Tannenbaum and Schmidt Leadership Continuum – Pros & Cons

tannenbaum and schmit's leadership continuum

The Tannenbaum and Schmidt leadership continuum presents 7 styles of leadership across a continuum from maximum to minimum exercise of authority.

At one end the leader exercises maximum authority by making decisions without consultation and tells the team what to do.

At the other end, the manager allows staff the full freedom to make decisions they want.

This post will outline pros and cons (advantages and disadvantages) of each of the 7 leadership styles.

Table of Contents

Tannenbaum and Schmidt’s 7 Styles of Leadership

The leadership continuum proposed by Tannenbaum and Schmidt shows leadership styles across a spectrum from authoritarian through to permissive styles. 

The  7 styles can be summed up as:

  1. Tells: leader tells the team about their decisions.
  2. Sells: leader sells their decision to the team.
  3. Suggests: leader comes up with a decision and allows the team to ask questions about their choice.
  4. Consults: leader presents a range of solutions and asks the team about their input before making a decision.
  5. Joins: leader presents a problem and the team brainstorm solutions before the leader decides.
  6. Delegates: Leader presents a problem and sets parameters then the team makes the decision.
  7. Abdicates: The team identifies the problem, brainstorms solutions and makes the decision without constraints imposed by the leader.

The model is widely used for visualizing the management styles of workplace managers, social group leaders, and educators.

It is a very visual model, so below is a grid to show exactly how the model works:

tannenbaum and schmit's continuum of leadership diagram

Here are the 7 styles of leadership on the Tannenbaum and Schmit continuum explained:

1. Tells

Leader Tells about their Decisions

Description

This sort of leader is a leader who tells their team about their decisions without any consultation at all. This leader does not believe their team should have any say in the decision-making process. The leader will identify the problem, brainstorm their options, weigh up the best option, and make a decision about a course of action. This will all be done to the exclusion of the team, who will simply hear about the decision and act on it according to the leader’s wishes.

Example

A leader who follows this leadership style might be thinking one of the following:

  •  “I take ultimate responsibility for what happens here so I should have ultimate control over every step of the decision making process.”
  • “No one can do a better job than me.”
  • “This is my business and I created it so that I can have ultimate control!”

Advantages

The pros of this approach include:

  • Decisions can be made rapidly which may keep the team agile and very quick to respond to challenges.
  • There is no doubting where fault lies of poor decisions.
  • The leader does not have to deal with internal politics or disputes at the decision-making stage.

Disadvantages:

The cons of this approach include:

  • The leader does not maximize the knowledge and talents of the people in the team.
  • There is a good chance that the leader will miss points that would be picked up by other team members.

2. Sells

Leader Sells their Decisions to the Team

Description

The ‘leader sells’ approach still has the leader take ultimate responsibility for the entire decision-making process. The leader will identify the problem, brainstorm solutions, select one, and set the course entirely by themselves. The leader also essentially gives the group no choice throughout the process.

However, in contrast to the leader ‘tells’ model, the leader ‘sells’ model involves the leader emphasizing the benefits of the decision to the group. The leader therefore does take into consideration the group’s reaction and makes an attempt to get the group on-side with the decision.

This approach reveals that the leader may be aware of discontent among the group and is willing to make an effort to quell that discontent. Nonetheless, the leader is still reluctant to give up any control over or allow any additional input into the decision making process at all.

Example

A leader who follows this leadership style might be thinking one of the following:

  • “I have made a difficult decision that only I could make, but I’m going to have to try to convince the group that this decision was necessary.”
  • “It’s my job to make this decision, but it’s important that I show the group why this tough decision was made.”
  • “I’m aware some people don’t like my decisions, so I’m going to have to talk to them and make sure they’re aware why this was the best decision.”

Advantages

The pros of this approach include:

  • Like the leader ‘tells’ approach, the leader ‘sells’ approach is still fast, allows the leader to have full control, and ensures the decision making process goes ahead without any political infighting.
  • The decision may be more readily accepted by the group if the leader explains the decision and sells its benefits.

Disadvantages:

The cons of this approach include:

  • Group members still have no agency, leading to potential discontent among group members who simply feel like a cog in the machine.
  • The leader doesn’t give the group an opportunity to highlight challenging issues that they may not have considered themselves in the closed-door decision making process.

3. Suggests

Leader Presents their Decisions and Invites Questions

Description

In this approach, the leader continues to hold ultimate control over the decision-making process. Challenges are identified, solutions are generated, and decisions are made behind closed doors without input from the team. 

Once the decision is landed upon, the manager goes one step further than ‘selling’ the plan. They will also invite the team to ask questions to get deeper understanding of the decision and its consequences. Here, the leader works hard to provide full explanations for the staff so they are fully aware of the facts and consequences.

The opportunity for questions does pose an opportunity for team members to influence the leader on a peripheral level. Questions may prod at the leader’s knowledge and confidence in a solution. The leader, in turn, may learn something from the questions that are asked. This forms the first step toward a two-way communication process between the team and the leader.

Example

A leader who follows this leadership style might be thinking one of the following:

  • “It is my responsibility to field questions from my team about the decisions I make.”
  • “My team needs to be able to ask me questions in order to exercise their tasks effectively.”

Advantages

The pros of this approach include:

  • Team members can get clarification and explanations from the manager on points they are confused about.
  • The manager may be asked questions that will prod at the weaknesses of their decision which may help them think through the issue in more depth.

Disadvantages:

The cons of this approach include:

  • The team members are not consulted before the decision is made, meaning some problems may be baked into the decision that was made.
  • Team members may find it to be an inauthentic way of trying to help them, as they still lack agency to effect change.

4. Consults

Leader Presents their Decisions and is Open to Change

Description

In the fourth approach, the manager is someone who comes up with a solution but presents it to their subordinates to get their input before a final decision is made. The decision is therefore only a ‘tentative’ decision.

This approach to leadership is the first of the seven where the manager makes a genuine attempt to listen to the voices of the team.

However, the leader still maintains control over identifying the problems, brainstorming solutions, and identifying their preferred decision. Only then do they approach the team to get their input on the ideas. Nonetheless, the final decision is still in the hands of the manager.

Example

The example Tannenbaum and Schmidt give in their original article in 1958 is:

  • “I’d like to hear what you have to say about this plan that I have developed. I’ll appreciate your frank reactions but will reserve for myself the final decision.”

Another example might be:

  • “I am in charge of this process, but your input may help me as I complete my task.”

Advantages

The pros of this approach include:

  • The leader gives some respect to the team by asking them for their input rather than only approaching them once a decision has been made.
  • The leader still has the capacity to micromanage the situation, giving them full control over the situation.

Disadvantages:

The cons of this approach include:

  • Team members are not consulted during the processes of identifying a problem and brainstorming solutions.
  • Team members still have limited control over what happens and remain peripheral to the decision making process.

5. Joins

Leader invites Suggestions for Solutions before Making Decisions

Description

Up to this point, the leader has been the person who brainstormed and identified solutions to the problems they faced. However, in the fifth style, the leader presents problems to the team instead of solutions. Here, the team brainstorm potential solutions and presents them to the leader to help the leader make the decision.

Increased team agency is evident in this approach as it involves having the team work on the problem rather than just the solution. The team gets to spitball a range of solutions to a problem to help give the leader as broad a range of possible solutions as possible.

Example

A leader who follows this leadership style might be thinking one of the following:

  • “I need help to come up with solutions and my team can help me with this.”
  • “I want to make the most of the range of perspectives and talents in my group to help me make my decision wisely.”

Advantages

The pros of this approach include:

  • The leader can be presented possible solutions that they would not have come up with themselves, leading to better outcomes.
  • The team may feel appreciated given that they have the opportunity to contribute to the decision making process.

Disadvantages:

The cons of this approach include:

  • The decision making process may be slow because time is required to get all team members together and to put their minds together over a brainstorming session.

6. Delegates

Leader Presents a Framework and asks Group to make a Decision

Description

At this point in the leadership continuum, the leader is seen as a member of a democratic team. They relinquish a significant amount of their control over vetoing decisions and what the final solution to the problem might be.

The role of the leader here is primarily to present the problem to the team. Once the problem has been presented and any constraints provided, the team can work within the guidelines set out at the beginning to make a decision.

The leader may delegate the entire task to the team then leave, or work collaboratively as a member of the team with equal rights in the decision making process.

Example

A leader who follows this leadership style might be thinking one of the following:

  • “I am a member of the team with the responsibility to facilitate a collaborative environment.”
  • “We have a problem as a team that we need to solve in order to progress.”

Advantages

The pros of this approach include:

  • The team members feel like they have genuine influence throughout the decision-making process and can influence their working environment significantly.
  • All members of the team have the opportunity to have their ideas presented.
  • The team can prevent the boss from making bad choices.

Disadvantages:

The cons of this approach include:

  • While the leader must take ultimate responsibility, they do not have ultimate control. The leader needs to have very high confidence in their group.
  • This may be a very time consuming process, especially if team members cannot agree on things.

7. Abdicates

Leader Allows Democratic Group Choice.

Description

In this ‘extreme’ approach, the team is employed as a group of experts, but they identify problems, potential solutions and final decisions independently of the leader. The only constraint is external frameworks, such as the rules of the workplace or rules brought down by people superior to the leader herself.

Example

Situations in which this scenario might occur include:

  • In academic settings where researchers are employed for their expertise but they can do any research they like within the limits of their expertise. In other words, they have “academic freedom”.
  • In corporate research teams.

Advantages

The pros of this approach include:

  • Team members have very strong agency over their work.
  • Creativity is given high currency and constraints are removed as much as possible. This may lead to new and innovative solutions.

Disadvantages:

The cons of this approach include:

  • The team leader has little control over what happens which may be a risk to them, their ability to meet key performance indicators, or even to their job security.
  • Team members do not have anyone to turn to when dispute resolution is required.

Who is in Control?

You may have noticed above that there are three key steps in the leadership process in this model. Those are:

  1. Identifying Problems
  2. Identifying Solutions
  3. Making a Decision

As you move through the continuum, the control over these three steps transfers from the leader to the team.

Here is a summary outlining who controls the steps in the leadership process for each style:

who is in control in the tannenbaum and schmit leadership continuum?

Forces Influencing your Management Style

You may have looked at the above styles and selected one that matches your personality.

However, sometimes it’s not entirely in your control which management style you will take up. Tannenbaum and Schmidt present three ‘forces’ which may impact your management style:

1. Forces in the leader

  • Values: A leader may have progressive inclinations, believing in democracy and equality in the workplace. Or, they may believe that a strong leader is important for a strong organizational culture.
  • Confidence: A leader may not have much confidence in their team, meaning they want to hold control closer to them. Alternatively, they may have little confidence in themselves meaning they rely more heavily on their team to help them make decisions.
  • Tolerance for Ambiguity: Some managers cannot handle the uncertainty and ambiguity involved in the group decision making process which may make them reluctant to involve the team.

2. Forces in the subordinates

  • Need for Independence: Some team members may want independence in order to feel like they have more control over their own working lives. They may advocate for this in performance reviews which may pressure the leader into changing their style.
  • Readiness to Assume Responsibility: Some team members may be more willing to move to the center of decision making processes than others. These team members would make it easier for a leader to use a more collaborative leadership style.
  • Skill: A team member may not have enough skills to have responsibility delegated to them.
  • Aspirations and Motivations: A team member who want to move up the corporate ladder or who is highly intrinsically motivated may be much more inclined to take a central role in team decision making. Team members who lack aspiration or are not interested in the work may like to have the leader take more control.

3. Forces in the environment

  • Organizational Culture: Some organizations might place pressure on leaders to be more collaborative; while other organizations might encourage their middle managers to hold control close to their chests. If a manager is quickly blamed for problems, they may be inclined to take much more control into their hands to be more conservative and minimize chances of mistakes.
  • Time: A task that is time sensitive may require quick decisions, preventing team input.
  • Group Cohesion: If a team works well together and is cohesive, the leader may be more able to delegate tasks to the team than if there are conflicts within the team.
  • Type of Problem: Some problems are too complex to complete alone, requiring an expert group to contribute. Some problems are small and simple, requiring little input from others.

Strengths and Weaknesses of the Tannenbaum and Schmidt Continuum

Strengths

  • Lays out a range of potential strategies for a leader to choose depending upon their management style.
  • Presents a range of styles that correspond with a range of different scenarios. It does not advocate that any approach is best, but allows space for different strategies for different situations.
  • Gives managers scope for experimenting with different styles to see which works best for them.

Weaknesses

  • Doesn’t present any one ‘correct’ way of managing groups, so leaves ambiguity for the user of the model.
  • The model hasn’t been differentiated for different types of leadership positions (workplace, educational, non-government, healthcare sector, etc.) which may require more specific models for their specific needs.

Final Thoughts

The Tannenbaum and Schmidt leadership continuum is a valuable visualization of the different options a leader has for taking on a leadership identity. While it does not present a clear guide for what is best, it does present a framework for consideration that leaders may appreciate.

References

Babou (2008). What does Tannenbaum & Schmidt Continuum Theory say? Retrieved from: https://pmleadershipchamps.com/2008/04/27/what-is-tannenbaum-schmidt-continuum-theory-says/

Gosling, B., Marturano, J., and Dennison, P. (2003). A review of leadership theory and competency frameworks. Exeter: University of Exeter

Lussier, R., and Achua, C. (2010). Leadership: theory, application and skill development. Los Angeles: Cengage Learning

Tannenbaum, R., and Schmidt, W. (1958) How to choose a leadership pattern. Harvard Business Review, 36(2): 95-101.

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