The following post has been written by Janki Kanabar, a Masters student at Aston University.
Does your manager have a ‘favourite’? Perhaps you’re the ‘favourite’? What are the implications of managers having ‘favourites’ at work?
Whether you are a manager or an employee, there is no doubt that you will have come across an imbalance in the quality of working relationships at some point in your career. You may often find yourself comparing your colleague’s relationship with your manager to your own relationship with them. This is because, as human beings we have an innate inclination to compare ourselves with others.
Sometimes, we may feel jealous towards our colleagues because of their relationships with our manager and this may lead to feelings of resentment towards them. In the same way, colleagues may resent you because you have a high quality relationship with your manager.
Recent research published in the Frontiers of Business Research in China studied the effects of high quality leader-member exchange (LMX) relationships on ‘workplace ostracism’ (the act of excluding or ignoring individuals in the workplace.)
LMX relationships are the established and maintained relationships between a manager and their follower. A high quality LMX relationship is often defined as one that has mutual trust, respect and loyalty – naturally leading to preferential work outcomes such as increased performance and satisfaction. However, not all LMX relationships are of high quality. Managers have limited time and resources, inevitably leading to differentiation in relationships with their followers.
Researchers collected data from 196 employees in an organisation based in Southern China. As well as testing the relationship between LMX relationships and ostracism, researchers also considered the impact that envy and agreeableness had.
Agreeableness is a personality trait that is associated with pleasing, kind, sympathetic and considerate behaviours. Those that are high in this trait often avoid conflict in attempts to please others.
Participants were given scales to test these variables. The scales consisted of a series of questions to measure; LMX, being envied, workplace ostracism and agreeableness.
- LMX is related to workplace ostracism.
- Being envied by your colleagues mediates the relationship between LMX and workplace ostracism.
- The relationship between being envied and workplace ostracism is weakened when employees are high in agreeableness.
- The relationship between LMX and workplace ostracism is stronger for employees low in agreeableness.
To summarise, employees recognise the different types and strengths of relationships that there are in the workplace which naturally creates social comparison. Employees with higher quality relationships with their managers are more likely to be envied by their colleagues and as a result, ostracised. However, this becomes less likely when the employee is high in agreeableness.
Implications and suggestions
This study used a questionnaire design to measure the complex emotion of envy. The data provided therefore only provides a snapshot of information and levels of envy may in fact alter at different times and in different situations. However despite some limitations, the research yields some very interesting results.
The negative psychological impacts of being ostracised are huge – they include but are not limited to, emotional exhaustion and depression. Consequently, it is essential that both employees and managers understand and proactively take steps to reduce workplace ostracism.
At the centre of this research is the social comparison of LMX relationships. This comparison leads employees to envy others and following this, ostracise them. Bearing this in mind, there are a number of practical suggestions that leaders, employees and organisations can do to reduce workplace ostracism.
Practical suggestions for leaders:
- As a leader you need to be aware of the implications of having overtly positive relationships with some followers compared to others.
- Leaders should proactively keep track of observable differences in their LMX relationships. If they recognise considerable differences they should make an effort to communicate and interact more with those with lower quality LMX relationships. These behaviours will keep LMX relationships within an adequate range.
Practical suggestions for employees:
- Don’t let this post put you off from pursuing high quality LMX relationships with your manager! By all means, it is important to continue to do this but at the same time, be aware of changes in interpersonal relationships with colleagues.
- Although agreeableness tends to be an innate, those scoring low in this trait can still take steps to reduce the chances of being ostracised by others. Those with a high quality LMX relationship may benefit from being helpful, kind and cooperative towards others as well as carrying out extra-role behaviours where possible.
Practical suggestions for organisations:
It could be beneficial for organisations to invest in emotional intelligence training for both their leaders and employees. Emotional intelligence is the ability of individuals to detect and manage emotional cues and information. Generally, this involves the utilisation of four skills:
- Self-awareness – understanding your own emotions and reactions
- Self-management – managing your self-awareness appropriately
- Social awareness – understanding others emotions and reactions
- Relationship management – utilise the three other skills to understand and manage relationships
Although a certain proportion of emotional intelligence is innate, it can be practised and developed through training. This training will help individuals understand how their overt behaviours are perceived by others as well as providing them with techniques that can help them come across in a preferential way.
Wang, Z. & Li, G. (2018). You don’t actually want to get closer to the star: How LMX leads to workplace ostracism. Frontiers of Business Research in China, 12(1), 1-13.
Janki Kanabar is studying for an MSc in Occupational Psychology and is keen to help organisations thrive! Her particular interests are around leadership, talent, change and organisational development. You can follow Janki on Twitter @JankiKanabar