Research Paper By Dmitry Kondratyev
(Life Coach, UNITED STATES)
Leader-Member Exchange (“LMX”) theory was pioneered in the late 1960s by Daniel Katz and Dr. Robert Louis Kahn. It has been further developed by several organizational psychologists such as George Graen and Mary Uhl-Bien. The LMX, also referred to as Vertical Dyad Linkage, is concerned with relationships between a manager or a leader (the terms will be used interchangeably), and the subordinates or members of a team. According to the LMX, a new member of the team goes through three stages that form a leader-member relationship. These stages are: role-taking, role-making, and routinization.
Role-taking is when a manager assesses new member’s performance, skills, and growth potential by either observing how a member handles daily responsibilities of his or her job description or by giving specific assignments. Based on the results, a manager determines the areas where a member will be most successful.
Role-making is the stage where a leader has enough information to place a new team member into either an In-Group or an Out-Group. A member of an In-Group is perceived by a leader as being loyal, trustworthy, and skilled. As a result, the member gets more of the leader’s time and support as well as opportunities for additional training and advancement. A member of an Out-Group has limited access to leader’s time and support. The member’s job will be less challenging and there will be little or no opportunities for growth or advancement. Personal similarity between the leader and the member including work ethics, personality, gender, and sex has also been observed to play into the leader’s decision in assigning a new member to either group.
Routinization is the stage where the tasks assigned to members of both groups are established. With time, attitudes of both the In-Group and the Out-Group members’ towards the leader take hold and start to grow. In-Group members tend to work harder, show more trust, respect, and even empathy towards the leader. Members of the Out-Group tend to work enough to get by and may develop distrust and dislike towards the leader. The options for the Out-Group member are either to a) get into the In-Group or b) to move to other department within the organization, or c) to find a new job elsewhere. Oftentimes, the last two options are easier to exercise.
It has been suggested that while the existence of the Out-Group is inevitable, the size of the group should be kept to a minimum. This is due to low morale among the Out-Group members and a high cost associated with turnover. This means that a manager works on ways to increase the In-Group size through various methods including coaching. However, the leader may have to be coached first to increase her or his ability to work with members that possess the attributes of the Out-Group candidates. Coaching topics will include awareness of disempowering beliefs, increasing trust, letting go of judgment, and recognizing the difference between criticism and feedback among many others.
Assuming that new members’ skills, both professional and interpersonal, were correctly assessed during the hiring process, each new team member should be able to contribute in a meaningful way. What managers sometimes fail to realize is that a partnership-like relationship has proven to be as effective, if not more effective, as subordination driven, top-down structure. In the past decade, the tendency to flatten the groups inside larger organizations, or the entire organizations, have paved the way to a new type of leader. This type is liked and respected for his or her ability to empower team members, both personally and professionally; to carry on not just the responsibilities at hand, but to empower self-motivation for continuous learning and growth.
This outline of a new type of leader has been supported by executive coaching. Up until recently, one of the most common approaches in assessing a leader has been the 360-degree feedback, also known as 360-degree survey. This survey includes feedback from the manager’s boss, direct repots, peers of the same level, as well as self-evaluation – thus the “360 degree” feedback. For more than a decade, the approach was the industry standard. However, in his book “Transformational Executive Coaching”, Ted Middelberg writes:
“When working with seasoned executives, I find that through conversation we can adequately identify the areas worthy of our attention. Seasoned executives have lengthy experience with assessments and evaluations and with bosses who have been direct about their developmental needs. The coaching process adds the reflection necessary to synthesize and make sense of the data the executive already has available. This is significantly different from coaching models that rely on gathering new data, most often through a 360-dgree survey instrument, before beginning to assemble a set of goals. The 360-degree survey process is good for leaders with less tenure and a low awareness of how others perceive their strengths and weaknesses, but it undervalues the knowledge already present at the executive level” (p. 42).
Reliance on and importance of self-awareness also serves well when within the framework of the LMX, as a leader becomes aware of the decision making leading to unfairness to some members. Inclusion of Out-Group members in 360-degree surveys may present “risk” should the members already have formed a negative attitude toward their manager.
Having reviewed the LMX and touched upon executive coaching now is the time to present coaching topics and how they help to address and improve LMX-related issues.
Not every leader is aware that the LMX theory exists and how it works. A coach does not have to inquire whether or not the leader possess the knowledge of the theory, but rather should gather enough evidence to determine whether the leader’s actions towards the members fit the LMX. This is an important starting point as it opens up opportunity to coach the leader by first making the leader and the coach become aware of the existence of LMX attributes. Here is one of the possible series of questions:
- “How do you know you can trust one employee more than the other?”
- “How would you describe an ideal member of your team?”
- “How do you choose members to be assigned the least important tasks?”
- “How do you identify members to be recommended for promotions?”
- “Imagine you are asking for feedback from each member of your team in person. What are you hearing?”
Once the leader’s answers strongly suggest preferential treatment of some member over the others, based on not only performance characteristics, but some intangible aspects, LMX in action is the suspect. The intangible that LMX is concerned with may be expressed by the following words: (dis)like, trust, dumb, expectations, character (either high or low), and so forth. Each of these intangibles may be further examined by asking for specific clarifying questions. Additionally, leader’s answers may sound more like strong opinions rather than an objective evaluation. Presence of LMX is not that problematic as long as the In-Group constitutes the majority and the leader exhibits understanding and behaviors of the risks associated with members of the Out-Group.
The following set of possible questions creates awareness of Out-Group and the risks associated with turnover.
- “What drives turnover in your team?”
- “How does the turnover affect the rest of the team?”
- “What can be done to minimize the turnover?”
- “What are the signs that someone from your team is about to resign?”
- “How open are your team members to express their job dissatisfaction?”
- “How often do you ask your team members about their job satisfaction?”
The assumption that turnover candidates come from the Out-Group is not always right, however, the questions phrased in a more open way will make a leader look for certain signs in every member of her or his team now and in the future. It is also possible that some better questions about job satisfaction will be added to the interview as well as job performance reviews.
Below are some of the 360-degree survey competencies, as recommended in “Top 50 Tools for Coaching” by Jones, Gillian and Gorell, Ro. In addition to leader’s boss, peers, and direct reports (members), the leader is supposed to rank his or her competencies on a 1-6 scale.
- “Demonstrating the big picture so that people understand clearly their role and assigned tasks
- Keeping in touch with targets and goals of individuals
- Making the person feel an important, trusted and valued member of the team
- Regularly checking on targets and agreeing further support needed, as appropriate”
The selected competencies could be used to determine leaders’ ability to demonstrate the same set of characteristics that the leaders are looking for in In-Group candidates. Thought it may seem counterintuitive, as individuals we tend to reciprocate the treatment we get. Some know this as the Golden Rule. Thus, showing trust, empathy, and exhibiting clear communication, will promote the similar behavior in members. Whether members are in In-Group or Out-Group, they will be looking for the same traits that the leader is looking for in members. For example, if the leader is not perceived as a trustworthy by most members, the leader may place himself or herself “out” in the eyes of the members. When that happens, even the most loyal members may be hard pressed to stay.
One of the important aspects of the LMX theory is a quality of exchange between the leader and the members, and it is truly a two-way street. This makes the members just as accountable as the leader. Group coaching members, while not specifically targeting the LMX, may incorporate certain aspects that helps members to see value in taking on behaviors and adopting the mindset that leaders seek when making their In-Group or Out-Group decisions. Additionally, those members that are already in Out-Group may benefit from reframing certain perspectives and the adoption of new beliefs and behaviors should the member seek the way to In-Group. Perhaps, a one-on-one coaching may be a more appropriate and effective in this case.
At this point coaching opportunities related to the LMX theory have touched on a) the existence of LMX culture, b) the risks associated with the existence of LMX and, as a result, high costs associated with the turnover, c) the role the leader is playing in either contributing or mitigating the LMX’s negative dynamics, and d) group or one-on-one coaching of members where coaching topics include those that are LMX relevant. Considering the uniqueness of each leader and member, it is impossible to account for all the possible coaching opportunities beyond the recommended above. However, it is very likely that there will be more paths for coaching opportunities around the LMX.
The LMX theory has explained the selective processes that enable a leader to sort new team members into two groups: the In-Group, and the Out-Group. Members of the In-Group are entitled to more of leader’s time as well as opportunity for professional growth and career advancement. Members of the Out-Group are more at the disadvantage and have shown to be a source of low morale behavior and are more likely to look for career advancements outside the organizations. As the companies are realizing the negative effects of disproportionally large Out-Groups, recommendations alongside of improving relations with Out-group members have been made. Some recommendations include leader coaching members. This paper suggests that before an effective change can take place, a manager, or manager’s boss may consider an executive coach that will help to uncover LMX dynamics as well as see the manager’s role in either making the situation better or worse. Several areas of coaching opportunities have been identified with more to be discovered along the way.
Graen, G.B. & Uhl-Bien, M. (1995) ‘Relationship-based approach to leadership: Development of
leader-member exchange (LMX) theory of leadership over 25 years: Applying a multi-level multi-domain perspective,’ The Leadership Quarterly, Volume 6, Issue 2, Summer 1995, pp 219-247.
Jones, Gillian, & Gorell, Ro. (2012). “Top 50 Tools for Coaching”. Kogan Page Limited, 2ndedition, pp 155-156.
Middelberg, T. (2012). “Transofmational Executive Coaching.” Systemic Leadership, LLC. p 42.