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Examining the antecedents and consequences of salesperson job stress.


Of the many new challenges and changes in selling and sales management over the last two decades, none has been more profound than the dramatic increase in job-related stress (Keichel, 1993). Productivity pressures on salespeople, job uncertainties due to corporate restructuring, outsourcing of sales operations, growing international competition, and changes in sales strategies have generated unprecedented levels of job stress in sales organizations. Surprisingly, the causes and effects of job stress remain poorly understood (Dewe and Guest, 1990; Newton, 1989). The effects of job stress in an international setting or among salespeople of varying national origins is even less understood (Agarwal, 1993; Dubinsky et al., 1992). Our objective is to explore the job-related stress of salespeople.

Stress on the sales job can be viewed as the incongruity between a salesperson's desired job expectations and actual perceived conditions (Edwards, 1992). Stress may be encountered in virtually every key element in the sales job. One survey of sales executives in 60 large companies documents how:

(1) sales strategies are being changed to emphasize customer oriented selling;

(2) companies are changing their infrastructures to provide flexibility and faster decision making;

(3) reorganizations are employed to remove barriers between manufacturing, sales, logistics and customers;

(4) pressures are placed on improving selling effectiveness and contribution to profitability; and

(5) different sales approaches, management structures and compensation plans are developed for different market segments (The H.R. Chally Group, 1992).

These rapid and often turbulent changes make a salesperson's job incredibly stressful and complicate the sales manager's job.

The potential for increased levels of stress in the contemporary work environment is apparent from the pressures for change occurring in many organizations. Coping with stress has become a current research topic and has obvious importance as a managerial concern (Keaveney and Nelson, 1993; Strutton et al., 1995). However, one important research objective still remains: the determination of how antecedents affect job stress and how stress impacts salespeople's commitment to their organization and their propensity to leave the organization. These questions are relevant to both managers and researchers.

Our objectives are to contribute to the existing research on job stress (Sager, 1994) by examining the influence of how well the job met initial expectations on other constructs in the model. Sager, using a causal model, examined three antecedents to job stress:

(1) sales manager consideration;

(2) role ambiguity; and

(3) role conflict.

He also included three consequences:

(1) organizational commitment;

(2) job satisfaction; and

(3) intention to leave (Brown and Peterson, 1994).

Our study concentrates on a very different sample from previous job stress studies. Our hypothesis is that the sales environment may have as much effect on stress as do the variables that have been previously studied. We examine a turbulent and rapidly changing international services selling environment rather than a manufactured products industry that has been prevalent in most previous job stress studies. This approach responds to the call by Brown and Peterson (1994) for research into international and services organizations.

In addition, the salesforce of this study comprised 44 per cent females. This was in sharp contrast to Sager's (1994) study which was over 90 per cent male. The addition of met expectations, a broader job satisfaction scale, an international services industry, and a high percentage of female salespeople is expected to produce new insights concerning the job stress model.

Our discussion is divided into three sections. First, we present a conceptual framework that identifies the job stress relationships. Next, the research methodology is described and study results are presented. Finally, managerial implications are examined based on the results of the study and promising areas are identified for future research.

Conceptual model and research hypotheses

Understanding job stress is a major concern in the sales organization because it has been shown to play a role in a number of key job-related attitudes (organizational commitment, job satisfaction) and behaviours (turnover) (Sager, 1994). Moreover, stress can lead to physical illnesses and chronic diseases, such as heart disease, mental ill-health, depression (Eckles, 1987) or other problems such as drug abuse (Patton, 1988), and alcoholism (Patton and Questell, 1988; Scanlon, 1986). More disturbing is a phenomenon that the Japanese refer to as Karoushi, or death from overwork. Tubbs (1993) postulates that the working environment and the reaction to it contribute significantly to high stress. Stress death is actually caused by the "cumulative, long-range effects of working in a situation where one feels trapped and powerless to effect any change for the better". Certainly, many salespeople feel trapped and powerless because of dependency on their sales environment.

Several recent studies examine the job stress phenomenon. Much of this research revolves around the salesperson in the boundary spanning position and the methods for coping with the resulting job stress (Goolsby, 1992; Lazarus and Folkman, 1984). Since salespeople are at the centre of the relationship between the customer, supplier and internal organization, the salesperson must satisfy the needs of multiple parties. The boundary spanning role of salespeople is well documented in terms of the added stress placed on the salesperson (Michaels et al., 1988; Miles, 1980; Walker et al., 1975).

The antecedents of job stress in the proposed causal model depicted in Figure 1 are role conflict and role ambiguity. The consequences of job stress are job satisfaction, met expectations, organizational commitment, and intention to leave. We now develop the supporting logic for the relationships among the constructs shown in Figure 1.


Role stress (stress associated with particular aspects of the individual's role in the organization) has generated a large body of research (Ford et al., 1975; Dubinsky and Mattson, 1979; Johnston et al., 1990b; Michaels et al., 1988, 1987). Examined in terms of two of its key components, role ambiguity and role conflict, role stress has consistently been shown to have a significant effect on a wide range of job-related attitudes and behaviours/Jackson and Schuler, 1985; Michaels and Dixon, 1994). In building on the work of Sager (1994) and others (Goolsby, 1992), we conceptualize role ambiguity and conflict to be important antecedents to job stress.

Role ambiguity. Rizzo et al. (1970) define role ambiguity as relating to an individual who lacks clear direction about the expectations of his or her role in the job or organization. A salesperson who feels that she/he does not have enough information to perform the job adequately may experience role ambiguity which will lead to increases in job stress. Support for this relationship is provided by several studies (Fry et al., 1986; Johnston et al., 1990a; Netemeyer et al., 1990; Sager, 1994).

Based on a synthesis of prior research, Sager (1994) proposed a positive relationship between role ambiguity and role conflict, since relatively weak relationships have been found between ambiguity and job satisfaction and other attitudinal variables. The underlying logic is that ambiguity in the job will lead to the perception of role conflict by the salesperson. Brown and Peterson (1993) provide empirical support for the ambiguity/conflict relationship.

Role conflict. Rizzo et al. (1970) define role conflict as incompatibility in communicated expectations that impinge on perceived role performance. A typical role conflict scenario occurs when the requests of a customer and supervisor are incompatible.

A salesperson who is unclear or lacks experience concerning his/her responsibilities is more likely to experience greater role conflict on the job. Several studies report direct and positive influences between role conflict and job stress (Fisher and Gittleson, 1983; Johnston et al., 1990a; Netemeyer et al., 1990; Sager, 1994). In addition to impacting job stress, role conflict is expected to be a negative influence on job satisfaction and job expectations.


There are several possible consequences of job stress. Michaels and Dixon (1994) examined the relationship between stress and job satisfaction, organizational commitment and performance. Sager (1994) included job satisfaction, organizational commitment and intention to leave in his stress model.

Job satisfaction. Studies have indicated that either an inverted U-shape, a positive linear, a negative linear, or no relationship exists between stress and satisfaction (Sullivan and Bhagat, 1992). However, the salesperson's overall effective feeling (satisfaction) towards the job has primarily been found to be negatively related to stress (role ambiguity/conflict) (Jackson and Schuler, 1985). Role conflict seems to have a stronger effect on job satisfaction than does role ambiguity (Netemeyer et al., 1990; Teas, 1983). Sager's findings suggest that role conflict directly influences job stress and job satisfaction while job satisfaction appears to reduce job stress and intention to leave. Finally, job stress indirectly influences intentions to leave through organizational commitment. Ambiguity may impact satisfaction indirectly through role conflict. Since there is not an extensive base of research indicating that ambiguity does not directly impact stress, we hypothesize that ambiguity and conflict each have a direct negative relationship to job satisfaction. We also propose a direct relationship between stress and satisfaction.

Met expectations. The construct met expectations considers how the salesperson's actual job experience compares to expectations at the time of employment, whereas the job satisfaction construct considers the salesperson's feeling towards the ongoing job. We would expect the two constructs to be positively related although capturing different aspects of the salesperson's views towards the job. Satisfaction gets at the salesperson's present feelings about the job, which may range from favourable to unfavourable. Met expectation considers whether the job turned out as expected. Importantly, it is not unusual for a person's job experience to be different from expectations, yet not necessarily unfavourable. Thus, the expectations construct captures an important aspect of the salesperson's view of the job. While there is no known empirical study of this construct, a scale has been developed (Griffith et al., 1994). It seems logical that the salesperson's job satisfaction should be positively related to whether the job meets the salesperson's expectations. We hypothesize that job satisfaction positively impacts met expectations and that role conflict will be negatively related to met expectations. Salespeople experiencing role conflict will be less inclined to feel that the job has met their expectations.

Organizational commitment. Organizational commitment reflects the strength of the salesperson's involvement and loyalty to the organization. Like job satisfaction, studies have typically found a negative relationship between job stress and organizational commitment. The higher the level of job stress (influenced by conflict and ambiguity) the less the organizational commitment (Jackson and Schuler, 1985; Sager, 1994).

A favourable job experience should positively impact the salesperson's organizational commitment. Job expectation seems to be a potentially important influence on the salesperson's organizational commitment. Interestingly, the results of a study of 964 college students interested in sales positions ranked "the job itself" as the most important reward, ahead of pay and opportunities for advancement (Castleberry, 1990). We hypothesize a positive relationship between met expectations and organizational commitment.

Intention to leave. The resignation of competent salespeople is a negative influence on the effectiveness of the sales organization. An experienced salesperson's sales are not likely to be sustained (in the short run) and the organization incurs the costs of recruiting and training a replacement. There is research support that job stress influences intention to leave although the linkage appears to be indirect. As stress increases, job satisfaction and organizational commitment decrease. Low job satisfaction and low organizational commitment increase the propensity to leave (Bedeian and Armenakis, 1981; Netemeyer et al., 1990; Sager, 1994). Sager (1994) found that job stress has an indirect influence on intention to leave through organizational commitment, although the relationship between commitment and stress was relatively weak. Johnston et al. (1990b) found a strong negative relationship between organizational commitment and intention to leave. Therefore, we hypothesize a negative relationship between job satisfaction and intention to leave and organizational commitment and intention to leave.

Research design


The company that served as the research site for the study is a large international services organization. Salespeople call on business-to-business accounts that market the services to consumer and organizational end-users. Salespeople are evaluated based on the revenues for the company's services generated by each salesperson's assigned accounts. The field salesforce represented in the study is compensated on the basis of salary plus commissions (commission payments comprise about 25 percent of total compensation).

Data were collected by using a mail questionnaire completed by the salesperson in the field sales organization. The questionnaire was mailed to each salesperson in the organization with a letter from the chief sales executive and a letter from the research team. The questionnaire was returned direct to the researchers. The questionnaire was developed and pretested in personal interviews with company sales executives.

A total of 203 completed questionnaires was obtained from the salesforce of 350 people. This was a response rate of 58 per cent. There were 188 complete responses on all of the questions, yielding a usable response rate of 54 per cent. Comparisons of demographic characteristics to the characteristics in the sample indicated no apparent non-response bias. The respondents consisted of 100 males (56 per cent) and 88 females (44 per cent). The sample had a median age of 40 years and median tenure of ten years. About 60 per cent of the sample consisted of salespeople with college degrees.

Measures, reliability, and validity

The constructs shown in Figure 1 and their respective measures are summarized in Table I. Role ambiguity and conflict were measured using the Rizzo et al. (1970) six and eight-item scales respectively. The respondent was asked to indicate the frequency of encountering the situation described in each item (Table I), using a scale anchored by "always" (5) and "never" (1). The reliability coefficient was 0.77 for role ambiguity and 0.70 for conflict.


Job stress, job satisfaction (Churchill et al., 1974; Comer et al., 1989) and organizational commitment (Porter et al., 1974), were measured using seven-, 28-, and nine-item scales, respectively (Table I). The respondent was asked to indicate the level of agreement for each statement, using a scale anchored by "strongly agree" (7) to "strongly disagree" (1). These scales have all been used in prior sales research. The reliability coefficient was 0.83 for stress, 0.89 for satisfaction, and 0.84 for organizational commitment.

Met expectations was measured using a 44-item scale developed by Griffith et al. (1994), which asks the respondent to compare her/his actual work experiences with his/her expectations about the job. The scale is anchored by "much better" (5) to "much worse" (1). The reliability coefficient for met expectations was 0.95.

Propensity to leave was measured using a four-item scale developed by Bluedorn (1982) and used frequently in salesforce research (Johnston et al., 1990b). The scale assesses the respondent's chances of quitting the job during the next three months, six months, next year, and next two years and was anchored by "very high" (7) and "very low" (1). The reliability coefficient was 0.83.

Table II presents the correlations among the measures and Cronbach's alpha coefficient for each measure (Cronbach, 1970). The measures were subjected to confirmatory factor analysis to assess their measurement properties further as recommended by Anderson and Gerbing (1988). Confirmatory factor analysis of each of the subsets of measures resulted in acceptable levels of fit and significant loadings of all hypothesized measures on their respective dimensions. Results of LISREL 7 analyses showed goodness of fit indices ranging from 0.84 to 0.93.

A series of pair-wise confirmatory factor analyses was conducted to assess discriminant validity of the measures using chi-square tests (Anderson and Gerbing, 1988). Results of the analyses showed that the measures did demonstrate discriminant validity. Composite scores were created by taking the arithmetic mean of the item scores measuring each construct. These measures were then used to test a path model of the hypothesized relationships.


Research results

The relationships among the constructs shown in Figure 1 were tested using LISREL 7. The study results provide strong support for the hypothesized model relationships. The overall model fit statistics indicate that the hypothesized model fits the data very well, especially on the basis of the Normed Fit Index-2 (NFI-2 = 0.916), suggested by Gerbing and Anderson (1992), as one of the most viable fit indices. The results of the empirical model tested are shown in Figure 2. All of the paths in the job stress model are significant and in the hypothesized direction. Nearly one-fourth ([R.sup.2] = 0.235) of the variation in job stress is explained by role ambiguity and role conflict. About 20 per cent ([R.sup.2] = 0.201) of the variation in propensity to leave is explained by the hypothesized antecedents.

Our results are generally consistent with Sager's (1994) findings. The explained variation in job stress by the antecedents (ambiguity and conflict) is 0.235 compared to Sager's 0.30 for role conflict, ambiguity, and the additional antecedent, sales manager consideration. Our explained variation in job satisfaction by the antecedents is 0.442 compared to Sager's 0.48. The only major difference in the magnitude of results is that the explained variation in propensity to leave by its antecedents is 0.201, whereas Sager's model explained over half ([R.sup.2] = 0.55) of the variation in intention to leave.

It is interesting that the results for the two models are generally similar up to the job satisfaction stage. While it is not possible to identify the specific reason why there are differences in magnitude in explaining intention to leave, there may be at least three contributory factors. First, different job satisfaction measures were used. Sager employed a five-item scale compared to our more comprehensive 28-item measure. Our scale included multiple items to measure satisfaction with the sales manager, work in general, promotion opportunities, pay, co-workers, and customers. Sager used one item for each component of satisfaction. Second, it is possible that differences in normal turnover rates between the two test sites could affect the intention to leave measures. Our sample was a high-stress service domain. Third, differences in propensity to leave between genders could affect our results since women account for 46 per cent of our sample compared to less than 10 per cent in Sager's sample.

Discussion and conclusions

Our research was designed to examine job stress relationships in a different sales environment from that used in prior research studies. The results of our analyses in an international services sales environment are generally consistent with previous studies.

Research implications

Our research findings have a number of implications for both salesforce researchers and managers. First, in a significantly different sales environment, the Sager model appears to provide a viable framework for understanding the antecedents and consequences of job stress. The general pattern in the findings suggests that job stress has important consequences that are related to salesperson turnover. Lower stress leads to higher job satisfaction, feeling that the job met expectations, and higher organizational commitment. Higher job satisfaction and commitment to the organization are associated with lower propensity to leave. Sales management's opportunity to reduce job stress appears linked to reducing the salesperson's role ambiguity and role conflict. Our results suggest that conflict has a stronger influence on job stress than does role ambiguity, although ambiguity may have a substantial indirect effect on stress through role conflict.

Second, there is a need for more salesforce researchers to conduct replication studies in order to authenticate or deny the large body of research that already exists in the literature. As noted by Johnston et al. (1990a), "The need for a replication tradition is especially significant in sales force research" (p. 287). The issue is not to find new variables and/or theories to explain salesforce attitudes and behaviours. There is already a large and well-established base of empirical research and theory. Rather, it is important to test these conceptualizations across different sales environments (international services) and among different types of salespeople (business-to-business selling) to assess their validity.

Research directions

Several promising directions are suggested for future research on job stress in sales organizations. First, more attention needs to be directed to identifying both controllable and non-controllable antecedents of role ambiguity and conflict. One particularly promising area is to focus on factors directly related to the role of management control (Jaworski et al., 1993), compensation, training and other possible factors and their effects as antecedents of job stress. For example, the organization that provided the research site employs behaviour-based sales management control which involves more emphasis on the activities that salespeople perform and a relatively high portion of fixed compensation (Anderson and Oliver, 1987). An interesting research question would be to examine the Figure 1 relationships in an organization employing outcome-based management control. Gaining a better understanding of these relationships is relevant for managers and researchers.

Second, job stress may be affected by uncontrollable factors in the selling environment such as large fluctuations in the market, stage of market evolution, and intensity of competition. For example, role ambiguity and conflict may be higher in turbulent environments where the threat of downsizing or acquisition exists. These pressures may increase job stress. Thus, it is potentially important to determine if (and how) external pressures affect the job stress model. One approach is to examine the model relationships in high stress and low stress environments. As noted earlier, finding out why our model yielded explained variation in intention to leave less than half that found in other research, is an important issue.

The research site for our study probably corresponds more to a high stress rather than a low stress environment. Like many companies, the organization was experiencing staff reductions, competitive pressures, and actions to reduce costs and increase customer value. This environment is typical across many industries and companies in developed countries. Thus, our study results may be illustrative of how such contemporary external pressures affect the model. Of course, replication is needed to explore this issue more fully.


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Author:Moncrief, William C.; Babakus, Emin; Cravens, David W.; Johnston, Mark
Publication:European Journal of Marketing
Date:Nov 1, 1997
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