Revisiting LMX Theory

In 1982 I undertook a self-taught crash course in I/O psychology, with a special emphasis on leadership. At that time, I concluded that LMX theory was the only model of leadership that made any sense; the alternatives seemed hopelessly academic. I have recently had the opportunity to meet George Graen, the author of LMX theory and to confirm my initial reactions. George is smart, productive, perceptive, and an artist— which means that he is constantly fiddling with his ideas. At its core, however, LMX theory is, in my judgment, exactly right. I would like to summarize the highlights of the theory, as I understand it.

First, LMX stands for “leadership motivated excellence”, although Graen has changed the meaning of the term three times. Nonetheless, leadership motivated excellence is the “real” definition of the term.

Second, and in contrast with most discussions of leadership, Graen understands that it is not about the person in the role, leadership is about the performance of the team or business unit of which the “leader” is in charge. Graen evaluates leadership in terms of the team’s performance, and this is rarely done in the academic literature.

Third, Graen makes a crucial distinction between leadership models that concern between group performance, and models that concern within group performance. Between group models evaluate managers using ratings by a few members of the manager’s team (e.g., the typical 360 subordinate evaluation). Managers of successful teams are compared with managers of less successful teams, based on these averaged ratings, and those data are used to identify the characteristics of successful managers. This methodology has led to inconsistent results over time. In contrast, LMX theory uses ratings from everyone on the team to evaluate a manager, and the evaluations concern the relationship between each team member and the manager. These dyadic relationships tend to be very stable over time, and lead to convergent research findings.

Fourth, consistent with best practices of managers of real teams, Graen says leadership is not about how a manager treats his/her team in general or on average. Leadership is about building relationships between each member of the team, one person at a time. This is the key insight of Red Auerbach, the legendary coach of the Boston Celtics of the National Basketball Association—you motivate a team one player at a time. Rob Kaiser points out that the principle source of variance in 360 ratings is the ratings provided by single individuals—exactly as LMX theory would predict.

LMX theory is rooted in social exchange theory—the leader and the member each get something from the relationship, otherwise defections will occur. Thus, followers can influence leaders as much as the reverse. Each dyadic relationship (between the leader and an individual member of the team) is unique and determined by the personalities of the two people involved. The quality of the dyadic relationship is the key factor affecting the member’s motivation. Inevitably, the members who are in a leader’s “in-group” contribute more to the team than those who are not.

Fifth, Graen has a standardized rating form that can be used to evaluate the quality of the LMX dyads that make up any team. Higher scores on this rating form are associated with more effective teams that communicate, cooperate, and coordinate better, and have lower turnover intentions.

Sixth, Graen has standardized (and proprietary) protocols for training managers in the kind of relationship building that LMX theory spotlights. Furthermore, he says that he has data showing that managers who are trained on this LMX model do better, in the sense that their teams perform better after they have undergone training.

Seventh, the standard criticism of LMX theory in the I/O literature is that LMX is all about likability, that subordinates give higher ratings to supervisors that they like, so that LMX theory only concerns “halo or nuisance variance”. But Graen is quite clear that the LMX relationship depends on three elements: (1) the subordinate trusts his/her manager; (2) the subordinate respects the competence of his/her manager; and (3) the subordinate believes his/her manager is concerned about the welfare and performance of the team. These elements might result in likeability, but likeability is not necessarily entailed by these elements. As Graen notes, many aspects of a successful manager’s behavior make that person likeable, but the three criteria listed above are what predict team performance.

Finally, as far as I can tell, every aspect of LMX theory is supported by data, and every aspect of LMX theory is consistent with the way I think about leadership, starting with speculations about the role of leadership in the evolution of our species, and ending with what is wrong with modern corporate leadership.