Business Psychology - Latest Findings

Article No. 194
Supervision Findings, by James Larsen, Ph.D.

One Person at a Time

High quality relationships reveal striking benefits.

Has your attention ever wandered as you listened to accounts of bickering between employees and supervisors? Have you ever thought to yourself, "Can't we all just get along?" It's a simple idea, really, and it may surprise you to learn that a theory of leadership was built on it 25 years ago: just getting along.

A researcher named Graen used the term "LMX" to refer to it (short for leader-member exchange), and he devised a series of questions for employees and supervisors to answer that explored the core concern, "How well do you get along with your supervisor?"

Graen's survey had only seven questions, and before long researchers throughout the world were combining these questions with a host of other subjects hoping to find connections between Graen's "getting along" factor and other factors that interested them.

In 1997, Charlotte Gerstner from Pennsylvania State University reviewed this research, and she made two clear discoveries. First, she found a list of consistent factors that accompany high degrees of "getting along" between supervisors and employees. Second, she discovered a unique field experiment conducted in 1982 which trained supervisors to create and maintain high quality relationships with employees. It was a stunning success, but then it was forgotten. She wants us to remember it.

Traditional leadership research looks for qualities such as high intelligence or education, and then tries to make connections between these factors and leadership results, e.g., a successful company. These connections have always been weak.

Graen's "getting along" factor focuses on the general working relationship between two individuals in a reporting relationship. The outcomes that follow from it are specific, and the connections in these studies are often strong.

Employees reporting very positive relationships with their supervisors tend to receive higher performance ratings than other employees and to demonstrate higher performance according to objective measures, too. They report higher overall satisfaction with their jobs and stronger commitment to their employers. They display a clearer understanding of their roles, and they're not as likely to quit their jobs as other employees. They're more creative, more helpful to fellow employees, more confident in taking initiative, and more confident that they can influence decisions.

The 1982 field experiment tried to capture these benefits for a company by directing leaders' attention to four activities: 1) spending quality time with employees, 2) using "active" listening skills, 3) accepting employees' frames of reference, and 4) sharing personal perceptions and expectations. These activities were expected to prompt employees and supervisors to have "high-quality exchanges" which would enhance their working relationships.

1) Quality time - Supervisors were taught to spend time in private conversations with each of their employees. These conversations needn't be long or often, but if they never occur, a high quality relationship is not likely to develop. These conversations should be directed to the problems, concerns, and expectations of employees.

2) Active listening - Supervisors were taught listening skills that actively involved them in the conversations. These skills try to prevent supervisors from opening a conversation and then sitting silently as employees talk. Instead, supervisors were taught to help employees express their thoughts by repeating important phrases they used and by asking questions that encouraged employees to elaborate on ideas that seemed important to them.

3) Using employees' own language - Supervisors were taught to use the terms employees used in describing their concerns, their perceptions of company policies, and activities in the company. When supervisors use employees' own terms, it helps convince employees that their supervisor understands their viewpoint. This conviction encourages high quality exchanges between the two people.

4) Mutual sharing - Finally, Supervisors were urged to open themselves up and to reveal their own personal perceptions and expectations, especially as they related to the employee and to the work. Again, the intent was to stimulate high quality exchanges.

Does it work? It worked well enough in 1982 for Gerstner to call our attention to it 17 years later. Perhaps we should consider practicing it ourselves.

Reference: Gerstner, Charlotte R., and David V. Day (1997) Meta-Analytic Review of Leader-Member Exchange Theory: Correlates and Construct Issues. Journal of Applied Psychology, 82 (6), 827-844.

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