Access Type

Open Access Dissertation

Date of Award

January 2011

Degree Type


Degree Name




First Advisor

Boris Baltes


Recently, there has been renewed interest in studying relational demography, which focuses on how demographic differences between individuals and members of their work unit impact individual level outcomes (Joshi, Liao & Roh, 2011). In terms of age, relational demography research has focused on the individual-within-group level of analysis, such as studying how age differences between individuals and their peers affect work attitudes (Riordan & Shore, 1997). However, the influence of age differences between leaders and their subordinates has not been sufficiently addressed by this literature (Tsui, Egan & Xin, 1995).

This study investigates how leader-subordinate age differences affect subordinates' ratings of their leaders' effectiveness. In this regard, there are generally two classes of theories that explain how leader-subordinate age differences affect such performance ratings - directional theories, and non-directional theories. Both classes of theories are rooted in the notion that the perception of age differences between individuals can serve as a basis for sensemaking in social contexts. As such, age differences can serve as a potentially dichotomizing factor in terms of social categorization, and likewise, in performance judgment.

Directional theories (e.g., Lawrence, 1984; implicit organizational age grading) suggest that leader-subordinate age differences create a dichotomy between status incongruent and status congruent subordinates. Subordinates who are status incongruent (i.e., older than their leader) provide lower ratings of leadership effectiveness than subordinates who are status congruent (i.e., younger than their leader) because they break with traditional organizational age grading norms. Non-directional theories (e.g., Byrne's 1971; similarity-attraction paradigm) suggest that age differences create a dichotomy between similarly and dissimilarly aged subordinates. Thus, subordinates who are dissimilarly aged (i.e., younger or older than their leader) should provide lower ratings of leadership effectiveness than subordinates who are similarly aged to their leader.

This study pits these two classes of theories against each other, in a strong inference framework (Platt, 1964). Furthermore, alternative hypotheses are tested that suggest that age difference between leaders and their subordinates may operate differently by workgroup, and approximate social competition (i.e., younger subordinates providing systematically lower ratings) or loyalty effects (i.e., older subordinates providing systematically higher ratings) (Vecchio, 1993).

To test these hypotheses, leadership effectiveness ratings were obtained from 449 workgroups across 89 different organizations. Each workgroup is composed of one leader, and subordinates with a heterogeneous age distribution (i.e., multiple subordinates who are younger, the same age, and older than their leader). Such workgroups were purposefully sampled, because age differences should be a particularly salient, and potentially dichotomizing factor.

A meta-analytic strategy is employed to test for relational demography effects. The results of this analysis suggest some evidence for subtle effects of age on performance ratings that can be associated with the relational difference between subordinate and leader age. Furthermore, while the observed effects were small, evidence suggests that the direction and magnitude of the effects observed were heterogeneous. These findings suggest that attending to specific characteristics of individual workgroups is necessary to understand the manifestation of leader-subordinate age differences in the performance rating process.

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