. Firstly, the zero-order correlations between the number of applied strengths
among the seven highest, the factor positive experiences at work, and calling were
computed. Correlation coefficients were .32 between the number of applied strengths
and positive experiences, .36 between the number of applied strengths and calling, and
.43 between the positive experiences and calling (all p < .001)5. Secondly, a path
analysis was conducted (using AMOS 17; Arbuckle, 2008) to investigate whether the
direct relationship between the number of applied strengths and calling decreased when
the factor positive experiences at work was considered as a mediator. The independent
variable was the number of strengths among the seven highest applied at work (range: 0
to 7), mediator was the factor of positive experiences at work, and the outcome variable
was calling (see Figure 2).
Insert Figure 2 about here
Figure 2 shows that the direct relationship between the number of applied
signature strengths and calling dropped from .36 to .25 when considering positive
experiences at work as mediator. This indicated, that this relationship was partially
mediated by the amount of positive experiences at work. Therefore, the number of
applied signature strengths at work seemed to influence a calling orientation in two
ways: directly, but also indirectly by fostering positive experiences. The indirect effect
5 The calling orientation was very similarly related to each of the positive experiences at work
with correlation coefficients of .31, .34, .34, and .35 with meaning at work, engagement at
work, job satisfaction, and pleasure at work, respectively (all p < .001).
WHEN THE JOB IS A CALLING 19
was .11 (p < .001; with a bias corrected 95% confidence interval ranging from .05 to .20
using 5000 bootstrap samples).
Discussion
The present study indicates that calling is a function of the congruence between an
individual’s character strengths and those demanded at the workplace, as well as of the
degree of positive experiences at work. These results are even more meaningful as they
were corrected for common method bias due to additional involvement of peer-ratings
(cf., Doty & Glick, 1998).
Associations between applicability of strengths and positive experiences at work
increased with the centrality of the strengths for the individual (irrespective of the
nature of the strengths), which is in line with previous research (Harzer & Ruch, in
press). Moreover, it seems to be critical to apply at least four signature strengths for
positive experiences at work and calling. Whereas those participants applying none to
three strengths among the seven highest had a relatively low amount of positive
experiences at work (i.e., below average), the ones applying four and more strengths
described higher degrees of positive experiences at work (i.e., above average). This is in
line with the results found by Harzer and Ruch (in press). Moreover, only those
applying four and more signature strengths indicated seeing their jobs as a calling. Even
when controlling for zest as the most important predictor for calling among the 24
character strengths of the VIA classification, the number of applied signature strengths
at work was related to calling. Hence, character strengths matter within the work
context irrespective of the content but respective to their centrality for the individual.
WHEN THE JOB IS A CALLING 20
Calling is very desirable due to its positive outcomes (for both, employers and
employees) such as less frequent turnover (i.e., more years in current position), less
frequent absence days, and higher income (Wrzesniewski et al., 1997). Hence, it is of
great interest to foster calling in employees. It therefore needs to be considered how this
can be done. The present study indicated that the congruence between an individual’s
character strengths and the ones demanded at the workplace plays an important role.
The mediation analysis indicated that this congruence even has two modes of action on
calling – direct and indirect through the enhancement of positive experiences. Such a
direct link has already been noted previously (e.g., Dobrow, 2004; Novak, 1996; Weiss
et al., 2004). However, the present study is the first one showing the role of strengths-
related congruence between a person and a job for a calling orientation. Additionally, a
good congruence (i.e., at least four applied signature strengths at work) is indirectly
related to calling as it relates to positive experiences at work, which in turn relate to
calling. Consequently, employers or human resource managers would need to enhance
the application of individual signature strengths between the employees and their
workplaces to increase positive experiences and calling.
Furthermore, the present study can be seen as additional validation of the
concept of signature strengths (cf., Peterson & Seligman, 2004). Character strengths do
differ in their importance depending on their centrality for an individual (and not only
with respect to their content-related nature). Hence, it is not only important to foster the
character strengths known to be generally strongly related to life satisfaction and
positive emotions in order to obtain a fulfilling life (e.g., Güsewell & Ruch, 2012b;
Peterson, Ruch, Beermann, Park, & Seligman, 2007; Ruch et al., 2010). It is also
relevant to cultivate and exercise the signature strengths (also see Seligman, Steen,
WHEN THE JOB IS A CALLING 21
Park, & Peterson, 2005); with respect to the results of the present study at least four of
them. However, that does not mean each person owns four signature strengths. This
number results from analyzing data across but not within participants. There will be
individual differences in the number of signature strengths. It might be of interest to
further study these differences and their role for positive experiences. Is it the same to
apply four out of four or seven out of seven or four out of seven signature strengths? Do
have the individuals with more signature strengths advantages in obtaining a fulfilling
life? How do the individual differences in the number of signature strengths develop?
Due to the fact that character strengths are defined as malleable and dependent on life
experiences (cf., Peterson & Seligman, 2004) this might be a function of the frequency
of opportunities to show strengths-related behavior. This may be further studied.
Limitations of the present study give directions for future research. The findings
need further validation through intervention studies as cross-sectional data was reported
in the present study and consequently, causality could not be inferred. This paper
examined, whether the application of individual signature strengths, positive
experiences at work, and calling are robustly associated. Further research utilizing
longitudinal design or intervention studies would be needed to prove the assumed
causality. Additionally, intervention studies might contrast the effects of increasing the
application of one vs. two vs. three vs. four vs. five vs. six vs. seven strengths. Within
this context, it would also be interesting to see whether there is a “too little” or “too
much” of exercised signature strengths resulting in strain or boredom, as found for other
positive interventions (Lyubomirsky, Sheldon, & Schkade, 2005).
Furthermore, the sample of the study was very highly educated and therefore,
not representative for the employee population. It will be necessary to study a more
WHEN THE JOB IS A CALLING 22
representative sample or even employees in non-professional work to further examine
replicability and generalizability of results. However, education is only slightly related
to the character strengths of wisdom and knowledge as measured with the VIA-IS (cf.,
Ruch et al., 2010) and their applicability as measured with the ACS-RS (Harzer &
Ruch, in press). Therefore, the results presented here might not be affected by a
different sampling. Nevertheless, non-professional work compared to professional work
is characterized by higher degrees of formalization and less variety in the tasks
(Mathieu & Hamel, 1989; Morgenson & Humphrey, 2006). Professional work in turn is
more complex with higher psychological demands and decision latitude (Karasek,
Brisson, Kawakami, Houtman, Bongers, & Amick, 1998). A perception of “good
congruency” followed by positive experiences and a sense of calling might be facilitated
in a non-professional work more easily – with less then four applied signature strengths.
Furthermore, the notion that at least four applied signature strengths at work
relates to the character strengths defined within the VIA classification. Utilizing other
conceptualization of human strengths or themes of talent like the ones defined in the
StrengthsFinder (Rath, 2007) may lead to another conclusion. These themes are defined
as being especially relevant to excellence in the workplace and are more specific than
the character strengths defined within the VIA classification. For example, themes like
empathy and positivity may reflect the broader character strengths kindness; command
and developer my reflect leadership. There are studies showing that the application of
strengths as measured by the StrengthsFinder results in more productive work, less
employee turnover, and higher work engagement (for an overview see for example
Hodges & Asplund, 2010). It might be interesting to do a similar study to the one
presented here with the strengths (i.e., themes of talent) measured by the
WHEN THE JOB IS A CALLING 23
StrengthsFinder. Will there be a different number of applied strengths that is crucial for
a high level of positive experiences and a calling orientation? Due to the more specific
conceptual level of the themes defined in the StrengthsFinder one might expect, for
example, that more applied strengths are needed to cover the broad range of tasks and
experiences at work for a perception of “good congruency”.
However, there might not only be differences in the critical number of applied
signature strengths for positive experiences and calling between professions or strengths
conceptualizations but also with respect to specific situations. It might be of interest to
collect longitudinal data to evaluate cross-situational consistency of strengths.
Depending on factors such as work stress, complexity of the current work tasks, and
whether other people are involved, at one moment two strengths are optimal and at
another five strengths are optimal.6
Additionally, future studies might assess positive experiences at work with
scales comprised of several items. Consequently, it will also be possible to investigate
them individually now that we know they matter with respect to a calling orientation. It
may be examined whether the positive experiences at work studied here are equally
important for the development of a calling or whether some are more important than
others.
Overall, the present study provides information on how to “organize” a
workplace in order to set up a positive institution. Positive institutions are those, which
enable the development of positive traits like the character strengths which in turn foster
positive experiences (Peterson, 2006). In the light of the present paper, a positive
6 The authors would like to thank one of the anonymous reviewers for this comment.
WHEN THE JOB IS A CALLING 24
workplace is one that fosters the individuals’ signature strengths (i.e., allows for their
application) and consequently facilitates positive experiences and calling.
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Figure 1. Average factor scores in positive experiences at work (± SE) as a function of
number of the seven highest character strengths applied at work. Group sample sizes
were n0 = 10, n1 = 21, n2 = 23, n3 = 14, n4 = 19, n5 = 9, n6 = 8, and n7 = 7.
WHEN THE JOB IS A CALLING 30
Figure 2. Path model of the effect of the number of signature strengths applied at work
on calling, which is partially mediated by positive experiences at work. **p < .01.
***p < .001.
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Character strengths have been found to consistently predict many positive psychological outcomes, such as well-being, life satisfaction, and mental health, but research on the topic is still at its infancy and some methodological limitations must be overcome to better understand what character strengths are and what is their role. Two main issues concern the structure of character strengths and the widespread use of sum scores, which may undermine the credibility and replicability of previous findings. Using two different samples (with 14364 and 944 participants), we confirm that character strengths can be well described by a bifactor model reflecting the simultaneous existence of a general factor of ‘good character’ and the 24 specific character strengths. In addition, we newly show that the specific character strengths (with a few exceptions) have no predictive power when a general factor is included in the analysis. In fact, only the general factor consistently related to participants’ life satisfaction, mental health, and distress symptoms. These results highlight the need to better understand what this general factor really represents to finally capture the mechanisms linking character strengths between each other and with external outcomes. Implications for the measurement and interpretation of character strengths and for strength-based interventions are discussed.
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... To do so, I utilize the tripartite taxonomy of character strengths , which posits that interpersonal, intrapersonal, and intellectual dimensions of character are key to how people engage with others, manage goals, and engage with ideas. Although character strengths are primarily discussed in the realm of educational and developmental psychology (Yin, & Majid, 2018), they are central to various organizational-relevant outcomes such as effective relationships , positive work experiences (Harzer, & Ruch, 2012, job performance (Harzer & Ruch, 2014;Harzer et al., 2021), and burnout (Allan et al., 2017). Building on this research, I propose that character strengths are the key mechanism explaining how an overcoming adversity identity can enrich such work outcomes. ...
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... In other words, mature employees can authentically treat and apply their capacities better to use the opportunities they are offered (Harzer and Ruch, 2012a;Littman-Ovadia and Davidovitch, 2010). This may also facilitate the role of transformational leaders in influencing employees (Harzer and Ruch, 2012b;Page and Vella-Brodrick, 2009;Dutton et al., 2010). ...
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