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Leadership in the 21st Century - More Social Psychology Theories Related to the Workplace

Updated on August 15, 2011

Leadership in the 21st century is a complex issue. No longer could organizational leaders simply show up, bark orders, and all followers fall in line like little minions who do the leader's every wish. At least this was the case in the Western and more advanced economies of the world.The age of advanced information and transportation technologies led to more options for workers and less stability in the work force. Leader/supervisors had to come to grips with the desires of their followers and even accept them as human beings with legitimate human needs. This hub explains some of the theories posited by organizational behavioral scientists that describe personnel needs in the workplace.

Social Exchange Theory

Social exchange theory was first introduced and described by Peter Blau in his 1964 publication, Exchange and power in social life. In essence, the concept of social exchange is used to describe the quality of social interactions of employees within their respective organizations. The idea is that employees evaluate exchanges with others within their organizations and measure their future efforts according to the nature of those exchanges.

In general the basic concepts tied to this theory of organizing are cost, benefit, outcome, comparison level, satisfaction, and dependence. How a particular employee evaluates an exchange or set of exchanges will oftimes precipitate a certain level of reciprocation in his effort for the organization.

In their 2004 publication, Pamela Brandes, Ravi Dharwadkar, and Kathleen Wheatley described for two levels of exchanges with two ftypes of exchanges in each level. Brandes and company described the two levels of exchanges as local and global. Local exchanges referred to relationships with one's immediate work area and with other employees outside one's immediate work area. Global exchanges described exchanges with the organization as an entity in itself and with executives over the organization.

In their research study, Brandes and company found that the perception of quality of relationships with (a) immediate supervisors and (b) the organization as an entity resulted in higher quality in-role behaviors. Moreover, they found that quality of relationship with immediate supervisors and those outsde their immediate work area was related to their involvement in extra-role activities; that is, activities within the organization that were outside their immediate job description. Finally, they found that the quality of relationships with members outside their immediate work area were a positive predictor of involvement in company wide initiatives or projects.

Social Captial Theory

Social capital theory refers to the extent of a person's social network and how that network affords him or her access to benefits or privilieges. The concept of social capital was first set forth by L. J. Hanifan in 1916 who contrasted social capital with material goods or physical capital and showed how contact with one's neighbor and they with other neighbors could result in accumulating social capital, which may result in greater satisfaction of personal social needs."

Various social scientists sought to define Social Capital:

Pierre Bourdieu (1986), in his publication The Forms of Capital, defined social capital as "the aggregate of the actual or potential resources which are linked to possession of a durable network of more or less institutionalized relationships of mutual acquaintance and recognition."

In separate studies, James Coleman, N. Lin, and Fukuyama seemed to define social capital according to its functional value. They saw social capital as built on a network of relationships that resulted in obtaining desired benefits.

Social Capital Theories

At least three theorists devised conceptual models of social capital.

Weak Ties Theory. Granovetter devised what he referred to as the Weak Ties Theory of social capital. This social scientist posited that a person's social capital was based on the amount of weak ties he had in his netwrok of relationships. Weak ties referred to the extent of relationships that have carry with them little need for reciprocity. An example of a strong tie which requires extensive reciprocity would be a relationship with an employer or immediate supervisor. A weak tie would include relationships with those outside the purview of one's immediate supervisor. Granovetter believed the number of weak ties a person had in his social network could be beneficial in finding a new job.

Structural Holes Theory. Burt (1992) devised the structural holes theory of social capital. In his conceptualization, Burt suggested that a person's social capital was tied to the number of holes he had between members within his relational network. A structural hole was defined as a relationship a particular person had with two other individuals who were not acquainted with each other.

Social Resource Theory. Lin (1990) countered the other theories by suggesting that the size of one's relational network was not the most important factor when determining the extent of an individual's social capital. He argued that the measure of a person's personal network is whether that network affords him or her the resources they need or long for. 

Scott Seibert, Maria Kraimer, and Robert Liden (2001), offered a study of social capital in their publication A Social Capital Theory of Career Success. In the study they sought to measure the three theories described above. In the study, Seibert and company found that social capital was a positive predictor of

  1. Access to information
  2. Access to resources
  3. Career sponsorship

Moreover they found that the three benefits listed above were tied to other positive outcomes including:

  1. Salary
  2. Number of promotions over entire career
  3. Career satisfaction

Social Judgment Theory

Social Judgment Theory is a theory that attempts to explain the cognitive processes an individual employs to interpret a communicated message. In general, this theory was set forth as an explanatory method devised to show when persuasive messages are most likely to succeed. More specifically, social judgment theory seeks to lock in on the conditions under which persuasive communication will result in an attitude change (such as an employee attempting to persuade a boss of a new way of going about old business). The concept of this social construct was first suggested by Sherif and Haviland in their 1961 seminal work Social Judgment: Assimilation and contrast effects in communication and attitude change.

In their work Assessing Creativity in Hollywood Pitch Meetings: Evidence for a Dual-Process Model of Creativity, Kimberly Elsbach and Roderick Kramer found that social judgment is a two pronged process. When listening to persuasive arguments, those receiving the pitch tend to judge the speaker as to their professional competency and relational connection.

Equity Theory

Equity theory is a motivational theory which was first suggested and described by James Stacey Adams in 1963. In essence, equity theory explains relational satisfaction in terms of perceptions of fair and unfair distribution of resources. Adams observed that employees seek to maintain a sense of equity between inputs and the outcomes they receive for their effort. This is so especially in comparison to other employees doing the same or similar job. The theory goes that employees will be more motivated to contribute as they perceive relative fairness in compensation as compared to another employee.

Expectancy Theory

Expectancy theory was mostly tied to Dr. Victor Vroom in 1964. He explained that a person will more likely decide to engage in an activity if they believe (a) they can fulfill the requirements of the activity and (b) the outcome or rewards will be worth the effort. According to Vroom, Expectancy involved three components (a) expectancy; (b) instrumentality; and (c) valance.


Expectancy refers to the perception of the employee of whether his or her effort will result in satisfactory performance of the task or objective. The level a person's confidence in completing a task is tied to (a) his own self-efficacy; (b) the difficulty level of the goal or task; and (c) the outward environment.


To be sufficiently motivated to complete a task, the subordinate also must perceive that he or she will be sufficiently rewarded for it. He or she will ask in an either conscious or subconscious way, will the actual performance of this task result in an acceptable reward.


In Vroom's model, valance refers to the employee's perception of the value of the offered reward. If the expected value meets the needs of the subordinate then he or she will be more likely to give their best effort.


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    • Naomi's Banner profile image

      Naomi's Banner 

      6 years ago from United States

      Very interesting theories on employement and how relationships affect how an employees perceive their jobs and coooperate with the expectations of their supervision.


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