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The experience and management of dialectical tensions in leader -member relationships

Sandra Kay Cavanaugh, University of Nebraska - Lincoln


The purpose of this study is to investigate the maintenance communication between employees and supervisors, specifically to explore contradictory pulls experienced by supervisors and employees and the communication strategies both use to cope with these tensions. The internal tensions include: connection-autonomy, predictability-surprise, openness-closedness (Baxter, 1990), privilege-uniformity, and equality-superiority (Zorn, 1995). Previous literature has established the presence of these tensions in social and personal relationships but little research had been conducted on the presence and impact of the tensions in hierarchical relationships. ^ This investigation verified the presence of the internal tensions in supervisor and subordinate hierarchical relationships as wen as the coping strategies (Baxter, 1988, selection. temporal/spatial separation, and integration) both used to cope with the tensions. This study also examined the tensions, strategies, and their association with relational quality. The three research questions include: (1) What are the internal dialectical tensions experienced by supervisors and subordinates concerning their maintenance communication behavior; (1a) How does relational quality affect these, if at all; (2) What are the communication coping strategies utilized by supervisors and subordinates to manage and maintain their organizational relationships; (2a) How does relational quality affect these choices, if at all; and (3) What are the relational outcomes associated with the two processes above. ^ Twenty-eight members of hierarchical relationships (25 subordinates and 3 supervisors) were interviewed. Tapes were transcribed. All participants had been in their hierarchical relationships for at least 18 months so their messages exchanges were designated to maintain their hierarchical relationship. Subordinates also completed a modified questionnaire measuring relational quality (leader-member-exchange) and relational satisfaction. A one-way ANOVA was performed on the questionnaire information. The distribution of members was almost equal in all three groups. In, mid, and out-groups were all found to be significant. ^ The predictability-surprise tension/contradiction appeared to be the source of discomfort for both supervisors and subordinates participating in this investigation. Both supervisors and subordinates indicated they strived for order, structure, and predictability in their hierarchical relationships. AD supervisors and most subordinates reported they felt uneasy when experiencing surprises in their maintenance relationships. Surprise has been determined to be a critical necessity in social and personal relationships. When practicing the coping strategies to manage their struggle with dialectical tensions in their hierarchical relationship, subordinates used direct and indirect actions/behaviors which were identified. These actions behaviors were sub categories of the three coping strategies. In-group members experienced the tensions quite intensely which reinforced previous findings. They also appeared to be very active in participating in their hierarchical relationships. Mid-group members appeared to be experiencing the most anger and frustration concerning their relationships with their supervisors when coping with the dialectical tensions. ^

Subject Area

Psychology, Social|Business Administration, Management|Speech Communication|Psychology, Industrial

Recommended Citation

Cavanaugh, Sandra Kay, "The experience and management of dialectical tensions in leader -member relationships" (1999). ETD collection for University of Nebraska - Lincoln. AAI9929188.