Hierarchy is a defining characteristic of organizations. The earliest formal theories of organization – bureaucratic theory and administrative management – held hierarchy at the core of management processes, emphasizing chain of command, order, control, and discipline. These processes occur in the context of supervisor–subordinate relationships.
Supervisor–subordinate relationships are workplace relationships in which one partner (the supervisor) holds direct formal authority over the other (the subordinate employee). Early research tended to treat management/supervision and leadership as synonymous terms. Both “processes” involved leaders (supervisors/managers) eliciting the optimal (i.e., most productive) attitudes and performance from followers (subordinate employees). In the early 1980s, scholars began to distinguish between management/supervision, which centers on day-to-day direction of departmental activities, and leadership, which centers on vision and organizational change.
Functions Of Supervisor–Subordinate Relationships
Early studies of supervisor–subordinate relationships, conducted by both leadership and management scholars, tended to be unidirectional and focused on the functional aspects of such relationships. This research attempted to identify supervisor qualities and behaviors that lead to improved employee attitudes, motivation, and job performance.
Early leadership theories focused either on “traits” or “styles.” Trait theories of leadership assumed “great leaders” possess particular personality traits (e.g., charisma, intelligence, courage) that enhance leadership ability (Ghiselli 1963). The follower (subordinate) was largely irrelevant in these theories. A great leader could lead anyone effectively.
“Style” or “behavioral” theories of leadership focused on leader behaviors, rather than traits, arguing that people can learn to be effective leaders. These theories fall under the broad category of “average leadership style” (ALS) theories in that they assume, to varying degrees, that leaders/supervisors tend to adhere to a general supervisory style. The Ohio State leadership studies, for example, indicated that leaders who exhibit a high level of consideration for employees (e.g., trust, warmth, respect) and a high level of initiating structure (e.g., focus on the task) were the most effective (Hemphill 1955).
Style theories of leadership differed with respect to the role of the subordinate employees. Managerial grid theory, for example, assumed effective leadership behaviors were universal; that is, all employees would respond similarly to such behaviors, giving subordinate employees a passive role in the leadership/management relationship. In contrast, life-cycle theory (Hersey & Blanchard 1982) assumed certain leader behaviors would be effective only with certain types of employees. For example, research indicated that mature and confident employees respond best to a “delegating” leadership style, while employees lacking maturity and confidence respond best to a “telling” or more directive leadership style. Although subordinate employees began to play a more active role in these theories, the effectiveness of the relationship was still conceptualized as being in the supervisor’s control. He or she only had to determine which behaviors to use with which employees.
In the mid-1970s, Graen and colleagues introduced vertical dyad linkage (VDL) theory (Graen & Cashman 1975). VDL theory questioned the prevailing assumptions that supervisors treat employees similarly and that subordinates are generally passive. Instead, VDL theory maintained that supervisors form different types of relationships with their various employees and these relationships vary with respect to quality. In general, high-quality supervisor–subordinate relationships (also known as “ingroup” relationships) are characterized by higher levels of mutual trust, respect, and obligation among the relationship partners than are low-quality relationships (also known as “outgroup” relationships). In high-quality relationships, leaders and members rely on one another for support and encouragement. Such relationships function more as “partnerships” where “members move beyond their own self-interests to focus on larger mutual interests” (Graen & Uhl-Bien 1995). Moreover, leader–member relationships (i.e., supervisor– subordinate relationships) represent a type of “exchange” relationship in which both partners negotiate their relationship on an ongoing basis. The theory was eventually renamed “leader–member exchange” (LMX) theory to emphasize the negotiated nature of supervisor–subordinate relationships.
Parallel to the evolution of theory regarding leadership and supervisory relationships, scholars conducted a great deal of research on supervisor–subordinate communication. This body of work focused on identifying supervisor–subordinate communication patterns and functions that were more or less effective (with effectiveness typically measured with respect to employee productivity, turnover, and satisfaction). Research indicates that supervisors’ and subordinates’ openness with respect to both providing and receiving information is associated with higher employee morale and satisfaction with the supervisor– subordinate relationship, and lower employee turnover. Communication openness also contributes to supervisors and subordinate employees having more similar understandings of their tasks, abilities, and responsibilities. Employees perceive effective supervisors to be skilled communicators, viewing them as “communication minded,” skilled listeners, sensitive to their employees’ needs and feelings, and skilled at persuading, rather than demanding (Jablin 1979, 2001). Communication research also indicates that information exchange is a crucial function of supervisor–subordinate relationships. Supervisors are one of the most important sources of information for both newly hired and veteran employees (Jablin 2001). Likewise, supervisors depend on subordinate employees for information to ensure they make appropriate decisions (Sias 2005). Much research has centered on identifying supervisor and subordinate information-seeking and information-giving tactics (Miller & Jablin 1991).
Power And Influence
Because hierarchy is a defining characteristic of the supervisor–subordinate relationship, much research has examined power and influence processes among supervisors and subordinate employees. Again, early work tended to be unidirectional, focusing on how supervisors control and influence employees. Early management theories conceptualized the supervisor–subordinate relationship as a power relationship in which the supervisor held legitimate authority to direct and control the subordinate employee’s behavior. Power was conceptualized as a relatively simplistic downward process in which supervisors gave orders to employees and employees were disciplined if they failed to carry out those orders effectively. Later theorists in the human resources movement, such as Mary Parker Follett and Rensis Likert, maintained that subordinate employees are more competent and knowledgeable than earlier theories suggested and not easily or effectively controlled through direct orders. They advocated participatory processes in which subordinates participated in decisions and exerted greater control over their tasks and work processes.
Conceptualizing subordinates as participants in power and control processes, many scholars have studied “upward influence” and identified several tactics subordinate employees use to influence their supervisors. The tactics fall into three broad categories: hard (e.g., assertiveness, upward appeals, coalitions), soft (e.g., ingratiation, self-promotion), and rational (e.g., providing rational evidence and arguments). A recent meta-analysis (Higgins et al. 2003) revealed that rationality and ingratiation tend to be the most effective tactics with respect to garnering positive performance assessments from supervisors and greater extrinsic success (i.e., salary increases and promotion). Research also shows that employees with higher quality relationships with their supervisors have more influence on supervisors’ decisions than do employees in lower quality relationships.
Studies of supervisor–subordinate relationship development began largely with the introduction of LMX theory, which maintains that supervisors form different types of relationships with their various subordinate employees. An important issue, therefore, is how and why some employees develop higher (or lower) quality relationships with their supervisor than other employees. Research indicates a process by which supervisor– subordinate relationships evolve from “stranger” to “acquaintance” to “maturity” status (Graen & Uhl-Bien 1995). In the “stranger” phase, the relationship is characterized primarily by “role-taking,” wherein leaders/supervisors and members/employees behave strictly within the bounds of their prescribed jobs. After a time, one of the parties “offers” an improved relationship (e.g., the supervisor seeks employee input on a decision or the employee shares increased information or performs tasks beyond his/her prescribed role). Thus, role-taking transforms to “role-making” and the relationship moves from purely contractual (stranger phase) to a closer, more multifaceted relationship (the “acquaintance” phase). As the relationship grows closer, it enters the maturity, or “role-routinization,” phase, where the relationship develops an emotional, rather than solely instrumental, quality. The supervisor and subordinate exhibit mutual trust, respect, and support for one another. Those who reach the “maturity” stage develop the high-quality LMX relationship discussed earlier.
Not all supervisor–subordinate relationships reach the maturity phase, however, and scholars have examined the factors that affect this developmental process. A subordinate employee who fails to perform a task independently, for example, may lose the trust of the supervisor, hindering movement to the acquaintance phase (Deluga & Perry 1991). Gender, liking, and similarity also influence the development of leader–member relationships. Specifically, supervisors are more likely to form higher quality relationships with employees of the same sex, whom they like, and with whom they perceive similarities (Graen 1989; Bauer & Green 1996).
Communication scholars conceptualize relationship development as a communicative process. Gail Fairhurst and her colleagues demonstrated that supervisor–subordinate relationships are socially constructed during routine conversations. The differential nature of such conversations constructs differential relationships. Research indicates, for example, that high-quality relationships are characterized by communication in which supervisors and subordinates minimize power distance, using communication patterns such as insider talk, value convergence, and nonroutine problem solving. Low-quality relationships, in contrast, are constructed via conversations that emphasize power distance between the supervisor and subordinate, including communication patterns such as performance monitoring, face-threatening acts, and competitive conflict (Fairhurst & Chandler 1989).
Communication also enables individuals to maintain stability in their supervisor– subordinate relationships. Strategy use varies depending on the quality of the supervisor– subordinate relationship (e.g., high or low quality). In general, ingroup employees tend to rely on personal and direct communication tactics to maintain their leader–member relationship, while outgroup employees rely more on “regulative” tactics (e.g., talking superficially, avoiding discussion of problems, etc.).
Supervisor–subordinate relationship quality has important consequences for both supervisors and subordinate employees. Employees who perceive they have a high-quality relationship with their supervisor tend to experience faster career progression, higher levels of organizational commitment, job satisfaction, influence on decision-making, and job enrichment (Duchon et al. 1986), lower levels of turnover (Kramer 1995), and they tend to receive more and higher quality information (Sias 2005) than employees in lower quality relationships.
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