When the specific characteristics of the leader are well-suited to the task and personnel, success is likely.
However, if there is a mismatch between these components, failure is probable.
Leadership is a complex endeavor that involves a dynamic interaction among numerous variables that are in a continuous state of movement.
For example, a transformational leader that is great at motivating others in the beginning may be unskilled at formulating a detailed strategy and keeping everyone on track later on.
Definition of Contingency Theory Leadership
There are numerous aspects of the situation that will determine the likelihood of success or failure of a leadership style.
For instance, the amount of power given to the leader by the organization is crucial. A leader that has no authority or does not exude confidence will face tremendous difficulties, while an overly authoritarian leader may also face difficulties, depending on the workplace culture.
The clarity of the project objectives and the amount of time available to complete the project are important as well. Even a talented leader with a highly-skilled team will need to have clear goals and sufficient time.
The characteristics of the workers and the relationship with the leader are also important factors in this equation. Therefore, contingency theories attempt to consider the characteristics of the leader, the situation, and the workers.
Examples of Contingency Theory Leadership
1. Fiedler’s Contingency Theory
Fred E. Fiedler was a pioneer in leadership theory. His version of contingency theory of leadership states that there are essentially two kinds of leaders: task-oriented or people-oriented.
The ability of a leader to accomplish a task depends on their particular orientation, the demands of the situation, and the characteristics of the personnel involved.
For example, if the team is experienced in the project domain and they are intrinsically motivated, then a leader with a task orientation will fit the situation very well.
However, if the personnel lack motivation or interest in the project, then a task-oriented leader will have great difficulty motivating the team to work hard, overcome challenges, and get the project completed successfully.
2. The Path-Goal Contingency Theory
The Path-Goal contingency theory of leadership is very focused on the workers and how to motivate them to achieve project objectives.
Step one is to make sure that goals are clearly defined, that the path to accomplish those goals is clear, and that the rewards at the end are desirable.
Furthermore, the leader must understand the psychological profile of the team. More specifically, there are four characteristics to consider: need for affiliation, preference for structure, desire for control, and perceived abilities.
Step two takes into account aspects of the work environment, such as how structured the tasks are, how formal the organization’s rules and policies are, and the level of support given to the team.
When combining all of these factors, it leads to one of four suggested leadership styles: directive, supportive, participative, or achievement-oriented. In this way, the Path-Goal theory identifies the best leadership style contingent upon worker and work environment factors.
3. Situational Theory
The situational leadership style involves the leader changing their approach to match the demands of the project and the characteristics of the team. It’s all about flexibility.
Hersey and Blanchard (1969) postulated four approaches. If the project involves tasks that are routine but personnel that lack motivation, then the leader should utilize a telling style of leadership.
They should assign tasks and keep a careful eye on productivity. The coaching style should be used when the team is motivated but lack the necessary skills. So, the leader provides training and also tries to instill confidence.
The participating style is useful when the team is experienced and knows what they are doing, so the leader plays more of a supportive and encouraging role. A delegating style is best suited for a team that is self-motivated and highly skilled, so, the team can function autonomously.
4. Decision-Making Model
Also referred to as the Vroom-Yetton-Jago Decision-Making Model of Leadership, this is a contingency theory of leadership that emphasizes the leader’s analysis of the situation and group dynamics.
The model is designed to take the leader through a series of seven “yes/no” questions about the situation and personnel that will lead to a suggested leadership style.
As each question is answered, the leader works their way through a decision-tree that will result in one of five possible codes (A1, A2, C1, C2, or G2). Each code represents a specific leadership style.
In general, the suggested styles of leadership include: autocratic, consultive, and collaborative. They each specify the degree to which the leader should include the workers in the decision-making process to accomplish the project.
5. LMX Theory
The Leader–Member Exchange (LMX) theory is primarily concerned with the relationship between the leader and subordinates.
It takes a dyadic approach to analyzing the quality of those interactions and the resulting implications for task performance.
“LMX is concerned with the dyadic relationship between the leader and follower and assumes that leaders form differentiated relationships with each of the followers” (Walthall & Dent, 2016, p. 8).
High quality relationships will lead to trust, liking, increased access to resources, and mutual respect, which improves performance and employee well-being.
Whereas most other theories of leadership examine the leader’s relation with the team as a whole unit, the value of the LMX model of leadership is that it takes a dyadic approach that looks at the specific relation between the leader and each individual member of the team.
6. Multiple Linkage Model
Yukl (1971; 2010) devised the Multiple Linkage model of leadership. The model attempts to explain how the leader interacts with organization processes and structures to effect group performance.
The leader’s behavior and situation dynamics form a linkage to each individual’s performance.
Leadership effectiveness is based on six factors: employee effort, employee ability, task structure, level of teamwork and cooperation, availability of resources, and how the team interacts with external operations in the organization.
The leader intervenes periodically to affect situational variables in order to ensure that things remain conducive to work performance. Intervening can include helping team members to internalize organizational values and goals, providing skills training, or modifying work structures to facilitate productivity.
7. Leader-Follower Theory
Leader-Follower theory is unique in its focus on the follower as an agent of influence and change within the organization.
Unlike most other theories of leadership that focus on the characteristics of the leader, this theory recognizes that the follower is an equally important and distinct unit. The leader receives their authority at the will of the follower, who in turn, influences the leader.
Organizational effectiveness occurs “…only when leaders and followers become involved in a reciprocal relationship” (Gilbert & Matviuk, 2008, p. 6).
Both parties are involved in a symbiotic relationship in which they both strive to achieve the same organizational goals while at the same time enriching each other’s roles. Furthermore, at times during work processes, the follower may, for brief periods of time, act in a leadership capacity, albeit not formally labeled as such.
8. Reddin’s 3D Theory of Leadership
This is a contingency theory of leadership that analyzes the effectiveness of a leader based on their ability to adapt to a variety of situations that may occur.
The fulfillment of organizational goals is a direct function of how efficiently the leader changes their style to match the demands of the situation.
Each leadership style exists along three dimensions: task orientation, people orientation, and effectiveness. Hence the name, 3D theory.
The theory identifies several different leadership styles as they relate to different levels of effectiveness. One key premise of the theory is its emphasis on the notion that no single leadership style can be effectively applied to all situations. The number of situations that a leader will find themselves in is too varied.
When analyzing a particular leadership style, it can be seen as appropriate to the situation (Developer, Executive, Benevolent Autocrat, Bureaucrat) or inappropriate (Missionary, Compromiser, Autocrat, Deserter).
9. The Tannenbaum-Schmidt Leadership Continuum
The Tannenbaum-Schmidt model portrays the relationship between the level of the leader’s authority and the level of the team’s autonomy.
At one end of the continuum are leaders that are autocratic and highly directive. At the other end are leaders that are completely hands-off.
The Tannenbaum-Schmidt model emphasizes that even a single leadership style should not be strictly defined as being unidimensional and qualitatively distinct from all other leadership styles.
In practice, the individual leader is likely to use elements of different styles with different individuals on the team. At other times, that same leader might modify their style to better match the situational demands and worker behaviors in that moment.
There are three primary factors that a leader must consider when deciding what style to utilize: the leader’s preferred style and values, the team’s skills and motivation, and the situation, which includes the importance of the task, deadline, and organizational culture.
10. The Blake and Mouton Managerial Grid
The Blake and Mouton Managerial Grid is more of a descriptive tool than a theory of leadership. Leadership style is characterized as existing on two interacting continuums: concern for people and concern for results.
For example, when working on a project, is the leader inherently more inclined to set targets and keep tasks on schedule, or are they more inclined to focus on the well-being and happiness of the team?
The grid is used to identify the leader’s style as one of five types: Impoverished, Produce or Perish, Middle-of-the-road, Country Club, or Team focused.
The Impoverished style is overly relaxed and results in poor performance.
- The Produce or Perish leader is focused on getting results, but team morale is sacrificed.
- The Middle-of-the-road style is a happy balance of both orientations, but fails to produce satisfactory outcomes with either.
- The Country Club leader makes everyone happy, but a disastrous project. The Team leader yields great project results and high employee morale.
There are many models of leadership proposed by various experts in management that rely on contingency theory. Each model identifies the key factors that must be considered when choosing a leadership style, such as the parameters of the project tasks and worker profiles.
Several of the models have common denominators that describe the leader’s primary orientation as either being task or people-focused. Other common features relate to worker characteristics such as motivation levels and degree of skills.
The Decision-Making Model is unique in that it offers a decision-tree for the leader to follow that will help identify the best leadership style for a given situation. While the LMX theory places substantial emphasis on the interdependence between the leader and the workers as key to fully understanding leader effectiveness.
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