ISSN 1671-3710
CN 11-4766/R

Advances in Psychological Science ›› 2022, Vol. 30 ›› Issue (2): 449-463.doi: 10.3724/SP.J.1042.2022.00449

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Conservation of resources theory in the organizational behavior context: Theoretical evolution and challenges

LIAO Huahua1, HUANG Lei1, HU Bin2   

  1. 1School of Economics and Management, Changsha University, Changsha, 410022, China;
    2School of Economics and Management, South China Normal University, Guangzhou, 510006, China
  • Received:2021-01-27 Online:2022-02-25 Published:2021-12-24
  • Contact: HU Bin E-mail:

Abstract: Over the past three decades, the conservation of resources theory (COR) has become one of the most widely applied theories in organizational behavior (OB).
Hobfoll (1989) proposed COR as a new attempt at conceptualizing the stressor-strain relationship. It highlights that stress is not construed by individual perception but a reaction to objective stressful circumstances; coping in reaction to stress is a dynamic process of exchanging resources between individuals and the environment. Imprinted by Hobfoll's background as a clinical psychologist studying stress disorder, COR is recognized as a resource-oriented stress model with environmental roots After several major revisions, COR has developed from a stressor-strain model into a motivational theory and built a theoretical framework with several extensions. The dynamic process regarding how people strive to acquire, protect, and build resources helps to explain individual behaviors in reactions to stressors across many organizational contexts. COR also shed light upon how organizations cope with stress.
From 1989 to 2020, OB literature has accounted for most citations of the 1989 paper that initially introduced COR theory. A great number of empirical studies in the OB field, covering a variety of themes such as job stress, work engagement, creativity, and leadership, investigated the major propositions in COR. These propositions include resource loss and gain spirals, salience of resource gain in the process of resource loss, and more. As a result, COR has become one of the most influential theories for understanding employees' psychological processes and behavioral motivation. However, OB scholars share concerns about COR that the concept of resource is fuzzily defined and therefore that nearly anything good can be considered a resource. We acknowledge the substantive value of COR in OB literature though it may not sound novel, but we also recommend OB scholars be conscious with its conceptualization while applying COR and not take the value of applying it by granted because of its high citations.
Applying COR in OB research also faces challenges from other theoretical perspectives. For example, the stress-appraisal theory and the adaption theory provide some contrasting viewpoints on stress. Its origin in clinical psychology also invites problems for OB scholars that they tend to ignore the integrative perspective of COR regarding how the sources of stress and the structure of individual resources evolve in a dynamic process.
We propose that OB researchers should avoid tailoring COR's propositions to OB research questions, which often means neglecting its overarching perspective and purposely selecting isolated viewpoints to serve their own research questions, but try to seek balance between the integrative perspective in COR theory and the behavior-focused tradition in OB research in the future.

Key words: resource conversation, resource investment, resource caravans, job stress, work motivation

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