Introduction to Organizational Support Theory

Research on perceived organizational support began with the observation that if managers are concerned with their employees’ commitment to the organization, employees are focused on the organization’s commitment to them. For employees, the organization serves as an important source of socioemotional resources, such as respect and caring, and tangible benefits, such as wages and medical benefits. Being regarded highly by the organization helps to meet employees’ needs for approval, esteem, and affiliation. Positive valuation by the organization also provides an indication that increased effort will be noted and rewarded. Employees therefore take an active interest in the regard with which they are held by their employer.

Organizational support theory (OST: Eisenberger, Huntington, Hutchinson, & Sowa, 1986; Rhoades & Eisenberger, 2002; Shore & Shore, 1995) holds that in order to meet socioemotional needs and to assess the benefits of increased work effort, employees form a general perception concerning the extent to which the organization values their contributions and cares about their well-being. Such perceived organizational support (POS) would increase employees’ felt obligation to help the organization reach its objectives, their affective commitment to the organization, and their expectation that improved performance would be rewarded. Behavioral outcomes of POS would include increases in inrole and extra-role performance and decreases in stess and withdrawal behaviors such as absenteeism and turnover.

Although there were relatively few studies of POS until the mid 1990’s, research on the topic has burgeoned in the last few years. Rhoades and Eisenberger’s (2002) meta-analysis covered some 70 POS studies carried out through 1999, and over 250 studies have been performed since. The meta-analysis found clear and consistent relationships of POS with its predicted antecedents and consequences.

Processes Underlying Perceived Organizational Support

The meta-analysis of research on POS, carried out by Rhoades and Eisenberger (2002) indicated that three general categories of favorable treatment received by employees (fairness of treatment, supervisors support, and rewards and job conditions) are positively related to POS, which, in turn, is associated with outcomes favored by employees (e.g., increased job satisfaction, positive mood, and reduced stress) and the organization (e.g., increased affective commitment and performance and reduced turnover). OST specifies mechanisms responsible for these associations, allowing stringent tests of the theory.

Attributional Processes Contributing to Perceived Organizational Support

POS is assumed to be a global belief that employees form concerning their valuation by the organization. Based on the experience of personally relevant organizational policies and procedures, the receipt of resources, and interactions with agents of the organization, an employee would distill the organization’s general orientation toward her.

According to OST, the development of POS is encouraged by employees’ tendency to assign the organization humanlike characteristics (Eisenberger et al., 1986). Levinson (1965) suggested that employees tend to attribute the actions of organizational representatives to the intent of the organization rather than solely to the personal motives of its representatives. This personification of the organization, suggested Levinson, is abetted by the organization’s legal, moral, and financial responsibility for the actions of its agents; by rules, norms, and policies that provide continuity and prescribe role behaviors; and by the power the organization exerts over individual employees. Thus, to some degree, employees think of their relationship with the organization in terms similar to a relationship between themselves and a more powerful individual.

OST maintains that employees use attributional processes similar to those used in interpersonal relationships to infer their valuation by the organization. Gouldner (1960) reasoned that favorable treatment would convey positive regard to the extent that the individual receiving the treatment considered the act to be discretionary. From this perspective, an employee would infer higher regard from favorable treatment if the treatment appeared discretionary rather than the result of such external constraints as government regulations, union contracts, or competitive wages paid by alternative employers (Eisenberger et al., 1986; Shore & Shore, 1995). Accordingly, the positive relationship between POS and favorable job conditions was found to be six times greater when the presence of those conditions were attributed to the organization’s discretion rather than to external constraints (Eisenberger, Cummings, Armeli, &, Lynch, 1997).

Thus, the organization’s discretion is important for determining the extent to which different treatments most impact POS. For example, union workers might receive excellent wages and benefits. However, if these benefits resulted from difficult contested negotiations, employees would consider the benefits to have been provided involuntarily, and the benefits would have little influence on POS. This suggests that organizations should not automatically conclude that well-treated employees will have high POS. Favorable treatments that organizations provide to employees must be perceived as voluntary if they are to influence feelings of support. To the extent that the organization effectively conveys favorable treatment as discretionary, POS will be enhanced.

Correspondingly, unfavorable treatment that is perceived to be beyond the organization’s control will have a less negative effect on POS. For example, management could attribute a lower annual pay raises to low profits associated with weak economic conditions. By shifting the responsibility for the cutbacks from the organization itself to external circumstances over which the organization had little control, the deleterious effect of the cutbacks on POS would be reduced.

The importance of the discretion attribution for employees’ attitudes toward the organization has practical implications. In extensive consulting with a large retail sales organization, we found that most salespeople reported a high level of stress at work. When we investigated more closely, we found these employees generally attributed their stress to the nature of sales jobs, leading them to believe that there was little that the organization could do to alleviate the stress. Because stress was an aspect of the job that employees believed the organization could not control, the sales employees’ POS was not adversely affected by this unfavorable job condition. According to the sales employees, improvements in other features of the job that the organization could control, such as more weekend days off and higher pay, were more important to them. Thus, some unpleasant aspects of one’s job are taken for granted by employees and not blamed on the organization. Employees are practical; they are generally concerned with improving working conditions and benefits that management can readily change.

Reciprocation of Perceived Organizational Support

Researchers reporting positive relationships of POS with affective commitment and performance have often assumed employees' felt obligation to be an underlying process. However, only recently has felt obligation been directly assessed as a mediator of POS-outcome relationships. Consistent with organizational support theory, Eisenberger et al. (2001) reported that felt obligation mediated the relationships of POS with affective commitment, in-role performance, and extra-role performance.

To the extent that the POS-felt obligation association is due to the norm of reciprocity, the strength of this association should be influenced by employees' acceptance of the reciprocity norm as a basis for employee-employer relationships. Employee exchange ideology refers to employees' belief that it is appropriate and useful to base their concern with the organization's welfare and their work effort on how favorably they have been treated by the organization (Eisenberger et al., 1986). Employees with a high exchange ideology showed stronger relationships of POS with felt obligation to the organization (Eisenberger et al., 2001), job attendance (Eisenberger et al., 1990), and extra-role performance (Ladd, 1997; Witt, 1991). Mediation of POS-outcome relationships by felt obligation, together with the moderation of these associations by employee exchange ideology, indicates that reciprocity is a basic mechanism contributing to POS's associations with various behavioral outcomes.

Fulfillment of Socioemotional Needs

Similar to the needs-fulfilling role served by perceived support from friends and relatives in everyday life (Cobb, 1976; Cohen & Wills, 1985), organizational support theory supposes that POS meets needs for emotional support, affiliation, esteem, and approval. According to Gouldner (1960), the obligation to reciprocate favorable treatment increases with the benefit's value, including the benefit's relevance to the recipient's specific needs. Therefore, the obligation to repay POS with enhanced performance should be greater among employees with high socioemotional needs. Accordingly, police patrol officers having higher needs for approval, esteem, emotional support, or affiliation showed a stronger relationship of POS with DUI arrests and issuance of speeding tickets (Armeli et al., 1998).

Additional evidence of POS's socioemotional function comes from findings that POS was negatively associated with strains experienced in the workplace (Cropanzano et al., 1997; Robblee, 1998; Venkatachalam, 1995), that POS lessened the relationship between nurses' degree of contact with AIDS patients and negative mood (George et al. 1993), and that perceived support within the organization, as opposed to support from family and friends, reduced the negative relationship between British pub employees' receipt of threats and violence and these employees' experienced well-being (Leather et al., 1998). Thus, POS may be especially helpful in reducing the traumatic consequences of stressors at work.

Contribution of POS to Performance-reward Expectancies

According to organizational support theory, the relationship between performance-reward expectancies and POS should be reciprocal (Eisenberger et al., 1986; Shore & Shore, 1995). Favorable opportunities for rewards would convey the organization's positive valuation of employees' contributions and thus contribute to POS (cf. Gaertner and Nollen, 1989). POS, In turn, would increase employees' expectancies that high performance will be rewarded. Consistent with these views, the meta-analysis by Rhoades and Eisenberger (2002) found that opportunities for greater recognition, pay, and promotion were positively associated with POS. Additional research is needed concerning the mediating role of reward expectancies in the relationship between POS and performance.


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