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30th October 2015

A Relationship Based Approach to Leadership

Sarah Lavin, one of our Assistant Psychologists has written a summary of her research on a relationship based approach to leadership

There are many theories about which leadership style is best in different situations, from charismatic to autocratic, delegating to transformational. What about the relationship that a leader has with their followers? How does this impact on employee attitudes about work and affect the bottom line? Leader-member exchange theory (LMX) can help us answer these questions. It takes a relationship based approach to leadership, looking at the quality of the relationship between a manager and their individual employees based on aspects such as trust, mutual respect, loyalty, liking and contribution on the job.

Research carried out at Manchester Business School by our colleague Sarah Lavin, Assistant Business Psychologist, looked into how the relationship quality between a manager and employee impacts on the employee’s commitment to the organisation, job satisfaction and whether or not they are thinking about leaving or looking for another job. It was found that employees, who have a high quality relationship with their manager, feel that they are able to influence their experience of work, that their work is in-keeping with who they are and feel more connected to others at work, which increases their motivation. Managers in these relationships were also seen by their staff to behave in ways that increased employee motivation. Examples of these behaviours included asking staff for their views and opinions, encouraging them to ask questions, providing them with choices and options, understanding their perspective and showing confidence in their ability to do well.

The higher motivation experienced by employees in high quality relationships was found to be linked to increased commitment, fewer thoughts about leaving or looking for other jobs and a greater sense of job satisfaction. In essence, the relationship between a manager and employee impacts on a range of employee attitudes about work. High quality leader-follower relationships are linked with happier, more satisfied employees and potentially lower turnover within an organisation.

Other research has found that high quality manager-employee relationships at work are linked with higher staff well-being and performance, both of which are widely known to be associated with increased productivity and ultimately, boosting profits. Clearly, there are a wide range of benefits to fostering high quality leader-follower relationships at work, using a relationship based approach to leadership.

It goes to show that where leaders create great relationships with their team members, these employees are more motivated, which has a positive impact on both the employee and the organisation. So, perhaps the best leaders are those who take a relationship based approach to leadership, building high quality relationships with their team and not just those who use a specific ‘style’ to get results. Leadership and management development training programmes might benefit from including a relationship based approach to leadership. If managers know how to create the high quality relationships needed to increase staff motivation, there are many potential benefits including positive employee attitudes and business growth as a result of increased productivity.

See Impact Consulting Psychologist’s work on leadership development.


Graen, G. B., & Uhl-Bien, M. (1995). Relationship-based approach to leadership: Development of leader-member exchange (LMX) theory of leadership over 25 years: Applying a multi-level multi-domain perspective. Leadership Quarterly, 25, 219–247.

Graves, L. M., & Luciano, M. M. (2013). Self-determination at work: Understanding the role of leader-member exchange. Motivation and Emotion, 37(3), 518-536.

Liden, R. C., & Maslyn, J. (1998). Multidimensionality of leader-member exchange: An empirical assessment through scale development. Journal of Management, 24: 43-72.

Martin, R., Guillaume, Y., Thomas, G., Lee, A., & Epitropaki, O. (2015). Leader‐Member Exchange (LMX) and Performance: A Meta‐Analytic Review. Personnel Psychology.