ISSN 0439-755X
CN 11-1911/B

Acta Psychologica Sinica ›› 2016, Vol. 48 ›› Issue (5): 566-577.doi: 10.3724/SP.J.1041.2016.00566

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When leader-member exchange increases emotional exhaustion? The role of belief in reciprocity and power distance orientation

LU Xinxin; SUN Jiaqing   

  1. (School of Labour and Human Resources, Renmin University of China, Beijing 100872, China)
  • Received:2014-12-22 Published:2016-05-25 Online:2016-05-25
  • Contact: LU Xinxin, E-mail:


As a type of social support and job resources, Leader-Member Exchange (LMX) has been demonstrated to be effective in alleviating emotional exhaustion. However, some studies suggested that LMX was curvilinear related to job strain and job stress, shedding light on the dark side of LMX. Jiang et al. (2014) argued that too much or too little LMX was detrimental to job burnout. The potential negative impact of LMX on emotional exhaustion lies in the expected reciprocation from employees that may cause continual resource loss. Thus, the followers’ reciprocation in LMX will undermine its favorable effect on burnout and would even turn to negative effect on emotional exhaustion. Our purpose in the present study is to verify the reciprocation in LMX, examine its potential detrimental effect on emotional exhaustion, and identify the relevant boundary conditions. Social exchange theory and role theory are two main theoretical underpinnings in LMX literature. Social exchange theory maintains that the norm of reciprocity lies at the heart of social exchange and is critical to predict individual response. According to the theory, actors in LMX are expected to reciprocate favors from the other party to sustain social exchange relationship. Role theory holds that leader-member exchange develops after a series of role making, role taking, and role internalization. It asserts that role definitions profoundly shaped individuals’ decisions and actions in LMX. Drawing from the two theories, the subordinates’ reciprocation in LMX is essentially repayment based on the norm of reciprocity and simultaneously embedded in supervisor-subordinate relationship. Thus, both the norm of reciprocity and role definitions in supervisor- subordinate relationship will play a role in the reciprocation. To the best of our knowledge, there is a paucity of empirical studies having validated the norm of reciprocity, though widely recognized as the core tenet of social exchange theory. In our study, to capture the role of the norm of reciprocity in subordinates’ reciprocation in LMX, we intend to conceptualize it as individual belief and examine its moderation on LMX-burnout relationship. On the other hand, as a vertical dyadic linkage, LMX is characterized by power asymmetry that distinguishes it from other interpersonal interactions. Hence, power distance, depicting individual acceptance of power differential between hierarchies, will prescribe individual role definitions in hierarchical relationships like LMX. Then, power distance orientation will further constrain the extent to which the subordinates apply personalized norm of reciprocity in LMX. In summary, the present research attempts to explore whether and why individual belief in reciprocity and power distance orientation separately and jointly moderate the relationship between LMX and emotional exhaustion. The survey was administered in a training program with full-employed participants from a variety of occupations, including teachers and service employees. We collected the data at two time spots with a temporal interval of 8 weeks and the final sample was composed of 172 matched employees. Hierarchical regressions were conducted to test the two- and three-way interaction hypotheses. The results revealed that LMX at Time 1 was significantly and negatively related to emotional exhaustion at Time 2. Neither belief in reciprocity nor power distance orientation alone significantly moderated the relationship between LMX and emotional exhaustion. However, the interaction of belief in reciprocity and power distance orientation significantly moderated the LMX-emotional exhaustion link. In other words, the significant three-way interaction effect of LMX, belief in reciprocity, and power distance orientation on emotional exhaustion was supported. With the time-lagged data, our research suggested that in general, LMX did alleviate emotional exhaustion but the followers’ reciprocation might undermine the favorable effect. The significant three-way interaction indicated that the norm of reciprocity and power asymmetry of supervisor-subordinate relationship altogether accounted for subordinates’ reciprocation in LMX. Specifically, for those with high belief in reciprocity and simultaneously low power distance orientation, the LMX-emotional exhaustion relation turned significantly positive. On the contrary, high power distance buffered the detrimental effect of high belief in reciprocity in the LMX-emotional exhaustion relation. The findings are ascribed to the fact that people with low power distance orientation tend to view LMX as interpersonal interaction and apply norm of reciprocity in LMX. In this sense, our research suggested that the norm of reciprocity and role definitions jointly accounted for subordinates’ reciprocation in LMX and highlighted the potential conditions of the norm of reciprocity. The research finding implied that to avoid getting emotionally exhausted from LMX, employees should be aware of power and resource asymmetry inherent in supervisor-subordinate relationship and refrain from repaying overly in LMX.

Key words: leader-member exchange, emotional exhaustion, belief in reciprocity, power distance orientation, three-way interaction