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Examples of a situational leadership style and how to develop it

situational-leadership-style

A situational leadership style actually encompasses four other leadership styles under one umbrella, with those being:

A telling style: a short-term approach designed to create movement in the employee. This is not necessarily a good leadership style, but the idea behind the situational leadership style is that you adjust your approach to leading others based on the needs of the moment. In a telling style, there’s a high amount of supervision from managers, and it’s much more focused on completion of tasks than boosting the relationship and psychological safety between manager and employee. Think of this tier as “get stuff done now.”

A coaching or explaining style: which is intended to create buy-in and understanding. It aligns with followers who have limited (if any) experience performing the task but exude both confidence and motivation toward the process of leader-driven skill development. John Wooden, one of the most successful basketball coaches of all-time, used a similar style most of the time.

A participating leadership style: is used to create alignment. If the follower is developing, he/she might have demonstrated task proficiency but still have some degree of trepidation about performing it on their own. If the follower is regressing, they are aware they can effectively perform but have lost commitment, motivation (or both) to do so.

A delegating leadership style: which is ultimately designed to create autonomy at the employee level and let employees run with their own projects. In some studies with law firms, this has actually been shown to be the most profitable of the leadership styles.

The basic concept behind a situational leadership style is that the leader changes their approach to leadership based on the needs of the moment, hence the term “situational.” It’s the opposite of one size fits all. Sometimes you need to micromanage a more junior employee, and focus on tasks and deadlines extensively. With other employees, on other projects, you can provide tons of autonomy and only check in periodically. No situation is the same, and hence a situational leadership style borrows from many other leadership styles to find the right approach to each project and context.

Table of contents

What are the biggest benefits of a situational leadership style?

  • Flexibility: Many managers adopt the situational leadership style without even knowing the academic background of it -- or really, without even knowing they’re doing it, just because it’s natural to adjust your style based on situation and project need. There’s a lot of flexibility, and with how fast work (and connections to work for employees) is changing, flexibility is a key tenet of modern leadership.
  • Straightforward: You lead in the way that gets the job done. 
  • Diversity of perspectives and employee needs being met: Some employees prefer more direct management and structure and to know the exact steps they should follow. Some employees like to run off on their own and do the best they can with a project. Adopting a situational leadership style means you can meet lots of different employees where they’re at. If you only adopt a delegating leadership style, some employees might not be ready for delegated work, and that can backfire. But in a situational leadership style, you can approach some employees with a telling style, and some with a delegating style, and the results are better because the approaches are more customized to the specific employee.
  • Boosts collaboration and communication: In part because employees feel more connected to the projects, because they’re being managed in a way that works for their needs.
  • Leaders need to be more transparent about goals: If you’re adopting a telling style, you need to be able to say to an employee “I’m adopting this style right now because we have Y-Goal that needs to be completed by Z-Date and I just want to help us get there effectively.” It forces leaders to actually quantify and clarify the goals of the team, which can sometimes occur in a vacuum. 
  • Team development: Because you’re meeting employees where they’re at, and moving them along the continuum of autonomy (“telling” style to “delegating” style, for example), you’re inherently developing the team as you go.
  • Effective style for meeting challenges: If an unforeseen challenge arises, you simply shift your style to meet it -- either more telling, more coaching, more delegating, etc. 

Are there drawbacks to a situational leadership style?

  • Short-term focus: A situational leadership style is largely about reading and reacting to the current project, the current timelines, the current goals, and the current employees working on those projects and timelines. When you adopt a situational leadership style, it can almost become a series of leadership “sprints,” which can leave long-term goals and employee development somewhat unclear.
  • Dependency: In a situational leadership style, employees are almost fully dependent on the manager of the team to set the style and approach; there’s limited autonomy in the early stages of a project, when the manager is selecting the right style for the situation. It can cause teams to lose valuable time on a deadline, and it can also disengage the employees. 
  • The leader may not have an appropriate background to account for different perspectives: This is somewhat of a diversity issue, but as opposed to conventional contexts for diversity (race, gender, etc.), this is about diversity of experience and cognitive diversity. Some leaders have only come up in an organization one way, or through one silo, and they don’t understand multiple ways of managing employees and project timelines. As such, it becomes really hard for those leaders to adopt a situational leadership style -- just because they don’t grasp all the potential styles that fall within that idea.
  • The leader may not be able to accurately assess the maturity level of employees: What if you think someone is right for a delegating leadership style, and it all falls apart? What if you think someone needs a telling leadership style, and they really wanted autonomy? If you make the wrong choices on approach within situational leadership style, you risk alienating and disengaging employees. In the time of the supposedly “Great Resignation” globally, that can lead to turnover.
  • Requires strong leadership: It requires both an understanding of context, of relationships, of projects, of deadlines, and of a short-term vs. long-term balance. Many leaders do not have these skills; they might have one skill, refined well, but they lack all these skills, and thus putting a situational leadership style into action is significantly harder.

What’s the origin story of situational leadership style? Who created it?

Paul Hersey and Ken Blanchard described this leadership style in their 1969 book, Management of Organizational Behavior. In the book, they originally called it the “Life Cycle Theory of Leadership,” renaming it “situational leadership theory” several years later.

Later, Hersey and Blanchard each developed individual theories based on the initial concept of situational leadership, which they further described in their books, The Situational Leader (Hersey 1985) and The One-Minute Manager (Blanchard 1982). 

What are the employee maturity levels within a situational leadership style?

  • MI: Lacks knowledge, skills, and willingness to do the task.
  • M2: Lacks ability, but is willing to do the task.
  • M3: Have skills and ability, but are unwilling to be responsible for the task.
  • M4: Are highly skilled and willing to do the task.

These almost directly correspond with what approach the leader should take; M1 employees are better for telling styles, and M4 employees are better for delegating styles, etc.

Are there questions to guide you as to where your employees might be maturity-wise?

Yes.

Victor Vroom and Phillip Yetton provide a model that helps leaders decide when to use each approach. The model walks leaders through a series of questions about the decision to be made, and the answers will lead the decision-maker to the suggested approach. The questions focus on a few key factors:

  • Is decision quality highly important?
  • Does the leader have sufficient information to make the decision?
  • Is it highly important for team members to accept the decision?
  • Are the team members likely to accept the leader’s decision if he makes it individually? What if he makes it with their consultation?
  • Do the team members’ goals match those of the leader and organization?
  • Is the problem structured and easily analyzed?
  • Do team members have high levels of expertise in the matter to be decided?
  • Do team members have high levels of competence in working together as a group?

How can you develop a situational leadership style?

  • Read the emotional tea leaves: Emotions are integral to employees getting their work done. We often want to view work as a process-driven place, but it’s very emotional and complex webs of relationships develop. Try to learn more about your team -- their emotions, what they respond to, who they respond to, and their maturity levels. If you can effectively understand employee motivations and emotions, you can choose the right style relative to project and situation, and then you’re practicing situational leadership style. 
  • Understand tasks and deadlines: What is needed on a certain project? Heavy lifting? Quick turnaround? Sprint to the finish? Long-term strategic thinking? If you know the what of a project, you can develop the how, i.e. pick the best situational leadership style.
  • Gain trust: Trust is not always commonplace in organizations, and one of the main reasons trust tends to erode is lack of priorities. Work to build trust on your team. Talk to employees about their lives outside of work and their hobbies and goals; it doesn’t mean you have to become best friends with them, no, but build rapport and trust so that they’re comfortable with you shifting leadership styles across different types of projects. 
  • Emotionally-neutral: While you should understand the emotions and motivations of your employees, you yourself should remain emotionally neutral and not rise to the rancor of a tough situation or project. Be calm, and stay balanced.
  • Develop coaching skills: This is the part where Fingerprint For Success can help the most.

How can Fingerprint for Success help with developing leadership styles?

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