Leader Member Exchange Theory

Brian Erbis
5 min readMar 30, 2020

Leader behaviors associated with in-group, out-group and middle-group members can vary widely in both public and private organizations. The group dynamic is more common in police organizations due to the high stakes of police work, resulting in intense emotions (Haberfeld, 2013a, pg. 37). This paper will examine the different behaviors associated with a leader in their interaction with those specific groups, identify and discuss six indicators of the “in-group,” and discuss the application of Leader-Member Exchange Theory (LMX) in the further development of said team.

Leader behaviors with the in-group in LMX are “two-way communication, trust, leeway and consideration” in a “leadership” capacity (Fraher, 2020). Leader behaviors associated with the middle-group are “partial two-way communication” that is “task oriented” and of an “aloof” and “evaluative nature” in a “stewardship” setting (Fraher, 2020). Lastly, leader behaviors correlated with the out-group are tantamount to “supervision” which is “authoritarian” and “punitive” in nature, comprised of a “structured task environment” with “one-way communication” where a “formal relationship” exists (Fraher, 2020).

The six indicators of an in-group relationship are a “high degree of communication of information,” “influence in decisions” — consultation, joint or delegation aspects of participative leadership (Haberfeld, 2013a, pg. 67), — “priority of task assignment”, “job latitude”, “support” and “attention”. (Fraher, 2020). “High degree of communication” means that the in-group members are privy to enhanced communication which facilitates accomplishment of an assigned task (enhanced intelligence) instilling feelings of trust amongst the team members (Fraher, 2020). The in-group enjoys the benefits of participative leadership as the group is often solicited for input in the decision-making process as “the supervisor instills a sense of responsibility as to the organizational goals and does not micromanage each small specific task” (Haberfeld, 2013a, pg. 67). This is then ratified as a decision made collectively for the group. The in-group also enjoys being assigned priority tasks that have a high likelihood of enriching their career (Fraher, 2020) and are given leeway to accomplish the task (Fraher, 2020). In practical terms, this is often based on not only the affinity between leader and subordinates due to the dyadic nature of exchange but augmented by a high level of confidence. This exhibits that the subordinates are not only responsible but highly competent in basic skills by continued demonstration of their expertise (Fraher, 2020). Furthermore, the in-group benefits from a high level of support from their leader as shown by the degree that the leader is willing to stand by their subordinates (Fraher, 2020). As such, the team members are willing to take on increased risk during a mission or task knowing that their leader will support them if they fail (Fraher, 2020). Moreover, the in-group receives directed attention in a “mentor-protégé” fashion (Fraher, 2020) which further expands the professional development of not only the team but the leader themselves. This leads to greater status for subordinates as they become “trusted assistants” (Fraher, 2020). The ultimate goal for a leader is to shrink the out group by inflating the in-group, optimizing the leader’s performance (Fraher, 2020).

In developing an effective team using LMX theory in policing, it would be important to minimize the out group by maximizing membership of the in group modeled after the “span of control” concept which recommends a limit of how many subordinates a supervisor/manager can effectively manage. This, of course, would depend on a selection process as, according to Dr. Haberfeld, “it is impossible to make everybody a part of one huge in-group” (2013a, pg.37). There are also personality conflicts between leaders and subordinates. As Dr. Haberfeld points out, “[W]e have our favorite people, those to whom we are indifferent, and those whom we dislike” (2013a, pg.37). Dr. Haberfeld makes the important point that “it is also possible to interact, trust, and support people equally in a work environment” (Haberfeld, 2013a, pg.37). Rising above personal feelings and misconceptions, objectivity would be used to set the criteria for admission to the in-group. An important part of the criteria for selection should be assessing the education level and competence of subordinate staff. A second, but equally important part of the criteria, would be work ethic. Assessing the work ethic of a middle-group and/or an out-group member should be viewed from an objective standpoint to eliminate nepotism. For a nominal employee, a determinant factor in work ethic should be whether potential exists. Also, the work environment the employee works in should be analyzed. “When the dyadic relationship or the perceived level of organization support is weak, only personal benefits will motivate subordinates, limiting their career development and work activities” (Maurer, as cited in, Haberfeld, 2013a, pg. 35).

Upon completion of the selection process, a leader can then build on the dyad by forging high quality relationships with members of the in-group which would then begin the desired transition from a group to a team. “Supervisors need to foster relationships with employees but they also need to surround themselves with high quality employees” (Haberfeld, 2013a, pg. 36). Incorporating the stewardship model into the in-group dyad can facilitate this transition as “leaders are charged with nurturing subordinates, helping them to develop their intellect, independence and personal leadership abilities” (Haberfeld, 2013a, pg. 15). This could foster a harmonious and productive work environment where cohesion and synergy may ultimately develop by drawing out loyalty and enthusiasm of subordinates by managers tapping into each employee’s individual talents and work styles (Maurer, in Haberfeld, 2013a, pg. 35).

Throughout my career with the New York City Police Department (“NYPD”), I found that good leaders were rare. Quite often, the good leaders would not survive in their positions because of the leadership styles of middle management or command level executives. Looking back, the application of LMX would have been productive in its true form. It would not be practical, however, due to a transactional leadership-based hierarchy which practices a silo style of management which isn’t compatible with the unity of command concept. Due to the personnel structure of the NYPD, political demands, and conflicting needs and competition, police officers assigned to patrol often find themselves answering to several masters despite having a squad supervisor. It is nearly impossible to answer solely to a direct supervisor. Personality conflicts, whether personal or work related, further complicate the issue. The fact that nepotism and personality conflicts are pervasive throughout various ranks in the NYPD, narrowing the out-group would not work. Based upon my observation of the command operation in the 10th Precinct where I served for sixteen years, the out-group members often served in a patrol capacity. The in-group served in special operations assignments such as plainclothes assignments, in administrative capacities such as community affairs, or in crime analysis. The in-group would often have first choice at prime overtime details with the flexibility to change their shifts to accommodate the overtime assignments. The in-group would usually have an informal relationship with their immediate supervisors. By contrast, the out-group would have a formal relationship with their immediate boss.


Fraher, W. G. (2020). Leader Member Exchange Theory [PowerPoint Slides]. Retrieved on March 21, 2020 from https://bbhosted.cuny.edu/bbcswebdav/pid-45258750-dt-content-rid-367784031_1/xid-367784031_1

Haberfeld, M.R. (2013a). Police Leadership: Organizational and Managerial Decision-Making Process (2nd edition). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall



Brian Erbis

Brian Erbis is a retiring NYPD detective based in New York City. Financial crimes consultant and owner of Brian Erbis Consulting LLC. Freelance blogger.