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When leading teams in the past, I was guilty of instinctively turning to the same people when I needed to get something done.

 Looking back, was it that I only trusted some people to do a good job or was it because they were always the first to put their hands-up to get involved? Having a stronger relationship with some team members feels like human nature, but is it always the best leadership approach?

Many of you working within teams will at some point have experienced this from the people leading you – the feeling that everything is going well, you have the inside track on what’s going on, and you are often chosen to work on exciting new projects.

For others, you may feel excluded because it seems as if you are always the last to hear about what’s going on – you feel like you’re missing out on new opportunities as a result. Sound familiar?

This describes the Leader-Member Exchange theory.

Understanding group relationships

For those unfamiliar with the concept, it describes the relationship that develops between a leader and each person in their team.

What emerges is an ‘in-group’ or ‘out-group’ relationship, based on a team member’s perception of their relationship with the boss. This relationship forms soon after joining a team, leading to members of the ‘in-group’ enjoying privileges, such as access to more information, participating in more decisions, or getting added responsibilities.

This ‘in-group’ relationship is rewarded with higher levels of performance and job satisfaction, with individuals staying longer within the organisation. In contrast, for those in the ‘out-group’, it can translate into neutral or even poor performance, where team members are simply fulfilling the obligations of their employment contract.

So, why did I choose to write about this?

Firstly, it challenges my sense of fairness, by denying everyone access to the same opportunities and it can overly burden the people who continually take on extra work. Looking at it from an organisational perspective, it reduces the performance potential of the ‘out-group’, which can’t be good for accessing more diverse perspectives in problem-solving and decision-making. Also, as a coach, I believe everyone has the potential to make a greater contribution with the right support.

But, how might you do this, ensuring that leaders don’t neglect people and limit their potential?

Developing inclusive leadership approaches

For leaders, it’s about developing a more inclusive approach to leadership.

A starting point is having greater awareness of the positive and negative implications of the leader-member exchange. With this awareness comes the responsibility to start developing relationships with the people who you perceive might feel like they are in the ‘out-group’, although developing these relationships begins with being more aware of your own needs.

As a leader, it’s often tempting to surround yourself with people who share your worldview and help enable your vision. This leadership approach may have worked in the past but, with more complex challenges, the ability to identify, value and harness differences is an increasingly important leadership skill and fits within the domains of emotional intelligence – this includes the empathy and social skills to connect with people who may be different to us.

Using these skills helps everyone across the organisation find meaning in the purpose, values, and goals of the organisation. Further, by not offering people the opportunity to participate in tasks beyond the scope of their role, we deny these people the chance to learn and grow from these experiences.

The benefit of giving people these opportunities is that they can become more trusted members of your team for future projects.

Reframing the leader and follower relationship

As a team member, it’s about reframing how you view leadership and your role as a follower.

According to research, we develop an implicit understanding of what it is to be a leader or follower. Some people believe that being in a team is a subservient role – you assume that the leader has all the answers. At the other end of the spectrum, some people view the relationship in a more proactive and collaborative way.

The research suggests that how we relate to each other is shaped by how we have experienced leadership growing up. We are also influenced by confidence in our own abilities, and the organisational norms and leader behaviours.

Becoming more aware of our implicit assumptions can open up the possibility of reframing the leader and team member relationship as a more interactive partnership of mutual influence, with the option to challenge the leader for the good of the organisation.

The studies also show that feeling more empowered can influence your job satisfaction positively and, from a team member perspective, it can highlight the benefits of development work like coaching to help understand the interferences that are getting in the way.

From an organisational view, it suggests there are benefits in adopting norms that encourage this proactivity, including promoting a more collaborative style of leadership.

Better managing perceptions

For organisational leaders, addressing the leader-member exchange is an opportunity to examine how the culture, structure and on-boarding processes support an ‘out-group’ dynamic.

A leader’s perception of new team member begins as soon as they join the organisation – these first impressions are highly influential. The leader assesses people based on their level of competency, which is influenced by work experience, and their role and seniority within the company.

The relationship is also affected by the chemistry in those first encounters, which could be negatively impacted, for example, with a more introverted social style or if the new team member uses political tactics to get noticed.

Considering how these first encounters influence the relationship, there is an opportunity for HR leaders to consider on-boarding strategies that might help reduce the ‘out-group’ dynamic. In addition to the on-boarding process, there is an opportunity to examine the culture of the company to understand how it might be reinforcing an ‘out-group’ dynamic. For instance, if you have a recognition program targeting high performers, are these processes fair and transparent?

This examination also involves looking at how the organisational structure reinforces an ‘out-group’ dynamic. For example, do the same organisational norms apply regardless of your role in the business?

Embracing differences and changing views

The leader and team member relationships are vital to organisational performance. And understandably it is human nature that we get on better with some people more than others.

But if you are in a leadership position, it is increasingly your responsibility to harness diversity, include those differences that already exist in your organisation, as well as having an ethical duty to treat everyone the same.

What’s more, team members can also take the lead in trying to reframe how they view leadership and followership, where possible, taking a more proactive role in developing relationships.

Ultimately, a better leader-member relationship benefits everyone by improving job satisfaction and performance, and ultimately the organisation’s bottom line.

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