Equality in supervisor-subordinate relationships does not always yield the best results

Instead of absolute equality, supervisors should strive for good interaction with at least some subordinates.

Aalto University School of Business Professor Olli-Pekka Kauppila researched how employees' attitudes are affected by their superior having different relationships between subordinates. Results show that employees' attitudes to unequal supervisor-subordinate relationships depend on the quality of their own relationship with their supervisor as well as the characteristics of the organisation.

According to the research, employees' attitudes towards their work are first and foremost improved through their personal relationship with their supervisor. It was also found that other members of the group having a good relationship with the supervisor had a positive effect. Employees whose own relationship with their supervisor was good had a more positive attitude towards their work when other members of the group had good supervisor-subordinate relationships, too. Also, employees with poor supervisor-subordinate relationships had a more positive attitude towards their work as long as some members of the group had a good relationship with the supervisor.

– This means that supervisors should primarily attempt to establish good relationships with all employees. If this is impossible due to e.g. lack of time, supervisors should not be equally distant towards everyone but create good relationships with at least some of their subordinates, clarifies Olli-Pekka Kauppila.
 

Characteristics of the organisation also have an effect

The research also looked into the role of organisational characteristics in the relationships between differentiating leadership and employees’ attitudes. The abovementioned effects were especially highlighted in organisations with decentralised decision-making. Since an employee's personal position may change rapidly in an organisation where decision-making power is decentralised, it is essential that a supervisor puts effort into having good relationships with subordinates.

Instead, employees are more likely to interpret unequal superior-subordinate relationships as an established inner circle and outer circle setting in organisations where upper management has a strong shared vision. In these organisations, unequal superior-subordinate relationships had a more positive effect to the attitudes of inner circle people who had good relationships with superiors, and a more negative effect to the attitudes of outer circle people who had poor relationships.

Research data was gathered from 502 employees in 135 groups within 34 organisations. The studied aspects of employees' attitudes were organizational citizenship behaviour and affective commitment to the organisation. These aspects were surveyed a year after measuring the superior-subordinate relationships and the characteristics of the organisations.

The study When and how does LMX differentiation influence followers' work outcomes? The interactive roles of one’s own LMX status and organizational context has just been published in the Personnel Psychology journal.

Link to the article (Wiley Online Library)

Further information:
Olli-Pekka Kauppila
Assistant Professor, Organization and Management
Aalto University School of Business
tel. +358 50 312 0930
[email protected]
 

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