Leader-Member Exchange ‘LMX’ – What Is It and Why You Should Care?

LMX is a nifty acronym of ‘Leader-Member Exchange’ and not some new feature on your TV…It has been around for many decades but seems rarely quoted or referred to in management circles. As with all good management awareness tools, it is easy to understand and gives some good food for thought.

As a taster, I have provided a short introduction to the term, but it is worth ‘googling’ should you find the topic of interest.

A Simplistic and common-Sense Approach to Leader-Member Exchange

In short, the Leader-Member Exchange (LMX) is the two-way relationship Leaders have with subordinates; It is the description used to describe the Dyadic (term used to describe the inter-relationship between two people) in the form of High-Quality LMX  (in-group) and Low-Quality LMX (out-group) characteristics.

How we interact as individuals and leaders, in particular, is one of the most important facets of leadership. This is something which is complex to understand, especially with everyone’s unique characteristics and personality traits, it can be quite a task to keep everyone happy all of the time! But how we interact with those around us is a key contributor to how successful we, and in-turn, our organisations are.

So how will Leader-Member Exchange help?

Leader-Member Exchange observes that Leaders do not use the same set of behaviours uniformly across all members or subordinates and that, in general terms; a leader will select behaviours dependent on the Dyadic relationship with the individual.

In its simplest terms:

High-Quality LMX is characterised by a deep-seated relationship based on mutual trust, support and respect. These relationships are also described as the ‘In Group’.

*please note the use of the term Relationship

Low-Quality LMX is a perfunctory task driven approach that is about doing the job and nothing more. These types of relationships are also described as the ‘Out Group’.

So what does this mean?

High-Quality LMX is what Leaders should be striving for, why? Research has demonstrated that a High-Quality LMX will reward the organisation with improved performance, increased employee satisfaction and better employee retention. Not only that but I think it goes without saying that individuals involved in High-Quality LMX have a better work experience and are more satisfied personally.

Low-Quality LMX symbolises a low-level transactional view of business where employees turn up, do the job and go home. Employees are generally not emotionally engaged with the Leader/follower relationships and not significantly committed to the organisation’s success.

How is High-Quality LMX achieved?

It is the leader’s responsibility to be aware of their management style and comprehend the most appropriate stance to adopt when working with their subordinates; they should ensure that their actions provide an environment that is supportive, embracing and challenging to those involved in delivering on the company goals.

Most importantly, though, it is the leader’s responsibility to ensure sound ainfinite-11-march-08-223nd constructive relationships with those they have contact with, whether they are within the ‘in’ or ‘out’ group.

However an important point, we are not talking about communication methods, we are talking about relationships, a High-Quality LMX is far more than an employee instruction or conversation, it is an interaction based on trust, mutual respect and has an emotional element.

High-Quality LMX relationships with leaders can most easily be seen by observing employees; these individuals with High-Quality LMX will generally present positive attitudes towards work, will go the extra mile, challenge constructively, work well through departments, are listened to by all and are considered vital to getting things done.

Personal Experience where High-Quality LMX changed my leadership style

I recall my first Apprentice/leader relationship fondly, although a store manager at the time, I was in my early 20’s and had much to learn about people, work and life in general. The relationship I had with Ian Peach, my area manager, was very challenging, yet extremely rewarding.

I recall being called into the office to discuss something I had done or hadn’t (this would happen often!) I would come out, after some hours, thinking “what was that all about?” Several days later the penny would drop after I had processed the discussion, and suddenly I would realise ‘what and how I would achieve the previously unknown task’; the journey was more important than the arrival.

This relationship didn’t give me any answers to the problems (no short-cuts here!) but I was presented with the tools that enabled me to rewire my thinking and come up with my own conclusions. The respect, trust, energy and kindness showed to me and my development was exceptional and I will be ever thankful.

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That said, I do recall this being misunderstood by the senior management who were more autocratic in approach. Ian’s approach was long-term developmental and engaging, not to say I didn’t have short-term success as a store manager, I pretty much won all the company competitions there were on offer, but this process took time…something the senior management team regarded as unnecessary.

To this day, I see Ian as one of the most inspirational leaders I have had the pleasure to work with.

You can see where Leader-Member Exchange can make all the difference. Leaders, teams, companies, organisations etc. that have High-Quality LMX report improved employee engagement, empowerment, performance, job satisfaction, contentment, satisfaction with those in lead roles, improved understanding of their role, reduced role conflict and a reduced employee turnover; so having High-Quality LMX is a desirable position to be in.

Where are you now?   

Ask yourself the question “Who knows your leadership style best?” most of you will think it is YOU! – The Leader, but in truth, this isn’t the case; it is those who are recipients of your leadership style, personality and traits who know you best. They know when is a good time and a bad time, how to influence your decisions and when not to bother bringing up a subject as previous attempts have proved fruitless. So, it’s the people around you who can best describe your level of LMX.

Next Steps…

As a starter for ten, it goes without saying that a bit of research wouldn’t hurt. Have a look around the web, buy a book or take a look through some of the videos on YouTube. This will give you more of a sense of Leader-Member Exchange in action.

I would then recommend talking to those closest to you and asking for their opinion on LMX. From this feedback, you can construct a plan of how you might look to utilise High-Quality LMX into your teams, departments etc. It goes without saying that you should look to engage those involved in the process…

One limitation of the theory is that it does not give you the answers to implementing High-Quality LMX, but their presence are very visible when adopted, so they can be measured…

One point of caution, I would strongly recommend that you don’t look harshly on those who seek or require a Low-Quality LMX, they may have their reasons and they might be perfectly valid; and as we all know, it’s the mix of a team that makes it a success, and it would be boring if we were all the same!

All this said the evidence supporting a High-Quality LMX environment is overwhelming; I personally can’t think of a reason why you wouldn’t want all the benefits associated with stronger relationships with followers, other than the time and effort you personally would have to contribute.

I hope you found this little blog of interest. If you would like any help with Leader-Member Exchange or its introduction then please drop me an email ns@leadersp.co.uk or give me a call on 07575 352 353.

Nigel stone has, over the last fifteen years, started, led, consulted and nurtured both UK and European businesses to achieve quite outstanding results.

Please feel free to drop me an email at ns@leadersp.co.uk

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*Any images used in this article are the property of the owners – Pixabay.com

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