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Are Leader Relationships Harming Your Team?

leader relationships matter for teams
When leaders have stronger relationships with some team members and not others, negative effects can emerge. Learn more here!

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When people work together, they are likely to form relationships. The same is true for leaders and followers. Leader-member exchange is the idea that leaders form relationships with followers. Some of these relationships are very close. Others may not be as close.

You can probably think of leaders you had closer relationships with than others. While it is human nature to form closer bonds with some than others, leaders should think carefully about doing so. Read on to learn more!

How do leader relationships affect followers?

Leader relationships are meaningful because leaders determine a lot of outcomes for followers. If leaders like some followers better than others, they may get more opportunities. They may also benefit from having more social support at work. For those who are less close with the leader, they may feel excluded from opportunities to shine. They may also receive less resources or time with the leader. Others may begin to view them as an outsider.

When followers are left out, they may want to leave their jobs. They may also become less satisfied with their work, and less empowered to make a difference. Finally, they may also feel that their workplace lacks fairness and justice – a core component of feeling valued at work. So, while it is “normal” for leaders to form bonds with some employees instead of others, these differential leader relationships do have consequences work.

Leader relationships can make some people feel included and others feel like outsiders.
Leader relationships can make some people feel included and others feel like outsiders.

What is relational separation?

What happens when the leader is close to most employees, but not you? Have you ever worked for a leader who you felt, for some reason, they didn’t like you? Relational separation occurs when followers feel they aren’t treated the same as many others on the team. It’s one thing if a leader has a favorite – or even a couple of favorites. But, when leaders relationships are mostly positive, except with one or two people, negative impacts are extremely likely to occur.

Specifically, when followers feel ostracized, they may be less likely to work collaboratively with others. Instead, they may feel that they need to survive by looking out only for themselves. In other words, having weaker leader relationships shifts people into a self-focused mindset. If the leader doesn’t care about them, they don’t care about others. They are also less likely to be satisfied with their leader or team. Finally, their motivation weakens and they feel more negative emotions at work. These outcomes are a perfect storm for negative well-being.

When everyone is else has stronger leader relationships, and you don't, negative impacts can be even worse.
When everyone else has stronger leader relationships, and you don’t, negative impacts can be even worse.

Are leader relationships harming your team?

It can be hard to reflect on this if you are the leader. It can also be challenging if you’re in the “in-group”. But, try to think hard about the following questions. When you need to make a big decision, who do you go to first for advice? If a key opportunity comes up at work, who do you tell about it first? If you’re going to lunch, who do you invite? Or – are you the person who is always tapped for advice, opportunities, or socializing?

Now think about this. Who is not being asked to participate? Are there employees who might feel left out? Sometimes leader-member exchange can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Leader relationships start off strong, and get stronger over time through repeated interaction. On the flip side, weaker relationships keep losing steam as the leader interacts with them less and less. We’ve talked about the impact of ostracism before, but recognizing the problem is the first step!

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