You probably have team members that you've developed a great relationship with: you trust them, they work hard, and they've never let you down. To you, these team members are invaluable, and you make an extra effort to send challenging projects their way. It's also likely that you have others on your team who you think less well of. They may not have far-reaching career goals, they're less competent, and you simply don't trust them to the same extent. These team members get everyday responsibilities, and are not considered for promotions or challenging assignments.

However, have you ever stopped to analyze why you don't trust certain team members? Rightly or wrongly, do you let that distrust, or the belief that they're unreliable, influence how you relate to them? Do you, even subconsciously, withhold opportunities that might help them grow and succeed? This situation is at the heart of the Leader-Member Exchange Theory. This theory, also known as LMX or the Vertical Dyad Linkage Theory, explores how leaders and managers develop relationships with team members; and it explains how those relationships can either contribute to growth or hold people back.

The Leader-Member Exchange Theory first emerged in the 1970s. It focuses on the relationship that develops between managers and members of their teams. The theory states that all relationships between managers and subordinates go through three stages. These are:

  1. Role-Taking.
  2. Role-Making.
  3. Routinization.

Let's look at each stage in greater detail.

1. Role taking

The member joins the team and the leader assesses their abilities and talents. Based on this, the leader may offer them opportunities to demonstrate their capabilities. Another key factor in this stage is the discovery by both parties of how the other likes to be respected.

2. Role making

In the second phase, the leader and member take part in an unstructured and informal negotiation whereby a role is created for the member and the often-tacit promise of benefit and power in return for dedication and loyalty takes place. Trust-building is very important in this stage, and any felt betrayal, especially by the leader, can result in the member being relegated to the out-group.

This negotiation includes relationship factors as well as pure work-related ones, and a member who is similar to the leader in various ways is more likely to succeed. This perhaps explains why mixed gender relationships regularly are less successful than same-gender ones (it also affects the seeking of respect in the first stage). The same effect also applies to cultural and racial differences.

The theory says that, during this stage, managers sort new team members (often subconsciously) into one of two groups.

  • In-Group - if team members prove themselves loyal, trustworthy and skilled, they're put into the In-Group. This group is made up of the team members that the manager trusts the most. Managers give this group most of their attention, providing challenging and interesting work, and offering opportunities for additional training and advancement. This group also gets more one-to-one time with the manager. Often, people in this group have a similar personality and work-ethic to their manager.
  • Out-Group - if team members betray the trust of the manager, or prove that they're unmotivated or incompetent, they're put into the Out-Group. This group's work is often restricted and unchallenging. Out-Group members tend to have less access to the manager, and often don't receive opportunities for growth or advancement.

3. Routinization

In this phase, a pattern of ongoing social exchange between the leader and the member becomes established.


The principle works upwards as well. The leader also gains power by being a member of their manager's inner circle, which then can then share on downwards. People at the bottom of an organization with unusual power may get it from an unbroken chain of circles up to the hierarchy.When you join a team, work hard to also join the inner circle. Take on more than your share of administrative and other tasks. Demonstrate unswerving loyalty. See your leader's point of view. Be reasonable and supportive in your challenges to them, and pick your moments carefully. As a leader, pick your inner circle with care. Reward them for their loyalty and hard work, whilst being careful about maintaining commitment of other people.