It’s no secret that many leaders have favorites within their teams: people they share more information with, trust more, and rely on more to complete important tasks. After all, team leaders are human beings, so it’s natural for them to gravitate toward certain people based on things like interpersonal compatibility and demonstrated performance abilities. However, we bet that if you asked most team leaders whether they have “pets” in their teams, the answer would probably be “Of course not!” No one likes to think they would put the interests of one (or a few) team members above the rest.
But whether leaders think it or not, one of the most consistent findings in our (and others’) research is that almost all leaders do treat members differently — mostly without knowing they’re doing it. This works a lot like subconscious biases that, when revealed to people, almost always result in feelings of surprise and embarrassment. Leaders can’t help having implicit ideas and preferences for what they want their team members to do and to be like. And those preconceived notions lead to what researchers have called “differentiation” in the level of relationship quality leaders have with members, with relationship quality often referred to as “leader-member exchange,” or LMX for short.
When a leader and a follower share a high level of LMX, that follower typically exhibits the types of positive outcomes all leaders want to see, such as high performance, job satisfaction, and organizational citizenship behavior, or going above and beyond one’s typical job responsibilities. Those with high LMX are also more committed to their companies, more satisfied with their leaders, and less likely to quit their jobs. So if high LMX generates all of these positive outcomes, why don’t leaders build high LMX levels with all of their followers? We have already mentioned the effects of implicit leader preferences — a lot of differential treatment occurs naturally and without a great deal of conscious thought. Beyond the subconscious explanation, however, is one that is more practical: leaders today simply don’t have the time necessary to build high-quality relationships with everyone in their team. This is even more complicated in lean organizations, in which many leaders have responsibility for large teams (and often several teams at once).
Fortunately, research suggests that playing favorites can be healthy for motivating high performance in teams and individual members alike. In fact, the effects of LMX differentiation — or the extent to which leaders form relationships of different quality with members in the same team — can be positive for both team and individual outcomes, depending on whether certain conditions are present. For example, our colleagues Berrin Erdogan and Talya Bauer at Portland State University found that LMX differentiation has no effects or positive effects on individual team members as long as those team members perceive that their leaders have created a team climate characterized by fairness. That is, there are no effects or positive effects when leaders provide resources to team members using fair and unbiased decision-making procedures. Specifically, Erdogan and Bauer found that more LMX differentiation was associated with increased helping behaviors among team members when members believed they were working in a fair team climate. Similarly, Bob Liden of the University of Illinois at Chicago and his colleagues found that LMX differentiation was associated with higher team performance but only when there was a high level of coordination, communication, and integration within the teams (known as team interdependence).
Taken together, our colleagues’ research implies that leaders should be able to differentiate among their team members as much as they want as long as certain conditions are present (e.g., a climate of fairness, high team interdependence). One question that was bugging us, however, was whether there should be some sort of ceiling effect in terms of how differently leaders can treat their team members. We reasoned that extreme differential treatment by leaders would likely trigger subgroup formation in teams, with one subgroup of those being treated very well and another of those being treated very poorly. We also reasoned that there would be tremendous friction and conflict between these groups, which would result in lower team performance.
To test these ideas, we conducted a study in three organizations in China, using survey data from over 900 team members working in almost 150 teams. We found exactly what we predicted, in that the relationship between LMX differentiation and team performance was actually an inverted U-shape curve, not a linear one. What that means is that the best team performance occurred when leaders engaged in only a moderate amount of differential treatment. Or, as the saying goes, everything in moderation! Think of it in terms of three scenarios.
In the first scenario, leaders engaged in virtually no differentiation. They treated all members basically the same way, whether good, bad, or indifferently. We found that this resulted in very low team performance. In the second scenario, leaders treated all members vastly differently, and as a result, they ended up with two factions in the team, causing conflict and hurt feelings. Again, and not surprisingly, we found that this was associated with very low team performance. In the third scenario, leaders used the entire range of treatment possibilities: a few members were largely ignored, some were treated moderately well, and still others very well. This scenario resulted in the highest level of team performance. The rationale here is that not all team members are created equally, and so when leaders invested more in the members who were more capable and higher performing and less in those who were not as integral to team success, team performance was maximized.
Our study also revealed two “it depends” factors. One, leaders can differentiate a bit more in larger versus smaller teams and get away with it, as larger teams benefit more from the increased coordination created by differentiation. Two, leaders can also differentiate more in teams characterized by higher levels of a cultural value known as power distance, or the extent to which people accept status and hierarchy differences in a society. As a result, differential treatment would be more acceptable in high power distance countries such as India, Indonesia, Malaysia, and those in the Middle East, compared to lower power distance countries such as Australia, Israel, Spain, and those in Scandinavia.
It turns out that moderate levels of differential treatment are good for teams in terms of making them more productive. Of course, as our study shows, you have to be careful not to take such treatment to the extreme or you’ll end up with a dysfunctional, fractured team, and one that will be unlikely to live up to even the most modest expectations for performance.
About the Authors
Bradley Kirkman is the General (Ret.) H. Hugh Shelton Distinguished Professor of Leadership and Department Head in the Poole College of Management at North Carolina State University.
Yang Sui is an Associate Professor at the University of Science and Technology Beijing.
Hui Wang is a Professor at the Guanghua School of Management at Peking University.
Ning Li is an Assistant Professor in the Tippie College of Business at the University of Iowa.
Powered by Facebook Comments