If employees have good relationships with their supervisors, we might expect organizational commitment to increase. And while it seems that these two factors are related, the strength of this relationship varies greatly. The authors of this study (Eisenberger et al., 2010) found evidence that helps explain the reason for this variation; it depends on a new concept called supervisor’s organizational embodiment, or SOE.
DO SUPERVISORS REPRESENT THE ORGANIZATION?
SOE is defined as the extent to which an employee feels that his or her supervisor represents and shares characteristics with the larger organization. Therefore, when SOE is high, a compliment or criticism given to an employee is perceived as a compliment or criticism from the organization itself. When SOE is low, leaders are viewed as acting apart from the organization. This important distinction was found to influence the extent of the positive relationship between leader-member exchange and employee affective commitment.
Leader-member exchange (LMX) describes the quality of relationships that continually develop between supervisors and employees. Employees who positively stand out are often considered to be in the leader’s “in-group” (or quality LMX). This indicates strong socioemotional bonds between supervisors and subordinates (which benefits both parties through trust, loyalty, performance, and resources). Numerous studies have shown that an outcome of quality LMX is employee affective (or emotional) commitment to the organization.
In other words, when employees have strong positive relationships with their supervisors, they often form an emotional attachment to the organization, one that improves performance and reduces turnover. This happens because their socioemotional needs of approval and support have been met.
However, the authors found that when supervisors were seen as unrepresentative of the organization (low SOE), high quality LMX lead to less affective commitment than when SOE was high. Therefore, highly representative supervisors should have a greater effect on the commitment of “in-group” employees, compared to supervisors who are not seen as representative of the organization.
PRACTICAL IMPLICATIONS FOR ORGANIZATIONS
To reap the benefits of commitment and performance that SOE helps motivate, organizations can:
- Encourage supervisors to learn more about LMX and do what they can to expand their “in-group” of trusted employees
- Increase SOE by having leaders communicate favorable attitudes about the organization to their employees
- Strengthen supervisors’ identification with the organization through emphasizing a common social in-group identity (especially right after promotion or selection)
- Inform leaders that are particularly aligned with the organization of the importance of the quality of their relationships with employees (it can ultimately influence the degree of commitment that employees will display for the organization itself)
- Be warned that when strong supervisor relationships are formed in situations of low SOE, employees may become affectively committed to a supervisor at the expense of organizational commitment
Eisenberger, R., Karagonlar, G., Stinglhamber, F., Neves, P., Becker, T. E., Gonzalez-Morales, M. G., & Steiger-Mueller, M. (2010). Leader-member exchange and affective organizational commitment: The contribution of supervisor’s organizational embodiment. Journal of Applied Psychology, 95(6), 1085-1103.