Leaders seeking to motivate superior performance from their followers have long wondered what was the best path to reach that goal, and there has been notable analysis by researchers to identify how leadership behaviors can determine and improve follower performance
Over the years, the research has turned up varying connections between leaders and followers, and the theories have been far ranging, from servant leadership to emotional intelligence to top-down leadership. But none of them have seemed to be sufficient enough or a unifying theory that could garner wide support.
Imagine the transformative power, however, of finding a definitive connection between leadership behavior and outstanding employee performance. It could alter the leader-follower paradigm for good. Leadership practitioners could train, develop, and advance a single theory to uplift the purposes of organizations and society.
A paper published in the Journal of Organizational Behavior by Ryan K. Gottfredson and Herman Aguinis appears to have found a theory to coalesce around. In “Leadership behaviors and follower performance: Deductive and inductive examination of theoretical rationales and underlying mechanisms”, the authors plumbed more than 3,000 studies and reviewed some 930,000 observations, to glean an answer. And their work paid off.
The authors found that leader success in motivating employees to do their best work was most directly linked to employees’ perceived relationships with leaders and not necessarily by issues such as trust, resources, or employment situations. That perceived relationship arises through the theory of leader-member exchange or LMX.
“LMX, and along with it, relational leadership theory, was empirically determined to be the best explanation for why leadership behaviors are related to follower performance across four of the most heavily studied leadership behaviors,” noted the authors, referring to consideration, initiating structure, contingent rewards, and transformational leadership. “Our results suggest that perhaps we have discovered a meta-theoretical principle, explaining a common phenomenon across various leadership domains.”
LMX is the strongest intervening mechanism between leadership behaviors and follower performance, the authors found, and that greater emphasis should be given to applying relational leadership theory in examining the link between leadership behaviors and follower performance.
Today LMX is frequently applied through the LMX-7 questionnaire (Graen & Uhl-Bien, 1995). The questionnaire is used to measure the quality of working relationships between leaders and followers—clarifying how superior-subordinate behaviors impact job satisfaction and organizational affinity.
The authors acknowledged that their findings were unexpected—and yet somewhat obvious. A good leader–follower relationship is the sturdiest pathway from leadership behaviors to follower performance and is “logical, simple, and perhaps even commonsensical,” even more so after their voluminous review of datasets.
The study’s inductive analyses supported its deductive results and the finding that LMX is “a simple and parsimonious rationale that explains the relation between leadership behaviors and follower performance, suggesting that relational leadership theory is perhaps the best theoretical explanation, out of many currently in use, for why leadership behaviors lead to follower performance.”
Even as they elevated LMX, they did underscore the importance of leaders continuing to exhibit critical traits such as fairness, commitment, and trust in building relationships with followers. After all, it is hard to imagine that LMX would be successful on its own if followers don’t trust their leaders.
Ultimately, the authors concluded “the leader–follower relationship, as perceived by followers, is what seems to chart the pathway from leadership to follower performance, suggesting an important shift in leadership theory and practice.”