The Social Side of Work

Work is an economic activity but also a social one, and the nature of that social side can have implications for an organisation ranging from an employee’s sense of obligation to the firm to even their task performance.

Research by Riki Takeuchi, Seokhwa Yun and Kin Fai Ellick Wong shows how this happens by focusing on a specific aspect of the social nature of work – the “exchange” ideology which refers to an employee’s belief that their efforts at work should depend on how they are treated by an organisation. The impact of individual differences in exchange ideology has not been much examined previously, and the authors show that employees and their performance can be affected by not only their own exchange ideology but also that of their co-workers.

“Not all individuals value reciprocity to the same degree and assuming that they do may lead to incorrect conclusions about the quality of social exchange and its consequences,” they said.

They focus on these differences and the consequences in their study of 376 pairings of employee-co-worker-manager, who were surveyed about their exchange ideologies, interactions and task performance. Responses were compared to look at how the nature of the exchange ideology of employees and co-workers affected an employee’s “felt obligation” towards their organisation, as well as their task performance.

Since individuals with a strong exchange ideology pay more attention to negative experience-information than those with a weak exchange ideology, an employee’s own exchange ideology was negatively related to their felt obligation and also their exchanges with their manager. Those attitudes in turn affected task importance.

Most importantly, a co-worker’s exchange ideology affected the relationships between employee’s own exchange ideology, and their felt obligation and interactions with their manager. If the co-worker had a strong exchange ideology, the negativity rubbed off on those around them, although the effect was less pronounced if the focal employee also had a strong exchange ideology.

Moreover, “a co-worker with a strong exchange ideology tends to think they deserve whatever good treatment they receive and so puts less effort into improving job performance than a co-worker with a weak exchange ideology. As a result, an employee who has such a co-worker is more likely to put less effort into work, leading to low job performance,” they said.

The inclusion of co-workers in this study is particularly important because it extends understanding of workplace dynamics beyond the usual employee-organisation focus of other such studies.

“Co-workers are a key social referent, first because they are not only a crucial part of the social environment at work but they can actually define the environment. Second, an employee’s job satisfaction and job performance are potentially influenced by his/her social comparison with the outcome-input ratio of other employees. And third, employee-co-worker relationships have become more important as an increasing number of organisations have adopted flatter organisational and team-based structures,” they said.

The findings have practical implications for organisations, especially given the growth in flatter structures. Firms need to be aware of the influence of co-workers on shaping employees’ perceptions, although they should also recognise some of the limitations in addressing this.

“Since exchange ideology, as a stable individual difference variable, is negatively related to social exchange quality and task performance, it might be beneficial to include it in selection assessment and aim to select individuals who possess a weaker exchange ideology if other qualifications are equivalent,” they said.

“In addition, organisations should recognise that while it might be difficult to change an individual’s belief or exchange ideology, there could be other ways to increase the employee-leader interaction quality and felt obligation, such as empowerment, organisational justice and a positive culture or climate.”

WONG, Ellick K.F.

Associate Professor


Adjunct Professor