A leading researcher on the issue of management-subordinate conflicts explains why it is important for leaders to mend any poor or strained relationships with their subordinates — and what steps to take.
The quality of the relationship between a leader and a follower or subordinate can have a major impact on the satisfaction and happiness, and ultimately the performance of that subordinate. Leader-member exchange (LMX) theory is the theory that studies leader-follower relationship quality and its impact on the success of the individuals involved and the organization as a whole.
One of the leading researchers in this field is University of Manchester’s Robin Martin. Martin notes in his contributed chapter to the book, Ready for Change?, that he was first inspired to study this issue because of his own experiences with difficult managers. Martin defines high relationship quality as a relationship between leader and follower in which there is mutual affection and loyalty, and in which both individuals recognize the other’s contribution to the work and reputation for high performance.
Based on the aforementioned experiences, as well as 20 years of observations and interactions with coaching clients, Martin lays out in his chapter, entitled “The Case and Context for Quality Working Relationships,” the following nine observations on the impact of poor relationship quality between leaders and subordinates:
- Poor relationship quality is a focus of a lot of the subordinate’s attention. Subordinates in difficult relationships with their bosses spend an enormous amount of time cogitating on (and perhaps stewing about) the relationship.
- Relationship quality impacts a subordinate’s psychological well-being and performance. A poor relationship with a boss leads to stress, low morale low job satisfaction and less commitment on the part of the subordinate. Performance suffers as a result.
- Relationship quality impacts a manager’s psychological well-being and performance as well. Managers also suffer when they are unable to develop or maintain good relations with their subordinates.
- Relationship quality is based on work and nonwork factors. Work factors, such as different interpretations of work duties, may cause tensions between managers and subordinates; however, non-work factors, such as a personal dislike between manager and subordinate may also be to blame.
- Managers and subordinates inaccurately perceive the quality of their relationships. For example, subordinates, who only have one manager-subordinate relationship to focus on, may dwell on the problems in that relationship, while the manager dealing with multiple manager-subordinate relationships is unaware of any problem.
- Subordinates are going to compare their relationship with the manager to that of other people in the group — especially if their relationship is poor. They may wonder why the manager treats other people better.
- Different manager-subordinate relationships can lead to conflict within a team. For example, when there is a perceived “in-group” — employees who have good relationships with the manager — the “out-group” is going be resentful.
- Poor manager-subordinate relationships have consequences beyond the two individuals involved. Sometimes, senior-level managers have to be called in to resolve conflicts. Another example: group work activities that are adjusted because of problems between managers and certain subordinates.
- Manager-subordinate relationships change over time. No relationship is static, which can offer hope: sometimes a poor relationship can be resolved through honest discussion.
Given the negative impact that poor manager-subordinate relationships can have on the morale, well-being and performance of subordinates (as well as the well-being of managers), what can a manager do to resolve such poor relationships?
Martin offers seven suggestions:
- Be aware of interpersonal issues and engage in honest dialogue. If there’s a problem, have the courage to seek a resolution.
- Be consistent in your relationships with your individual reports. This includes consistency in how you deal with an individual over time, and consistency in the way you deal with all your reports.
- Be aware of when you are not being consistent in your relationships — when you might be favouring certain individuals over others, for example. Try to avoid those differences.
- Acknowledge natural biases, both positive and negative, that you might have toward certain individuals. Avoid any relationship differences that those biases might generate.
- Be objective in your assessment of your subordinates’ performance. Use criteria that are within the control of the individual in question, and get different perspectives on that individual’s performance.
- Evaluate team perceptions of relationships. On a regular basis, involve every member of your team in a 360-assessment of the working relationships on the team — including relationships among members as well as your individual relationships with them.
- Maintain whenever possible a positive note. You must be objective at all times, but you must also be aware that helping people to feel positive about themselves, feel trusted and feel a sense of belonging has a great impact on performance.
The Case and Context for Quality Working Relationships. Robin Martin. Chapter in Ready for Change? Cora Lynn Heimer-Rathbone (Ed.) (2012).