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How to boost employee engagement: Bring Social Exchange Theory into the office

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Sep 13, 2022

How reciprocation contributes to employee engagement

Reciprocation is more influential in employee engagement than you might think! Social exchange theory (SET) suggests that employees choose their commitment level at work based on their perceived support and community from their employer. 

Work engagement can predict various measures of employee success, including customers’ perceived quality of service, profit, and productivity.1,2 Compared to their disengaged peers, engaged workers communicate effectively and energetically, and have an easier time coping with the demands of their job.

The cost of disengagement: higher resentment and $7 trillion USD

When employees feel disconnected from their duties and employer, they will spread these negative sentiments among their peers, leading to greater resentment among the firm.4 

Beyond contributing to a lack of morale, disengaged employees cost $7.8 trillion USD worldwide in lost productivity.5 And they’re no small population - a staggering 79% of the globe’s workforce is disengaged.5 

When employees feel overwhelmed, fearful, or disconnected from their bosses, they’ll start to feel disengaged.6 Because of these cyclical factors, it can be difficult to boost engagement once it’s already low. 

Employees view their work engagement as repayment 

Fortunately, we can look to behavioral strategies to analyze how well managers are supporting their employees. According to social exchange theory (SET), workers view their commitment to their work as a repayment of how they’re being treated.7 

Depending on how much energy an employee puts in, working requires significant cognitive, physical, and emotional resources. If an employee feels that these expenditures aren’t valued - i.e. they don’t receive the economic and community support they need - they’ll feel as though the investment simply isn’t worth it.7

Utilize social and emotional learning to increase engagement

SEL (social and emotional learning) is the process by which learners acquire the skills necessary to:

  • Act empathetically
  • Set goals
  • Create positive relationships
  • Execute positive decision-making8 

Part of the process requires teachers (or, in this case, supervisors) to learn new ways of interacting with and supporting their pupils.9 This change in strategy focuses on five core competencies: 

  • Relationship skills 
  • Wise decision-making
  • Awareness of others
  • Self-management
  • Self-awareness10
Social and emotional learning chart

Boosting engagement with behavior strategies

How to: utilize social and emotional learning

In order to effectively implement SEL in your workplace, you can begin to implement the following steps:

  1. Identify key stressors among employees in order to create a structured coursework to address their needs undefined
  2. Incorporate SEL training that addresses these needs into the exercises that are already required for supervisors  undefined
  3. Provide resources for employees to learn more about SEL if they choose

In order to avoid SEL training becoming a burden on your non-managerial employees, do not require them to take mandated SEL training. Besides, the social and emotional skills in SEL are most effective when they’re taught by another, rather than self-taught.

Internal social media, if used correctly can foster community

Unlike Instagram or Snapchat, internal social media is a social networking platform that’s restricted to employees (think Slack, Microsoft Teams or Facebook for Business.11 It fulfills employees’ need for community, thus strengthening employee engagement.12,13 

Because of the relationship between information acquisition and commitment, internal social media has the capacity to have a direct influence on employees’ dedication both to their work and the organization.14 It builds engagement because employees value the content they see from their peers and about their company.11

How to: Capitalize on internal social media

First, identify which internal social media or communicative methods would be most suitable, if they’re not already in place. These platforms include:15

  • Instant messaging tools (think: Skype for Business)
  • Blogs, enterprise social networking sites (think: Microsoft Teams)
  • Peer-to-peer video platforms (think: Zoom)
  • Wikis (think: Notion)
  • Discussion forums (think: Wordpress)

If these are actively used in your firm, begin to question the nature of how these platforms are used by your employees:

  • Are employees allowed to share non-work content?
  • Does it make it easier for them to communicate with their peers?
  • Does it provide them with easy avenues to find resources?

Showing that you’re committed to providing employees with community and anticipate their needs encourages the development of normative commitment. It also contributes to positive social exchange per SET. When an organization demonstrates how much they value the employee by embracing them, helping them understand their role, and investing in their well-being, they create a sense of loyalty and obligation.16 

Providing value to employees creates a positive exchange

When firms make it clear that they are investing resources into the well-being of their employees - through SEL teaching, strong community via internal social media, and adaptive leadership styles - they contribute value to the social and emotional exchange that occurs within all relationships. When negative behaviors like disengagement are caused by evasive experiences like fear, overwhelm, and lack of ownership, try turning to behaviorally-founded principles. 

The Decision Lab is a behavioral consultancy that uses science to advance social good. We work with leading educational organizations to help create a world where every student has an equal opportunity to thrive. If you'd like to improve workplace culture together, contact us.


  1. Bakker, A. B., & Demerouti, E. (2007). The Job Demands Resources model: State of the art. Journal of Managerial Psychology, 22(3), 309–328.
  2. Salanova, M., Agut, S., & Peiró, J. M. (2005). Linking organizational resources and work engagement to employee performance and customer loyalty: The mediation of service climate. The Journal of Applied Psychology, 90(6), 1217–1227.
  3. Schaufeli, W., & Bakker, A. (2003). Utrecht work engagement scale: Preliminary manual. Utrecht: Occupational Health Psychology Unit, Utrecht University.
  4. Rasool, S. F., Wang, M., Tang, M., Saeed, A., & Iqbal, J. (2021). How Toxic Workplace Environment Effects the Employee Engagement: The Mediating Role of Organizational Support and Employee Wellbeing. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 18(5), 2294.
  5. Pendell, R. (2022, June 14). The World’s $7.8 Trillion Workplace Problem. Gallup.Com.
  6. Lipman, V. (2014, May 19). 6 Clear Reasons Why Employees Are Disengaged.
  7. Kular, S., Gatenby, M., Rees, C., Soane, E., & Truss, K. (2008). Employee Engagement: A Literature Review. Undefined.
  8. Bridgeland, J., Bruce, M., & Hariharan, A. (2013). The Missing Piece: A National Teacher Survey on How Social and Emotional Learning Can Empower Children and Transform Schools. A Report for CASEL. In Civic Enterprises. Civic Enterprises.
  9. Greenberg, M. T., Domitrovich, C. E., Weissberg, R. P., & Durlak, J. A. (2017). Social and Emotional Learning as a Public Health Approach to Education. Future of Children, 27(1), 13–32.
  10. Durlak, J., Domitrovich, C., Weissberg, R., & Gullotta, T. (2016). Handbook of Social and Emotional Learning: Research and Practice.
  11. Ewing, M., Men, L. R., & O’Neil, J. (2019). Using Social Media to Engage Employees: Insights from Internal Communication Managers. International Journal of Strategic Communication, 13(2), 110–132.
  12. Lemon, L. L., & Palenchar, M. J. (2018). Public relations and zones of engagement: Employees’ lived experiences and the fundamental nature of employee engagement. Public Relations Review.
  13. Welch, M. (2011). The evolution of the employee engagement concept: Communication implications. Corporate Communications: An International Journal, 16(4), 328–346.
  14. Ostroff, C., & Kozlowski, S. W. (1992). Organizational socialization as a learning process: The role of information acquisition. Personnel Psychology, 45(4), 849–874.
  15. Weber, M. S., & Shi, W. (2016). Enterprise Social Media. In The International Encyclopedia of Organizational Communication (pp. 1–9). John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.
  16. Gonzalez, E., Leidner, D., Riemenschneider, C., & Koch, H. (2013). The impact of internal social media usage on organizational socialization and commitment. International Conference on Information Systems (ICIS 2013): Reshaping Society Through Information Systems Design, 5, 3969–3986.

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