“The relationships leaders forge with employees is the cornerstone of leadership.” Journal of Applied Psychology
The idea that leaders impact employees is nothing new. Leadership has gained much attention over the last few years with the aim of creating purposeful, efficient workplaces that tailor to the needs of employees both technologically and emotionally. However, leadership goes much deeper than a broad brushstroke across all employees; it is based on individual exchanges.
When is leadership effective?
For leadership to be most effective it would be ideal for leaders to have one-on-one time with each employee on a regular basis, building healthy relationships and recognizing and rewarding each person for their positive behaviors and accomplishments. With today’s rapid pace of business, the rise in virtual workplaces, and the growth in global teams, innovative social recognition technology makes this kind of frequent and timely recognition possible.
However, since every employee has different wants and needs, and leaders have varied personalities, backgrounds and goals, the impact that leaders have on each employee can be very distinct.
The truth about leader / team member relationships
Leader-member exchange (LMX) theory (Gerstner & Day, 1997) explains the different exchanges that can occur from one employee to the next, with the same leader:
“Leaders form relationships based on trust, liking, and respect with some employees they work with, whereas with others the relationship does not go beyond the basic terms of the employment contract.” Journal of Applied Psychology
The theory states that employee and leader relationships go through three stages:
Someone joins a team, and they are given a role and responsibilities
- Role making
The team develops, and the leader creates varied relationships with team members
A pattern of ongoing exchange develops between the leader and each employee
The impact of ineffective exchanges
When the ongoing exchanges between a leader and a team member are either negative or infrequent or both–especially when team members see leaders having positive interactions with other employees–employee’s attitudes to their work can be affected.
However, there is something outside of the one-on-one relationship that can impact employee’s attitudes to their work.
The justice culture
The organization’s justice culture is how employees perceive the fairness of policies and procedures and the distribution of rewards and recognition.
A leader to a team of ten employees has positive relationships with the three top performers. The leader gives them frequent feedback on their work and the leader and team members always support one another when they need help.
Out of the remaining seven, four speak to the leader every so often and know they can go to her when they have an issue, but the remaining three barely speak to the leader at all and rarely receive feedback.
The final three become disgruntled, resentful and begin spreading rumors about favoritism and ineffective working practices. The result is a toxic workplace, which can lead to absenteeism, lateness, decreased output and poor mental health of employees.
Final thoughts - Think big
When the perceived fairness is high, employees are less impacted by different leader relationships, are more likely to remain committed, motivated and engaged even if their immediate relationship with their leader is not positive.
By creating policies and procedures, and reward and recognition structures that are transparent, fair and just, your employees are more likely to stay motivated and engaged despite the inevitable differences in relationships between leaders and varied team members.