Examining the social exchange theory and its impact on employee engagement through the lens of human resources.

Social Exchange Theory: Employee Engagement

When considering research through a practical or pragmatic lens of human resources, I like to examine how a theory can inform practice. Especially how theory and practice can come together to unleash human expertise and potential (Swanson & Holton, 2009). “For HRD to stay relevant and critical, the core foundations of HRD should be discussed, debated, and theories verified for accuracy through theory development” (Hurtienne et al., 2017, p. 17). With only 30% of employees self-identifying as fully engaged (Dale Carnegie, 2018), we must continue to determine how we can engage our employees and prevent turnover.

What is Social Exchange Theory

Social exchange theory is the idea that a partnership is developed through the connection of a cost-benefit analysis. Social exchange theory considers what leadership efforts are required to produce intended employee results. Under this concept, we learn that employees often look at risk versus reward analysis before engaging. We know that the social exchange theory can be used to develop employee engagement, as the theory considers what “obligations are generated through a series of interactions between parties who are in a state of reciprocal interdependence” (Sake and Rotman, 2006p. 603). Simply put, this theory recognizes the impact of the interactions between employees and employers and how actions affect the other party.

Employee Engagement

Employee engagement “is the amount in which an employee is willing to invest in the success of an organization” (Hurtienne et al., 2021). As employees become more engaged, they will become more loyal to the organization and more enthusiastic about work (Bailey et al., 2011). We commit to the concept that employee engagement is an essential part of organizational sustainability (Hurtienne et al., 2021, Mehrzi & Singh, 2016). Connecting social exchange theory and employee engagement calls for a sense of urgency due to employee performance and retention.  We see through the lens of social exchange theory, that finding ways to increase employee engagement will provide reciprocal benefits for both employees and employers (Cropanzano & Mitchell, 2005; Shuck et al., 2014).

Final thoughts

Employee engagement interventions are delicate, and increasing employee engagement is a process that requires nurturing and long-term commitment to employees. Developing trust and positive interactions between leadership and employee is a transformation journey that takes time to evolve. Suppose we commit to the idea that employee engagement is the amount in which an employee is willing to invest in an organization (Hurtienne et al, 2021); then, we can agree that employee engagement is essential to organizational success. 


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Cropanzano, R., & Mitchell, M. S. (2005). Social exchange theory: An interdisciplinary review. Journal of Management, 31, 874–900. https://doi.org/10.1177/0149206305279602

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Hurtienne, M. (2021). Framing your future through employee engagement. In Ramlall, S., Cross, T., &  Love, M. (Eds.). Future of Work and Education: Implications for Curriculum Delivery

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Hurtienne, M., Ljubenko, B., & Hurtienne, L. (2017). Theoretical foundations of human resource development: Conceptual visual expansion. Peer reviewed paper presented at the Academy of Human Resource Development Conference – 2017, San Antonio, TX, USA.

Mehrzi, N. A., & Singh, S. K. (2016). Competing through employee engagement: A proposed framework. International Journal of Productivity and Performance Management65, 831–843. https://doi.org/10.1108/IJPPM-02-2016-0037

Saks, A. M., & Rotman, J. (2006). Antecedents and consequences of employ engagement. Journal of Managerial Psychology21, 600–619. https://doi.org/10.1108/JOEPP-06-2018-0034

Shuck, B., Twyford, D., Reio, T. G., & Shuck, A. (2014, June). Human resource development practices and employee engagement: Examining the connection with employee turnover intentions. Human Resource Development Quarterly, 25, 239–270. https://doi.org/10.1002/hrd q.21190

Swanson, R. A., & Holton, E. F. (2009). Foundations of human resource development (2nd ed.). Berrett-Koehler Publishers.

— This story is written by Dr. Matthew W Hurtienne, Dean of the School of Business at Concordia University Wisconsin and Ann Arbor.

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