How to elevate your LMX

The quality of a leader will be determined by the quality of the exchanges that they have with their team members (also known as Leader Member Exchange, or LMX). LMX as a theory has been researched widely since 1975. If you have not heard of LMX, you are not alone, and if that is the case, this is the article for you.  

When I say elevate your LMX, what I mean is to increase the quality of the communication and connection that you have with all team members. Not just those who you trust the most or who you rely on the most. 

Let me give you the short version first. LMX is about a reciprocal exchange between leader and team member. Reciprocal being the operate word – meaning here, a two-way exchange, that is about an elevated level of dialogue. Honest. Open. Candid. A two-way dialogue based on a degree of mutual trust, loyalty, support, respect, and obligation. The concept was developed by Fred Dansereau, George Graen, and William Haga.  

What is also important about LMX, is simply that higher quality LMX leads to a growth and development focused relationship (for the team member), and lower LMX is associated with less team member growth (and growth opportunities). Higher LMX result in career conversations. They result in idea generation sessions. They result in candid (reciprocal) feedback sessions. They result in a more developed relationship. 

Please read this paragraph carefully, as this is the important, and probably the most honest element of LMX theory. It says that leaders have a subconscious rating process, where they (we) make a subliminal judgement call about each and every team member.  

Team members (unknowingly, and unwittingly) end up in the ‘in-group’ or the ‘out-group’… and yes, leaders (we again) treat these two groups of team members differently. Yes, we are only human, but it is good to know how this works, and what you can do to make sure you are more conscious with your leadership, and that you take an LMX approach to your conversations. Not just writing team members in or out.  

Here are the three parts of LMX explained: 

1. Role Taking 

No matter how much you read about LMX, there is never much written about this part of the process. The line is generally “This takes place when a new member joins a team, and their abilities are initially assessed by the leader”. And I get that this is a simple process, but there must be more to it than just that one line. 

I think about the Tuckman model, where teams go through forming, storming, norming, and then performing. And every time someone joins a team, the team will go back into forming stage, regardless of the characteristics of the new team member. Some team members fit in, and some don’t, right. So, the storming stage might be longer or shorter, based on the team member. And potentially how well the new team member gets on with the leader.  

Yes, a leader does make an initial assessment, but if you are reading this, remember that leaders do change their minds. It is not all bad news if you get put in the out group from the outset (or that is my take on it, at least). 

2. Role Making 

Role making is what happens following how leaders categorise their team members.  

Team members who are subconsciously added to the in-group are trusted more. They are given more growth opportunities. In short, these team members experience a better relationship, and dare I say it, treatment… from their leader. Conversely, team members who are subconsciously added to the out-group are not communicated with as openly or honestly as their in-group counterparts.  

If you are a team member, here is how to tell if you are in the in-group or the out-group. And this comes straight from the mouth of a CEO who I have a lot of respect for. Their take on it was simply – my in group get their messages responded to quickly. And in their preferred format. The out-group have to wait longer, and they might get an email when they prefer texting, as an example.  

Oh, and if you are in the in-group, you will most likely be provided with privileges and perks that the out-group doesn’t. And you will have more of a voice during decision making. In-group team members are heard more than out group team members.  

Again, this is not all bad, because the goal of the out-group team members should be to get to the in group. By doing good work, and by becoming a valued team member. And needless to say, it is incumbent upon leaders to be self-aware enough to understand who is in their out-group, and work on developing more trust in those team members. Remember that as much as you think you are hiding your feelings about in and out-group team members… they know what group they are in. 

3. Routine Shaping 

The issue with in and out-groups is that (in LMX theory), in-groups get more in, and out-groups get more out. It is a self-fulfilling prophecy, as team members respond to the way they are treated, and generally respond in kind. For leaders, this is a challenge, as leaders need to be willing to open their mind and increase the trust that they have in the out-group team members. The issue is that the in-group treatment or the out-group treatment becomes routine for the leader. It becomes habitual. And that is scary.  

Because habits are heuristics. They are the path of least resistance, and they are hard to break. Breaking bad habits takes effort, and willingness.  

If you are a leader reading this, hang onto your hat, because here is something that you can do, and it comes under routine shaping (although it is the positive spin on this part of LMX theory).  

Leaders, and we train this regularly, needing to use a routine to lean into systems leadership. Systems leadership is about creating habits, not being slave to them. It is about using your calendar and your schedule to create systems that hold you accountable to elevate the way you interact with the out-group team members. 

Schedule one on ones. Schedule career conversations. Schedule walk around time. Schedule important conversations, so that every one of your team members knows how important they are. In team meetings, schedule time for each team member to contribute. To have a say. To have an input. When it comes to routine shaping, create routines that serve you, not that sabotage you. Schedule it, and then be present.  

Then, ask bigger questions. And trust your team members to do their best work. Including providing the growth opportunities for them to do that.  

Elevate your LMX. 

Want to learn more about how to elevate your LMX with some routine shaping?  

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About Anton

Anton has dedicated his working life to helping leaders to upgrade their mindset, upskill their leadership, and uplift their teams! With a focus on helps leaders to better lead under pressure. Anton is an entrepreneur, speaker, consultant, bestselling author and founder of The Guinea Group. Over the past 19 years, Anton has worked with over 175+ global organisations, he has inspired workplace leadership, safety, and cultural change. He’s achieved this by combining his corporate expertise, education (Bachelor of HR and Psychology), and infectious energy levels.
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