Chapter 2 – Leader-Member Relationships, Peer Relationships, and Team Relationships

Leaders do not exist without followers. Certainly, organizations and groups may still elect or appoint someone to a managerial role or another official role, yet it does not mean that the person is truly a leader.

Let’s think about the following scenario. You are in a plane, and you experience sudden turbulence. A pilot could communicate with the passengers in a variety of ways. Which would you prefer?

  • Scenario A: “Hello everyone. Pilot Paul here. I hear a lot of yelling coming from the back of the plane and I’m working to keep this plane safe. It’s just some turbulence. Quiet down and let me do my job.”
  • Scenario B: “Hi everyone. I know we just encountered some unexpected turbulence. I know it might have startled some of you, but I want you to know that we have it under control. We expect it to last another 2-3 minutes, and then we should be back to smooth sailing.”

Certainly, the pilot is in charge in both scenarios, yet in which do we identify him as more than a person with formal authority?

In Scenario A, we have someone who has formal expertise fueled by years of training. Pilot Paul is clearly in charge as he is flying the plane. However, the way in which he speaks to the passengers and the flight crew does not necessarily position him as a leader. Instead of acknowledging others’ feelings, he uses the communication encounter to chide those who are fearful. He implies their fear is inhibiting his ability to do his job. In this instance, Pilot Paul has used language to show that he is separate from the rest of the group, that he is on his own.

In Scenario B, the pilot begins by acknowledging that passengers likely felt surprised by the turbulence but that the situation is under control. He provides clear guidelines on how long the turbulence will last and uses “we” language throughout. That is, he includes himself in with the passengers and flight crew suggesting a collaborative, team approach.

While this scenario is removed from the traditional organizational setting, we still see these approaches to leadership communication in all facets of life. Ranging from the way that we communicate in families, to our workgroups, our teams and groups, assuming a shared, team-based approach to leading and following will position you for success.

In this chapter we look at workgroup relationships, from those a leader shares with each team member, to those that group members share with each other. When we think about workgroup relationships, we will also consider mentoring and personal and professional development. We will also address different factors that can impact how we approach leadership in different situations.


Workgroup Relationships

Workgroup relationships play a large role in our lives – especially when we are in full-time positions. Whether we work in a face-to-face environment or work remotely, our interactions with our peers and our leaders often fill our days. When we have developed trusting relationships with our leader and our peers, then we can genuinely look forward to these interactions. It can create an environment where we feel supported and are comfortable offering creative ideas and sharing our thoughts on others’ projects. We really feel like we are part of a team. However, if we work in a group where we haven’t really connected with our manager or perhaps at the peer level, or worse yet, we have had several negative exchanges with them, it is a radically different experience. When we don’t think that our manager will support us or when our peer relationships feel more competitive than collaborative, it can be exceedingly challenging to pump ourselves up to go into work (or sign on for work) and the thought of offering creative solutions or offering to go out of our way to lend a hand does not feel like an option. At the end of the day, the quality of the relationships we share with our leader and our peers transforms our workplace experience. Now we will dive more into the most common types of workplace relationships.


Leader-Member Exchange (LMX)

Leader-member exchange theory, commonly referred to as LMX, helps to illustrate the impact the relationship with your leader can have. LMX has undergone several iterations and updates since its inception in the 1970s (Dansereau, Graen. & Haga, 1975), but the heart of the theory has remained the same: Leaders develop unique relationships with each of their employees. That sounds simple enough, right? Well, the thing is that depending on the quality of the relationship you share with your leader, your earning potential, the information you have access to, your professional development and mentoring opportunities, and even your quality of life are all impacted. Yes, the relationship you share with your leader – whether it is one built on trust and mutual respect or one that is rocky at best –plays a deciding role in your overall professional success.

Considered at its simplest, LMX is often described as either a high-quality leader-member relationship or a low-quality leader-member relationship. Employees who have a high-quality leader-member relationship often are brought in on more exciting and larger projects, are asked to lead formally or informally, and because of the high-quality relationship they share with their leader, they have access to inside information likely not available to peers. In this sense, we can consider the high-quality leader-member relationship as a doorway to success – that is, it can literally transform your workplace experience and the way others view you. When you have a high-status member, like your leader, vouching for you – it encourages others to trust you as well.

While we can look at a high-quality leader-member exchange relationship as a springboard for professional development and success, we also must consider an alternative: low LMX. A low-quality LMX relationship can halt a career in its tracks. How can that be? If we consider your leader as a gatekeeper in terms of assigning work projects, performance evaluations and performance increases, if our leader does not see us as a trusted, high-contributing employee it makes sense that they would gives us comparable less than our high LMX peers. While we may be interested in leading the new project, if we have low LMX, it is likely to be assigned to one of our colleagues who has a stronger leader-member relationship. When it comes to our annual performance review, when compared to others on the team—especially those with high LMX, it may cause our review to be even lower.

A major outcome of leader-member exchange theory is that it can result in in-groups and out-groups within a team or department. Those who have a high-quality LMX relationship with their manager are part of the in-group. They tend to have the greatest access to information, mentoring, professional development, and choice projects. Employees who have a lower-quality leader-member relationship often find themselves in the out-group. Because they have a lower-quality relationship with their leader than their peers, they often receive less information, less mentoring, and less attractive work projects. What is also important to remember is that we tend to socialize within these groups. That means that employees with high LMX tend to befriend other high LMX peers, and low LMX employees tend to connect more with other out-group members. This has implications for the employee experience, where those with higher statuses exchange with other high-status members and those with lower status tend to do the same.

Since we know the importance of high LMX, here are some specific communication steps you can take to develop a trusting, two-way relationship with your manager.

  • Be engaged – Showing your manager that you care about your work and want to see your team be successful goes a long way in earning their trust. This means participating in meetings, sharing ideas, and volunteering to help in areas that align with your strengths. Do you enjoy interacting with others? Then offering to help greet and facilitate an upcoming event is a win-win for highlighting your strengths, while also demonstrating your commitment to the team.
  • Active Listening – While active listening is a part of being engaged, it is an effective way to demonstrate your commitment to your team members and the group. We have all been there when we’re hearing others, we may even be nodding along, but we’re not really listening to what is being said. This is the communication equivalent to pulling into your driveway and realizing you don’t necessarily remember the drive. Active listening involves asking questions, paraphrasing, and summarizing what your conversational partner has said. This allows you to verify that you have interpreted their message correctly and indicates that you’re invested in their ideas. When you’re actively listening, you’re also making eye contact and mindful that your body language shows your conversational partner that you are engaged. What does that look like? It means open-posture, arms at your side, body angled toward your leader or peer.
  • Do your work well – This might sound like a no-brainer, but sometimes it is easy to get comfortable and do the bare minimum. We’re not suggesting that you go in early or stay late or worse yet, take on multiple duties that are outside of your role. We are suggesting that you put effort into the job you were hired to do. How can you innovate the work? Can you make changes that would save time or money in a process? Can you enhance the reputation of your department through your interactions with clients? This is going to look slightly different for everyone, but it is a way to indicate to your manager that they can trust you with work projects. If you’re considering doing your best, it shows them that you may be ready to take on more responsibility.
  • Be a good organizational citizen – One thing we talk about in organizational communication is organizational citizenship behaviors. These are prosocial, helping behaviors that help develop trusting relationships and help organizations to function well. What does this look like in the organization? You can offer to help a teammate who is working to meet a deadline. It may mean volunteering to give a new employee a tour of the organization or it may look like you offering to lead the efforts to find a location for the holiday party. These are duties that are not necessarily noted in a job description, but again can demonstrate a good attitude and engagement.


Coworker Exchange Theory (CWX)

Coworker exchange theory or CWX (Sherony & Green, 2002) describes the relationship shared between two peers who report to the same manager. Why is CWX important? It helps us to better understand who is likely to befriend whom in the workgroup. It also helps us to identify groups which groups of employees are likely to group together. To explain this, we need to return to LMX or leader-member relationship quality.

LMX tells us that leaders develop relationships of varying quality with each individual member of their team. Sometimes these relationships are positive and sometimes, they are well, a bit rocky. However, the LMX relationship isn’t confined to just that specific leader-member. We tend to take notice of who our manager spends more time with or who is assigned to the most desired projects or accounts. The relationship you share with your leader dictates which peers you’re likely to become close with. Those with high quality leader-member relationships tend to befriend other high LMX workgroup members. This group is typically referred to as the in-group. Low LMX members, conversely, tend to develop relationships with other low LMX members and makeup the out-group. Why does this happen? Based on the quality of your leader-member relationship you may find yourself grouped into the high LMX cohort, so you end up on similar projects or attending the same meetings and therefore tend to spend more time together due to the relationship you share with your leader. Low LMX members may find themselves bonding over feeling looked over or otherwise feeling as though they are on the fringe of the workgroup.

What are the takeaways here? It is in your best interest to develop a high-quality relationship with your manager. This not only impacts your relationship with the leader, but it also goes a long way in informing who you are likely to connect with at work. Other high LMX members are also likely to have access to more information, know more organizational members, and have higher credibility than their lower LMX counterparts. Taking the time to think about developing meaningful workplace relationships will not only likely enhance how it feels to go to work, but it will also help your ability to grow and succeed in the organization.


2.1 Leadership in Action: Team-Member Exchange (TMX)

While LMX describes leader-member relationships and CWX describes the relationship shared between two employees, TMX or team-member exchange (Seers, 1989), encompasses all the workgroup relationships.

Since TMX includes all the individual LMX and CWX relationships, it provides us with a great example of the communication complexities within a group or team.

An employee’s TMX level describes how well they fit within the team. In teams where the TMX level is high, it indicates that the group gets along well as a whole. In teams where TMX is low, it means that there is a large variance in the different LMX and CWX relationships. What does this mean? It means that the collective functioning of the group is likely negatively impacted.

Why is TMX important? If leaders and employees value a group that works well together and demonstrates respect to one another, then they should take steps to ensure that all members are engaged. How do we do this?

  • Ask questions of others. What is their opinion? What is their dream project? What changes would they like to see in the workgroup?
  • Listen. It’s one thing to ask questions, but it’s another to actively listen to your peers’ responses. Active listening means making eye contact, paraphrasing, and asking follow-up questions.
  • Intentional Communication. We are leading when we are communicating in ways that are respectful, responsible, and safe. We are using inclusive language, treating others with respect even if we disagree with their opinions, and interacting in ways where they feel safe from ridicule or judgement.


Hersey-Blanchard Situational Leadership Model

Another way we can consider workplace relationships is through the Hersey-Blanchard Situational Leadership Model. Hersey and Blanchard (Blanchard & Hersey, 1996) have given us explicit suggestions for how to tailor our communication based on two factors: tasks and relationships. The model offers specific guidance for how to connect with followers based on whether the task or work needs a lot of direction (high task behavior) or contrarily, if the task is one where followers can facilitate the process on their own (low task behavior). Leaders must also consider the quality of the relationship they share with team members. In instances where there is a lower quality relationship in place, or the work doesn’t require much intervention from the leader (low relationship behavior) it will require different communication strategies than when leaders are actively providing support and have high quality relationships with their followers (high relationship behavior). The model uses an axis where tasks are on the horizontal axis and relationships are on the vertical axis, each ranging from low to high.

The suggested communication styles are as follows:

Situation 1: High Task Behavior, Low Relationship Behavior

  • Recommended communication approach: Telling
  • Leader Communication Suggestions: Provide specific instructions and closely monitor employee performance.
  • Organizational Example: Think of a medical supplier. In order to meet FDA regulations for pill safety, for example, it is essential that employees are trained well and there are several quality control measures and check-ins to ensure the quality of the medicine.

Situation 2: High Task Behavior, High Relationship Behavior

  • Recommended communication approach: Selling
  • Leader Communication Suggestions: Explain decisions and provide opportunities for employees to seek clarification.
  • Organizational Example: You are a leader who has decided to rearrange work groups to make the most of individual team members’ skills. Some of your followers may be disappointed that they will no longer be working with the same colleagues. You must “sell” your followers on the idea that these new groupings will lead to more efficiency and better results.

Situation 3: High Relationship Behavior, Low Task Behavior

  • Recommended communication approach: Participating
  • Leader Communication Suggestions: Share ideas and facilitate decision making.
  • Organizational Example: The market for your product is shrinking, and over time, could affect everyone in the organization through revenue reductions. As leader, you may invite your followers to a brainstorming session to strategize ideas for tapping new markets and sources of revenue, and ways to refocus organizational priorities.

Situation 4: Low Relationship Behavior, Low Task Behavior

  • Recommended communication approach: Delegating
  • Leader Communication Suggestions: Turn over responsibility for decisions and implementation to employees.
  • Organizational Example: Think of an organization like Google. You hire experts, give them the resources they need to do their jobs, and then get out of their way. These highly competent employees might become discouraged, and lose their high morale, if supervised too closely.


Mentorship and Professional Development

When we consider workgroup relationships, we must also consider mentoring. Mentors fulfil two primary roles:

  1. Career Functions
  2. Psychosocial Functions

Career functions are those that are directly related to role and task related concerns. Some of the career functions that mentors support mentees with include:

  • Coaching: Mentors can help mentees to understand the norms or politics of an organization. This may include discussions about key values or point out how decisions are made. As mentees become more integrated into the organization, mentors may also offer suggestions for how to accomplish their goals, advice on career goals, or provide performance feedback.
  • Protection: If necessary, mentors may decide to step in and shield mentees from organizational backlash. For example, a mentor may decide to take the blame for the slow progress on a project to give their mentee the space needed to complete the project correctly.
  • Challenging Assignments: Just as a mentor may decide to protect mentees, they may also decide that the most effective way to help them to grow is by assigning them more challenging work. This may allow the mentee to develop new skills or sharpen those they already have.

Psychosocial functions or those related to a mentee’s social and emotional skills and wellbeing include:

  • Role Modeling: Mentors should always lead by example. Should a mentor ever say to you “do as I say, not as I do” this is a red flag. Mentors should be intentional about their words and actions so that mentees observe thoughtful behaviors related to facilitating discussion, navigating conflict, and providing direction.
  • Counseling: Mentees should be able to go to their mentor and work through confusing or complex interactions, conflict, or other work-related stressors. Mentors may also offer suggestions for career development and satisfaction, such as tips for work life balance that have helped them throughout their career.
  • Friendship: Both mentor and mentee should always treat each other with respect and integrity. With time, a trusting bond will likely develop where each party knows their experiences and feelings are safe with the other.


Chapter Resources

Critical Incidents in Leadership – Mini Case Study

Your friend Hadley calls you and wants to talk about her new job. She’s excited about her new job. It’s her first full-time job after finishing her undergrad degree. It’s a big PR firm with lots of opportunities to grow in her career as she expands her skills. When she’s talking about her excitement, you can tell that she’s not quite telling you the whole story. After a few minutes, she tells you that she feels like she hasn’t quite gotten off on the right foot with her manager, Johnny. Though she quickly brushes that thought off by saying “He’s only one person – it can’t make that much of a difference.” As you hear this, you think back to a leadership class you took. You think about how important the relationship one shares with their leader can be. What advice do you have for Hadley? How can you help her to forge a strong relationship with Johnny? You may also think about talking to Hadley about the importance of finding a mentor too.

Leadership Communication in the Media

  1. Personal Branding Workbook. This free and comprehensive guide will walk you through a few short questions to identify your strengths, make a plan for your areas of improvement, and offer you tips for showcasing your unique abilities. The worksheets will help you to become more aware of the skills that make you special and stand out from others.


  1. The AMP Mentoring Minute Podcast: This podcast, hosted by the Alberta Mentoring Partnership, integrates stories, research, and best practices. This podcast is helpful for both mentors and mentees and offers ideas for how to make a difference in your organization and community.


  1. Leader-Member Relations Example. This PennState Leadership blog post illustrates leader-member relationships through a short scenario.





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Leadership Communication: Principles and Practice Copyright © 2024 by Leah Omilion-Hodges and Annette Hamel is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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