Evidence of The Social Exchange Theory and a Respectful Workplace

A lot of our time is spent at work, which can sometimes be a very stressful environment. In fact, if you do the maths, some of us will spend more time at work than we do with our families and friends.

Having a positive working relationship with our coworkers can contribute to making the work environment a more enjoyable place to be. Your work can become more rewarding and less stressful with improved relationships with your coworkers.

Improving Workplace Relationships

Open communication, setting clear boundaries within your relationships and making sure you take breaks throughout the day is a great place to start. The critical piece is that it’s important that everyone feels comfortable with the dynamics of communication in the workplace.

There has been a great deal of research done regarding the benefits of sharing personal information with colleagues in order to build better relationships.

But deciding on the right amount of personal information to share with others can cause stress in itself. This is particularly true for new employees who are entering a workplace where there already established relationships and camps. Share that information too soon, and you run the risk of seeming inappropriate, if not desperate to make friends. Wait too long, though, and you could seem distant, remote, and standoffish.

How Much Sharing is Smart?

The dilemma which is central to the problem is how to figure what the perfect balance is between sharing too much and too little. We have all met the person that over-shares straight away before they really know how the other person feels about things.

Conversely, the person who says nothing and appears as an introvert may continue feeling that the time is never right to share something about themselves. This can lead to alienation and even have the impact of ostracising that person within the workplace.

In a 2013 study, Susan Sprecher of Illinois State University and colleagues examined self-disclosure reciprocity among strangers (“Taking turns: Reciprocal self-disclosure promotes liking in initial interactions.”) to understand how the mutual sharing of personal information influenced the degree to which they liked each other.

The scenario was similar to the real-world situation of meeting someone for the first time and hoping to make a positive impression. Once a conversation gets going, people tend to reciprocate the extent to which they self-disclose. When someone shares personal information with you, it’s likely that you’ll respond similarly.The question being asked in Sprecher’s research was whether people liked each other more (or not) after engaging in reciprocal self-disclosure.

One theory of self-disclosure proposes that you tend to reciprocate because you assume that someone who discloses to you likes and trusts you.

Social Exchange Theory

The more you self-disclose in turn, the more the other person likes and trusts you, and then self-discloses even more. This is based on the social exchange theory, and proposes that we reciprocate self-disclosure in order to keep a balance in the relationship: ‘You disclose, therefore so do I.’

At the start of our Respectful Conduct in the Workplace (Bullying & Harassment) workshops, we begin with a very simple exercise to demonstrate the power of the Social Exchange Theory. We then use the results later in the workshop to illustrate how the simple activity of sharing something about ourselves can vastly improve relationships and also how we view our coworkers. We ask our participants to share their answer to just ONE of the following three questions (based on when they were 16 years old):

  • What was their favourite movie?
  • What was their favourite hobby?
  • What was their favourite piece of technology?

It is a great exercise and the sharing that goes on as a result of this gentle request for personal information is remarkable. At one recent workshop, one female employee shared that her favourite hobby was when she had joined the Army Reserves at 16. She spoke about how she had stayed a reservist, rising to a very senior rank – which required her active participation and time away from home throughout the year.

You could tell how proud she was of the role that this played in her life.

Her colleague, who had worked alongside her for more than 5 years, had no idea that this was what her co-worker spent her time-off doing. Ironically enough, NOT having joined the Army Reserves was something that the second employee had always regretted and now to find out that the person she worked alongside had done so (and with a great deal of success), was incredibly interesting to her.

I found them chatting up a storm together about the Reserves during one of the workshop breaks. I would call that Social Proof!

In order to improve your work relationships, just share a little of yourself.

You will quickly see that that just taking a couple of extra minutes a day to personally connect with your co-workers will quickly have a positive effect on your relationships at work and your workplace will become a much more enjoyable place to be!