What makes a successful relationship? According to Social Exchange Theory (SET), we’re all constantly evaluating and re-evaluating our relationships based on the benefits they might bring us. In 2006, Alan Saks of the University of Toronto published his paper Antecedents & Consequences of Employee Engagement, which made the link between SET and employee engagement.
Originally developed by sociologists in the 1960s, this behavioural model offers an explanation of how we humans make, maintain or abandon relationships, whether social, personal – or professional. Applying this theory of mutual benefit to the workplace gives an insightful perspective on relationships and their effect on engagement. Saks set out to apply the academic theory to a relatively new management approach, conducting a study into employees in a variety of roles and organisations.
Alan Saks’ antecedents & consequences of employee engagement
Saks acknowledged that psychologist William Kahn’s 1990 model identified the psychological conditions necessary for ‘engagement’. Khan had demonstrated that engagement occurs when employees are able apply their ‘full selves’ to their work role, raising them to their productive and creative pinnacles.
Although Saks identified with Khan’s model, he felt he could expand on “why individuals will respond to these conditions with varying degrees of engagement”, believing that this missing explanation would be found by examining engagement through the SET model. Why would employees be engaged one day and not so the next?
SET theory proposes that relationships are built around mutual obligations. When Saks transferred this theory to the workplace, he found that employees choose to engage themselves based on the resources their organisation gives them. The organisation provides support, certain conditions, and reward: the employee weighs these up, and if they find the balance suits them, they’ll commit in return. These two-way relationships will continue to thrive and grow, provided the rules of social exchange aren’t broken.
Similarly to John Stacy Adams’ Equity Theory, Saks suggests that if the organisation stops fulfilling their side of the bargain (by withdrawing an expected level of management support, for example), the employee will draw back on their obligations too. In other words, they will become disengaged.
The application of social exchange theory in the workplace
Creating and implementing robust HR processes is a means of ensuring that these obligations are exchanged. Organisational psychologists Piening, Baluch and Salge studied employees in English hospitals over five years, writing up their findings in a paper on the relationship between employees’ perceptions of human resource systems and organisational performance.
They found that when employee-focused systems such as appraisals, development, mentoring and job design were properly implemented, employees felt supported and trusted. These employees were found to be committed and performed well.
Saks’ theories also defined the importance of informal exchanges in the form of peer relationships. Rutgers University found that employees who were friends would naturally turn to each other for advice and help. These informal exchange obligations are beneficial for the organisation as they encourage collaboration – and we’ll all go that extra mile for our friends. Soft drinks manufacturer Innocent was third in this year’s Times’ top 100 employers list. The central “kitchen” layout at their HQ encourages friendships to develop (over a smoothie, of course).
Social exchange theory as employee engagement drivers
As the Piening, Baluch and Salge study showed, Management Support is essential for engagement. With it, employees feel secure and trusted. Without the offer of support on the table, the employee may never fully engage. If support is suddenly withdrawn (for example, a mentorship programme ceases), that breaks the relationship of obligations, which is why any organisational change must be managed carefully.
Saks saw that the individual’s manager represented the whole organisation in these exchanges. HR can in turn coach and support these managers to ensure they can provide the exchanges that their team members need. Peer Relationships also provide important exchanges in the workplace, as reciprocal relationships foster commitment and create a positive environment.
By taking Kahn’s work and applying Social Exchange Theory, Saks was able to give us a more in-depth explanation of workplace engagement. His work demonstrates how an organisation can ensure that motivation doesn’t dip: keep to your obligations, and reap the rewards of engagement.
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