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Systemic leadership : enhancing leader-member exchange theory with boundary critique

de la Peña-Aguirre, Oralia


Oralia de la Peña-Aguirre


The purpose of the research reported in this thesis was to determine if Leader-Member Exchange (LMX) theory can be further developed using insights from the theory of marginalization processes contained within the systems literature on Boundary Critique.
LMX is a leadership theory that conceptualizes leadership as a process that is centered on the interactions between leaders and followers. It describes how leaders develop higher-quality relationships with some followers (in-group members) than others (out-group members). In contrast, Boundary Critique is a theory and a set of methodological ideas from the literature on Critical Systems Thinking, which is useful for understanding and exploring the inclusion, exclusion and marginalization of both people and issues. It helps identify the boundaries of a system and the stakeholders with perspectives on it; and it supports reflection on the issues that should be included in, or excluded from, the boundary. Of most relevance within Boundary Critique is a systems theory of marginalization processes that is useful for both understanding marginalization dynamics and intervening to change them.
It might be assumed that these two theories are incommensurable, since they come from different paradigms. However, some concepts and terms look alike, and others are potentially complementary. LMX identifies in-groups and out-groups, while Boundary Critique talks about primary and secondary boundaries diagrammed concentrically, and the people (and the issues that concern them) that lie between these boundaries are the ones who are marginalized. Also, LMX focuses on justice in organizations and differential treatment, while Boundary Critique talks in terms of the values and ethics associated with marginalization.
To explore the potential added value to LMX of the theory of marginalization from Boundary Critique, three questions were addressed by the research:
- How can LMX be conceptually enhanced by drawing on the theory of marginalization from Boundary Critique?
- Can empirical evidence be provided for the validity of the enhanced LMX?
- If an enhanced LMX is supported with empirical evidence, how can Boundary Critique add value to the normative guidance for good leadership practice already offered by LMX?
To answer the first question, the Boundary Critique theory of marginalization was mapped onto concepts from LMX in a piece of desk-based research. It was found that LMX, as currently constituted, can identify the existence of differentiation, but merely assumes this is the result of favoritism by the leader – there is no examination of the issues that matter to in-group and out-group participants, which might explain, in a deeper manner, why the leader treats these groups differently. It is proposed that the additional concepts in the theory of marginalization (boundaries, values, conflict and social rituals) are useful for developing explanations for why in-groups and out-groups exist within an organization – particularly what values and boundary judgments differentiate in-group from out-group members.
Answering question 2, about empirical evidence provided for the validity of the enhanced LMX, required a comparative case study approach. The research looked at two departments in a Mexican university: one with high LMX differentiation (a clear in-group and out-group) and one with low differentiation. Semi-structured interviews of departmental members were undertaken to identify relevant values, boundary judgments, conflicts and rituals reinforcing or challenging marginalization. It was discovered that there were clear differences between the two departments, and the additional concepts made available through the Boundary Critique theory of marginalization added new detail and value in understanding what was happening in the high differentiation department. The theory of marginalization helped to identify both the roots of the differentiation (the issue or issues that underpinned it, causing the in-groups and out-groups to emerge) and the ways in which it came to be systemically entrenched through stigmatization and ritual.
Another important finding, which was not anticipated by the researcher, came from analyzing the data from the low-differentiation department (without an in-group and out-group).
A relatively mild form of marginalization was found, even though there was virtually no LMX differentiation. This generated a new question: how can marginalization exist without causing more significant and entrenched differentiation? It would appear that, in this low differentiation department, there was a counter-system of ‘integration rituals’, and these worked to minimize the impact of the marginalization. Instead of splitting the department into an in-group and out-group, these rituals reinforced the whole-group identity. Thus it was apparent that, even when issues existed that could divide people, the division could be avoided.
Finally, to answer the third question concerning what normative guidance for management practice can be derived from the enhanced LMX, two pieces of research were undertaken. First, lessons were drawn out from what was happening in the low differentiation department, where there was clearly an issue of marginalization, but it had not developed into full LMX differentiation and stigma. Second, desk-based research was undertaken to look for normative guidance from the Boundary Critique literature on marginalization that went beyond what is offered in the LMX literature. It was found that it is indeed possible to offer new normative guidance to managers seeking to address LMX differentiation.


de la Peña-Aguirre, O. (2019). Systemic leadership : enhancing leader-member exchange theory with boundary critique. (Thesis). University of Hull. Retrieved from

Thesis Type Thesis
Deposit Date May 9, 2023
Publicly Available Date May 9, 2023
Keywords Business
Public URL
Additional Information Business School, The University of Hull
Award Date Feb 1, 2019


Thesis (2.2 Mb)

Copyright Statement
© 2019 Oralia de la Peña-Aguirre. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced without the written permission of the copyright holder.

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