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The Wrong Section of the Bookstore

I’ve always loved books. As a teenager I spent weekends browsing the Sci-Fi section of the book store and eventually migrated to the Computer Programming section. Many happy hours were spent among those shelves. After I became a Team Lead, I noticed my browsing habits slowly changed. I started to take an interest in the “Business and Leadership” section. As a die-hard nerd, I felt pretty uncomfortable in this new section. The book covers all showed these fit, tan, well-dressed people. I didn’t match any of those attributes, but I was drawn to the promises I found on those book covers.

I was struggling with my new management role. The technology didn’t trouble me. It was my team. This alien section of the book store promised to help me lead, inspire and motivate my team, solving all my problems.

So I bought and read many of these books. But instead of turning into a great leader as they promised, I felt more disconnected and discouraged than ever.

Part of the problem was that these books described people who seemed so different from me. No matter how hard I tried, emulating them felt unnatural and forced.

Fast forward a few years: after much trial and error, I had finally found a management style that worked for me. I heard it described as MBWA, or Management By Wandering Around. My team called it the “How’s it going?” approach. They seemed to like it, and I found it a useful and productive way to manage my team.

LMX Theory
One night, while browsing material about Leadership Theories, this time on the internet, I came across a term I’d never seen before: Leader-Member Exchange Theory (LMX Theory). Excitedly, I realized that this approach matched my experience and the research into the theory suddenly gave me the “WHY” behind the “WHAT” of my practices.

According to the Oxford Handbook of Leader-Member Exchange (2016), LMX theory “views the dyadic relationship quality between leaders and members as the key to understanding leader effects on members, teams and organizations” (emphasis my own.)


Let me rephrase: instead of focusing only on the leader, LMX studies the relationships the leader has with individual employees.

LMX studies have found that a huge factor in an employee’s job performance and job satisfaction is their relationship with their manager.

In short: it’s not about being a born leader. It’s about creating great relationships with your team.

However, there’s a catch. LMX theory asserts that leaders form high-quality, trust, affect, and respect-based relationships with a subset of their team, whereas they tend to have a lower-quality exchange that is limited to the employee and leader’s job description with other members. [2]

That is, you have great relationships with some people on your team, and maybe not so great relationships with other people on your team.

Your great relationships display trust, affection and respect. But your poor relationships are shallower because they only focus on the duties both parties have according to their job descriptions.

This results in two distinct groups, the “in-group” and the “out-group”.

My in-group and out-group
Of course I liked some people on my team more than others. I’ll bet you do too. It’s only natural. Without realizing it, I was letting my team relationships be dictated by matches between personality or interests rather than intentionally investing in all my relationships. Looking back, this uneven investment created my “in-groups” and “out-groups”.

This had major consequences for my team. I trusted my in-group more. They got the better assignments. I was more likely to recommend them for promotion. I was more likely to overlook problems and give them the benefit of the doubt. I spent more time in casual, friendly conversation and had deeper, more personal relationships with them. I was more likely to mentor them and invest in them.

At the same time, I worried more about my out-group. I watched them more closely, questioned their judgement and decisions, and felt they were less reliable. I held them at arm’s length, being more “professional”, and they did the same to me. I was more likely to give them mundane assignments, and less likely to have personal discussions with them. I didn’t invest in them as much, and I didn’t spend time mentoring them. I didn’t think of them as “bad”, but I didn’t describe them as my “super stars” either.

Traditional leadership theories
Let’s go back to those calm, confident, attractive leaders on those book covers: They almost all represented traditional leadership theories that can be lumped into a category called the “Great Man Theory”. This theory emphasizes the special qualities of great military, political and business leaders throughout history. Though I found it fascinating to read about these people, I didn’t find is useful in my management work. When I tried to act like these “great men,” it came across as fake or artificial to my team, which actually hurt my relationship with them.

So how is LMX theory different?  Instead of trying to change myself to be more like history’s great leaders, it prioritizes something we are all born knowing how to do: create strong relationships with people.

Let’s go back to that phrase “dyadic relationships.”  A dyad is something that consists of two elements or parts. In this case, the two parts are you and each team member. Let me be clear, this isn’t your relationship with “the team”, this is your relationship with the individuals who make up your team, not the group that is your team.

The early developers of LMX wanted to understand and measure the impact of the boss/employee relationship on the employee. What they found was that bosses have an astoundingly high impact on their employees’ job performance and job satisfaction. In fact, Gerstner and Day, in an academic study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, went so far as to say that “The relationship with one’s boss is a lens through which the entire work experience is viewed”. [1]

In addition, Gallup’s report The State of the American Manager from 2015 reports that “Managers account for at least 70% of the variance of employee engagement scores across business units.”

In short, managers matter a lot. And not managers acting like “great men,” but managers who create strong relationships with their team.

The good news
The good news is that we all have experience creating human relationships. We know how to create and invest in friendships, establish and nurture romantic relationships, and have strong, trusted professional relationships with our peers.

So, we already have the tools we need to start creating great relationships. As Robert Fulghum’s brilliantly titled book reminds us, All I really need to know I learned in Kindergarten. (This book is a gem and you should definitely pick it up if you haven’t already read it.)

So if manager/developer relationships matter, and we know we’re good at creating relationships with other people, let’s put in place some actions that create great relationships with our team.

The goal is to do things that move people from the out-group to the in-group, so that everyone enjoys the benefits of greater productivity and job satisfaction.

Step 1: Take inventory
First, now that you know how important this is, I suggesting taking an inventory of your relationships with your team members. Make a list of each person on your team and rate the relationship you have with them on a HIGH-MEDIUM-LOW scale.

As you look at your ranking, can you start to see members of your in-group?  Everyone not in your in-group is automatically in your out-group. Place an “I” or “O” next to their name.

Step 2: Commit to small improvements
You’re trying to improve individual relationships, so you’ll probably choose different actions and questions for each person. Think about what you know and don’t know about the person. Like Ed Schein suggests in his book Humble Inquiry, “access your ignorance” to become honestly curious about the other person. Couple this curiosity with honest caring about the person to engage them in more personal and important discussions.

Next to the name of each person in your out-group, write a note about how you’d like to improve your relationship or get to know them better. Jot down a question you’d like to ask or a topic you’d like to discuss with them and when you’ll do it. I suggest using your one-on-one meeting to do this, or possibly a coffee or lunch meeting where you can talk privately.

Step 3: Try, try again
Relationships take time to build, so don’t expect folks in the out-group to open up to you immediately. Your mantra should be to “try, try again” until you earn their trust. Remember, they might be in the out-group because your personalities didn’t immediately “click.” You probably haven’t invested enough energy or time into your relationship with them. It’s understandable that they might be suspicious of your motives. I suggest being upfront about your motives: you want to have a better professional relationship with them. You hope to establish better communication, trust and collaboration with them. Take responsibility for not initiating this sooner, but remind them that it’s never too late for things to improve.

Making relationship building a regular part of your meetings and discussions will impress upon your team members that you really care about them, that you really want a deeper professional relationship with them.

I’ve found I have to try about a dozen times before someone starts to believe I that really want a different relationship. Consistency is key here. If you give up trying, they may feel your effort wasn’t sincere, which will make the relationship worse. Of course, you actually have to care about them. We can all sense when someone is faking interest in us, and it quickly leads to distrust.

Your relationship with your team matters a tremendous amount, more than most managers realize. LMX Theory is the science that proves this and gives us a framework for seeing our team in terms of “in” and “out” groups, illuminating great differences in job performance and job satisfaction between the two groups.

While it may not be possible to move everyone from the out-group to the in-group, regular relationship building activities with your out-group moves interested members into the in-group and opens up new possibilities for trust, collaboration and deeper professional relationships.

Final advice: Be yourself
Learning to manage people is hard.  Don’t make the same mistake I did and try to become someone else.  I’ve never been a khaki-and-tie sort of fella, and it felt (and looked!) awkward when I acted that way.  Finding LMX Theory affirmed what I learned the hard way: you already have the interpersonal skills needed to create trusted relationships.

Be yourself.  Work to create trusted, deep professional relationships.  Connect with your team as individuals, and humbly ask that they connect with you.  These are the actions which create great relationships, and build loyalty and trust with your team.

Keep working, you can do this.

If you want help, join my new Tech Lead Mentoring group.

[1] Oxford Handbook of Leader-Member Exchange, p10
[2] Leader-Member Exchange Theory, Wikipedia

About Marcus Blankenship

Where other technical coaches focus on process or tools, I focus on the human aspects of your Programmer to Manager transition. I help you hire the right people, create the right culture, and setup the right process which achieves your goals. Managing your team isn't something you learned in college. In fact, my clients often tell me "I never prepared for this role, I always focused on doing the work". If you're ready to improve your leadership, process and team, find out how I can help you.

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