How Can Leader-Member Relationships Promote Women’s Retention and Advancement?

The unique working relationship between a supervisor or department head and each individual employee or faculty member affects both organizational and personal outcomes. This impact has been documented through years of research based on a leadership theory about patterns of exchanges between leaders and members (LMX). Findings show that leaders tend to develop more positive relationships with some organizational members than with others. These “in-group” relationships, characterized by exchanges of trust, respect, and low formality, have a measurable positive influence on the performance, job satisfaction, and commitment of both men and women. Unfortunately, positive relationships are more likely to form between people who see themselves as similar. Because most IT leaders are men, women in IT less often achieve in-group status.


Although leaders are more likely to initiate and develop high quality relationships with people similar to themselves, awareness of this tendency may help leaders consciously include women and members of minority groups. Fortunately, LMX seems to produce similar results for men and women leaders and members, although certain aspects of the relationship may vary depending on the gender composition of the leader-member pair. For example, one difference of great relevance for women and IT is that high-quality LMX correlates with increased work self-efficacy. In other words, leaders who establish positive working relationships with women new to their group engender greater self-confidence in the women’s ability to succeed. Because low self-efficacy is commonly reported by women in IT, and a sharp decline often precedes departure, LMX quality may be especially important in this context.



Women’s retention and advancement in computing depends to a great extent upon people in positions of power and how their actions promote or inhibit women’s success. For example, when leaders provide women with the resources routinely available to men, women’s engagement and commitment increases.

Resources that leaders provide include more than funds, equipment, physical space, opportunities, or even information. The relationship between a leader (supervisor or department head, for example) and a member (employee or faculty member) is a crucial and highly influential resource. It can include mentoring, but more routinely and more powerfully, it involves everyday exchanges that affect individual and organizational outcomes.


Step 1. Leader-member relationships develop over time, but from the very beginning mutual respect is crucial. Leaders must recognize and value the qualities the member brings to their organization and must communicate that respect early, within the first few weeks of contact. Leaders can communicate and model respect by explicitly telling group members that they are capable of doing challenging tasks, acknowledging the validity of any concerns, and treating them as individuals, not as representatives of their sex or race. It may be useful for leaders to explicitly say that they want a high-quality working relationship.

Step 2. Mutual trust occurs when a leader and a member share a belief that they can depend on each other in accomplishing goals. Leaders should offer opportunities, relying on the member to accept and perform dependably. Leaders also must follow through with rewards, including “face time” and greater autonomy. Ensuring that members know the leader would rescue or back them up, if necessary, is also important.

Step 3. Mutual commitment and obligation grow as the relationship matures. As justification for trust builds, leaders should develop shared understanding of organizational goals with their members and include members in decision-making. As leaders and members learn what to expect from each other, the pair should develop career interdependence.

These steps in forming a positive relationship require that leaders possess interpersonal skills including effective listening and communication. Other behaviors that contribute to building trusting relationships, according to Whitener et al., include: consistency, integrity, sharing and delegation of control, communication, and demonstration of concern.



  • Hiller, N.J. & Day, D.V. (2003). LMX and teamwork: The challenges and opportunities of diversity. In G.B. Graen (Ed.), Dealing with Diversity. Information Age Publishing.
  • Scandura, T. A. & Lankau, M. J. (1996). Developing diverse leaders: A leader-member exchange approach. Leadership Quarterly, 7(2), 243-263.
  • Reid, M.F., Allen, M.W., Riemenschneider, C.D., & Armstrong, D.J. (2008). The role of mentoring and supervisor support for state IT employees’ affective organizational commitment. Review of Public Personnel Administration, 28(1), 60-78.
  • Whitener, E. M., Brodt, S.E., Korsgaard, M. A., & Werner, J. M. (1998). Managers as initiators of trust: An exchange relationship framework for understanding managerial trustworthy behavior. The Academy of Management Review, 23, 513-530.

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Authors: J. McGrath Cohoon