According to Gallup’s 2022 Global Workplace Report, the UK is currently amongst the worst in Europe with respect to employee job satisfaction, ranked 33 out of 38, says Dr Curt Friedel.

Further, the report indicates less than one in ten individuals feel enthusiastic in their position. This alarming statistic follows a further report from a global research agency that found that 83 percent of UK employees believe that people within their organisation are not heard fairly or equally, leading to staff feeling undervalued by employers. 

This is related to the 2017 Ultimate Software Study, which found that 80 percent of employees believe they can do their work without their manager.  

Many are still trying to make sense of these statistics, but what has changed? 

A successful senior officer of a nationally recognised bank, retired five years earlier than he had originally planned. It was a surprise to everyone. His financial accounting was meticulously planned to the penny, with retirement opportunities that would require a few more years to mature. His management of the bank was pristine, with the respect of both clients and staff. During his tenure, the banks he managed consistently met their performance targets. What happened? 

This senior banker had a new supervisor, 20 years younger, and lots of ideas. The senior banker had been around long enough to have had several supervisors and was certainly not threatened by someone younger or with less experience. He could have easily managed to make things work for another five years. Yet, this time it was different. This young supervisor was changing the entire playbook for how banking was to be done, in what appeared to be a revolutionary approach and with little input from others. After two months, the senior banker left with no turning back. His absence left a noticeable void. 

This true story seems to resonate as we have witnessed similar situations where an individual chooses to leave before what was originally intended. In explaining the cause of this situation, people may too quickly go to the cliché, “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks” or consider this another casualty of the Great Resignation. There are many reasons why someone may leave their position at a company, which include new opportunities, changing of values or career interests, and not having the skill set to continue in a position, to name just a few. Or perhaps the individual no longer felt valued, heard, or satisfied in their career.  

A mismatch of structure 

One thing not often considered in these situations is a mismatch of how individuals prefer to manage structure. A British psychologist, Dr. Michael Kirton, in the 1970s, originated Adaption-Innovation (A-I) theory, which explains how we each have an innate and stable characteristic of our personality related to how we prefer to solve problems as it relates to managing structure. As measured by the KAI, the corresponding measure of A-I theory, individuals are either more adaptive or more innovative along a continuum. More adaptive individuals are more structured in their thinking, methodical with details, and prefer change with a more evolutionary approach, guided with more regard for group consensus. More innovative individuals are unstructured in their thinking, take a broader perspective with ranging viewpoints, and prefer change with a more revolutionary approach, often with less regard for group consensus. 

The A-I continuum follows a normal distribution curve, meaning most people fall somewhere in the middle and fewer people are positioned at the ends of the continuum. People positioned closer to the ends have a stronger preference for either adaption or innovation. Over 45 years of published research on A-I theory indicates that a significantly sized gap (one standard deviation or more) between two people anywhere on the continuum can lead to conflict while solving a problem together. In short, one prefers more or less structure than the other.  

There is no ideal position on the A-I continuum, in general. In fact, solutions for the complex problems of today need a diversity of cognitive preferences, working together with mutual respect and humility. Also, research indicates that one’s preference for adaption or innovation is not linked to one’s intelligence, motivation, values, past experiences, situation, status, age, culture, or ethnicity. While conflict can occur due to differences among these items, conflict can also result from differences of problem-solving preferences. 

Problem-solving preferences

Leaders need to manage the differences of problem-solving preferences among team members and resolve the difference of problem-solving preferences between themselves and the average problem-solving preferences of their creative teams. Without knowledge of A-I theory, we may be misattributing our disagreements to issues of age, gender, status, or race, when the disagreement may actually be a result of differences in one’s preference for structure. 

Revisiting the introductory story of the senior banker with a basic understanding of A-I theory, one can now see how he differed in his preference for structure in comparison to his new supervisor. Note that the preferences for structure in this story could have been reversed. For example, this senior banking officer could have had a successful career making more risky investments and built a corporate culture based in alternative approaches and independent decision-making.  The younger supervisor in this case could be brought in to institute more policies and regulations with more consistency and logistics to banking efforts. There is no evidence of generational differences among those completing the KAI. 

Unfortunately, when the senior banker left his position, he also took with him all of his institutional knowledge, skills, relationships, and built trust with clients, which cost the bank greatly when it was recognised his expertise would have been useful during what grew to be a crisis. His departure may have been prevented. 

What about structure?

We each prefer more or less structure, so assuming the team is agreeing to work together, there should be a consensual agreement on the amount of structure needed to solve a particular problem. More adaptive individuals prefer solving problems through the use of rules and are enabled with more structure. To the more adaptive, too little structure will be uncomfortable and frustrating without a standard operating procedure. On the other hand, more innovative individuals prefer solving problems by altering the rules, and see the limits of structure.

The more innovative will feel uncomfortable and frustrated with too many regulations restricting their autonomy. Identifying and agreeing on the amount of structure needed to solve problems together may help adaptive and innovative individuals work together and prevent disengagement from the group. 

The process for solving problems as a team should allow for ideas to be heard by all team members. More adaptive individuals on the team will more quickly recognise internal policies which may no longer be working and needing to be tweaked to improve efficiency. The more innovative individuals will more quickly identify opportunities external to the focus of the team, which could prove rewarding. Being able to lead the cognitive diversity of your team, with each individual feeling heard and valued for their thoughts, will most likely ensure one’s employees are not grouped together with another poor job satisfaction statistic. 


By Dr Curt Friedel Associate Professor and Director at Virginia Tech University’s Centre for Cooperative Problem Solving.





Amelia Brand is the Editor for HRreview, and host of the HR in Review podcast series. With a Master’s degree in Legal and Political Theory, her particular interests within HR include employment law, DE&I, and wellbeing within the workplace. Prior to working with HRreview, Amelia was Sub-Editor of a magazine, and Editor of the Environmental Justice Project at University College London, writing and overseeing articles into UCL’s weekly newsletter. Her previous academic work has focused on philosophy, politics and law, with a special focus on how artificial intelligence will feature in the future.