Star Trek crew members, 1968, Chekov, Uhura, Scott and Sulu  (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
Ideas for Leaders #671

Leader–Team Member Relationships 2: Impact Job Satisfaction, Trust and Empowerment

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Key Concept

In addition to confirming that the quality of relationships between leader and subordinates impacts performance, a new meta-analysis of the research also identifies why these relationships have such an impact: because they affect the role clarity, job satisfaction, organizational commitment, motivation, empowerment and most importantly, trust.

Idea Summary

The theory of leader-member exchange (LMX) focuses on the quality of the relationship between a leader and individual members of his or team, and how that relationship affects overall performance and the leader’s relationships with other team members. Low LMX quality would indicate a relationship that is limited to the contractual obligations: neither leader nor follower does any more than is required by the work contract. High LMX quality reflects a relationship that is based on trust and respect, and goes beyond minimum contractual requirements.

A meta-analysis of 195 academic journal articles conducted by a team of researchers led by Robin Martin of the Alliance Manchester Business School confirms the general consensus: high LMX quality leads to greater satisfaction and performance on the part of both follower and leader. 

The breadth of the research sources in the meta-analysis allowed the researchers to focus on three specific dimensions of work performance:

  • Task performance
  • Citizenship performance
  • Counterproductive performance

Task performance concerns the outcome of tasks that are directly connected to the work duties and responsibilities of the individual. By comparison, citizenship performance refers to actions or behaviours by the individual that are not directly task related but still contribute to the performance of the organization. An employee’s efforts to help and support peers, spread goodwill and support organizational objectives define his or her citizenship performance. Counterproductive performance is a negative topic and concerns actions or behaviours that undermine the organization. 

The results of the meta-analysis confirmed that high LMX quality improved work performance on both the task performance and citizenship performance dimensions. The analysis also showed a positive result for LMX and counterproductive behaviour: the higher the LMX quality, the less the potential for counterproductive behaviour.

In addition to confirming the positive main effects of LMX, meta-analysis was able to answer the question: What factors might explain the link between high LMX quality and high performance? 

The researchers identified six specific mediators that positively impacted performance: role clarity (leaders and followers are clear on their roles in the organization); trust; job satisfaction; organizational commitment; motivation; and empowerment. Trust seemed to have the most impact on both improving work performance and citizenship performance.

The meta-analysis of past research revealed some variation in the strength of the connection between LMX and these performance mediators. Combing through the results, however, the research team showed that common source or common method bias could explain some of these variations. 

For example, some research asked leaders to rate both LMX quality and the performance of the individual — a method that uses a common source (the leader) for both metrics. In these cases, the correlation between LMX quality and performance was higher than when different sources (such as objective criteria to determine performance) were used. The analysis also showed that research based on leader-ratings showed a higher relationship between LMX quality and performance than research based on follower ratings.

One final question that the researchers asked themselves concerned the direction of impact. If LMX quality positively impacts performance, could the reverse be true —i.e., does high performance impact LMX quality? Theoretically, this makes sense: a high performing individual is more likely to have a better relationship with his or her boss than a low-performing individual. However, the results of the meta-analysis showed that there was, in fact, no impact in the opposite direction. 

Business Application

Managers have an imperative to maintain high quality relationships with subordinates. Beyond this overarching implication for managers, the meta-analysis also revealed some practical implications for human resource and development systems in organizations, specifically for:

  • Career development systems. A poor leader-subordinate relationship can sabotage the career of an otherwise high-performing individual, as the leader withholds support and development opportunities. Organizations must be aware of this possibility, and take up the slack — for example, through informal (e.g. mentoring) and formal (e.g., training workshops) employee development opportunities.
  • Performance management systems. High LMX quality may skew performance assessment results: leaders are more likely to be lenient or generous in their performance assessment with subordinates with whom they have good relationships. HR awareness of this potential for bias and the integration of objective measures in the assessment can alleviate some of these concerns.
  • Leadership training and development systems. By identifying the mediators of LMX quality, this research provides more concrete guidance on which techniques leadership training needs to focus — specifically techniques to improve LMX quality by enhancing subordinate job satisfaction, trust, work motivation and empowerment
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