The relationship between team members and the leader is one of the most important aspects of a group’s effective work. The task of the manager is to build such relationships in the team that can provide trust, mutual understanding, and transparency, but at the same time maintain a hierarchy and respectful attitude. The same work style, ideas, and perception of the situation are the most conducive to such relationships as they minimize internal conflicts and make the team more united. Nevertheless, full agreement on issues and unanimity of all employees is not a prerequisite for effective interaction, and often even harms the adoption of the most useful decisions. Arguments about work tasks between team members are an opportunity to see a new perspective on a problem; however, all disputes should be controlled and used by the manager and not have an interpersonal context. Therefore, although conflicts and a lack of understanding between team members can indicate poor management, they can have a positive effect on the right leadership approach to building working interactions.
Conflicts are an inevitable part of the work process since people have different preferences, views on problems and their solutions, as well as emotions and non-working issues that affect their mood. However, arguments become problems and adversely affect the work of the team only if the manager and subordinates misunderstand each other, and employees feel an unfair attitude. Such a relationship between a leader and a team member is characterized by the concept of a differential Leader-Member Exchange. Leader-member exchange (LMX) is determined by actions in which the leader pays enough attention to support, understands, and stimulates the employee, and the employee benefits in communication with the leader and the team (“Leaders, followers, and teams,” n.d.) In other words, if the manager pays more attention to one team member but neglects the other, this attitude causes problems both in leader-member and member-member relations. The second type of issue is more likely to be expressed in interpersonal conflicts due to jealousy, feelings of underestimation, or other emotional feedback from employees. Therefore, the differential treatment of team members causes harmful conflicts.
However, the very name of the theory Leader-Member Exchange indicates that all parties are involved in this process; therefore, all responsibility for the quality of the relationship cannot rest solely with the leader. Undoubtedly, most of the obligations for the building of LMX belong to the manager, since his or her primary responsibility is to instruct the team and each of its members and create effective communication. Consequently, the leader should initiate the exchange by his or her behavior and attitude towards the employees and keep it with timely feedback and support. This approach, according to Erdogan & Bauer (2014), encourages the Citizenship Organisation Behaviour, or employee’s desire to build a relationship with a leader, help a team or company, and be proactive.
Nevertheless, not all employees know or can apply the LMX methods on their part. Hence, the exchange is partially one-sided. Gabarro & Kotter (2005) recommend several simple ways to change an employee’s passive role to an active one, such as adapting of working style, informing the boss, and using his or her time rational. Such recommendations demonstrate that a leader is also an ordinary person with limited resources and personal problems; thus, the follower needs to understand the features of the exchange and evaluate it fairly.
Furthermore, informativeness and a fair assessment of the leader’s efforts are also critical components for LMX. The first feature is based on the fact that the manager cannot know everything, and he or she relies on the team members both in working matters and for exchange. Oc & Bashshur (2013) also confirms that the social influence of team members affects the leaders when they are dependent on the information followers provide them. Although, in this case, the study is aimed more at researching the followers’ impact, the results also relate to LMX, since the influence is the result of this exchange. Fair treatment and trust are also necessary components of LMX on both sides. While the manager should treat the employees equally, team members should be aware that the leader cannot devote equal time to everyone. Consequently, even in the case of a differential attitude, workers must rationally and fairly evaluate whether the leader has done enough to help them. Therefore, the above arguments indicate that although the leader bears most of the responsibility for equal and high LMX will all followers, employees should also be involved in this process.
However, one should also consider how high LMX with all team members is combined with the arguments inside it. Conflicts on work issues are part of the creative process and the search for new solutions. Different views on the problem bring unique, unexpected solutions that arise in arguments or as a result of compromises. However, De Dreu (2008) disputes the usefulness of conflicts by saying that their useful functions only appear in an “exceedingly narrow set of circumstances”. It is easy to agree with this point of view when considering differential or low LMX, since, in this case, conflicts can go to the personal level and the leader’s authority is doubtful. Low LMX creates conditions in which team members do not trust the leader and more resist his or her influence (“Leaders, followers, and teams,” n.d.). At the same time, both problems also arise due to unequal treatment as employees are aware of the leader’s biased opinion and believe that in-group members are more likely to win the dispute.
At the same time, employees have less doubt about the justice of the leader with a high LMX and more attentively listen to his or her opinion and the ideas of other members. In addition, high-quality LMX members are more likely to adopt collaborative strategies, which helps them come to a common solution (Erdogan & Bauer, 2014). Therefore, in this situation, conflicts are a manifestation of effective leadership but not errors in management.
Moreover, members of the group do not need to get alone in all matters, since it is enough for them to support common goals and professional ethics. A small working confrontation that does not go beyond the rules is also useful. Hulsheger et al. (2009) note that task-related conflicts, as well as team cohesion, are important for innovation. The scientists also emphasize that maintaining an exceptionally positive tone and a nonthreatening atmosphere can deter team members from mutual criticism (Hulsheger et al., 2009). Therefore, if all employees agree on most issues and are afraid to break friendly relations, this feature may impede the work and development of the team. Besides, the practice of remote work of virtual teams shows that employees can be connected only by working relationships and mostly rotation initiated by leaders force them to feel part of the group (Malhotra et al., 2007). It is sufficient for the leader to establish rules if the employees do not agree on the fundamental aspects, since their interaction outside the working discussions is limited. Therefore, opposing opinions and approaches of team members are not always fatal for effective work.
In conclusion, conflicts and the lack of unanimity and full agreement between team members are not indicators of poor leadership, although they may show problems in management. Disagreements that harm the work of the team are the result of insufficient communication between the leader and employees and his or her differential attitude towards them. Lack of mutual understanding of work styles, support, and adequate assessment leads to misunderstanding between the follower and the leader, and unequal treatment also causes distrust and a sense of injustice. Such relationships interfere with the development and application of useful work conflicts. At the same time, a high level of Leader-Member Exchange with all employees allows the leader to create conditions of trust and respect that contribute to the use of arguments for finding new working solutions and obtaining them collaboratively. Consequently, conflicts can also be an indicator of high-quality leadership if they bring a positive outcome. However, even with an average quality of the Leader-Member Exchange, the blame for ineffective leadership cannot be relied entirely on the manager, since employees must also participate in this process but not just take advantage of it.
- De Dreu, C. K. (2007) ‘The virtue and vice of workplace conflict: food for (pessimistic) thought,’ Journal of Organisational Behavior, 29(1), pp. 5–18.
- Erdogan, B. and Bauer, T.N. (2014) ‘Leader-Member Exchange (LMX) theory: the relational approach to leadership,’ in Day, D. (ed.), The oxford handbook of leadership and organisations. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 407-433.
- Gabarro, J.J. and Kotter, J.P. (2005) ‘Managing your boss,’ Harvard Business Review, pp. 92-99.
- Hülsheger, U. R., Anderson, N. and Salgado, J. F. (2009) ‘Team-level predictors of innovation at work: a comprehensive meta-analysis spanning three decades of research,’ Journal of Applied Psychology, 94(5), pp. 1128–1145.
- ‘Leaders, followers and team’ (no date) [PowerPoint presentation].
- Malhotra, A., Majchrzak, A., and Rosen, B. (2007) ‘Leading virtual teams,‘ Academy of Management Perspectives, 21(1), pp. 60–70.
- Oc, B., and Bashshur, M. R. (2013) ‘Followership, leadership and social influence,’ The Leadership Quarterly, 24(6), pp. 919–934.