Situational Leadership Theory, or the Situational Leadership Model, is a model created by Paul Hersey and Ken Blanchard, developed while working on Management of Organizational Behavior. The theory was first introduced in 1969 as “life cycle theory of leadership”. During the mid-1970s, life cycle theory of leadership was renamed “Situational Leadership Theory.”
Situational Leadership emerged as one of a related group of two-factor theories of leadership, many of which originated in research done at Ohio State University in the 1960s. These two-factor theories hold that possibilities in leadership style are composed of combinations of two main variables: task behavior and relationship behavior. Various terms are used to describe these two concepts, such as initiating structure or direction for task behavior and consideration or socioemotional support for relationship behavior. Related leadership models include Blake and Mouton’s Managerial Grid and Reddin’s 3D Theory.
The fundamental principle of the situational leadership model is that there is no single “best” style of leadership. Effective leadership is task-relevant, and the most successful leaders are those who adapt their leadership style to the performance readiness (ability and willingness) of the individual or group they are attempting to lead or influence. Effective leadership varies, not only with the person or group that is being influenced, but it also depends on the task, job, or function that needs to be accomplished.
The Situational Leadership Model has two fundamental concepts: leadership style and the individual or group’s performance readiness level, also referred to as maturity level or development level.
In the 1970s Hershey and Blanchard specified and further developed the concept of situational leadership. In their situational leadership theory they indicated that the effectiveness of the leadership style is dependent on the situation. But what is determinative for the situation? Both the maturity of the employees and their attitudes are determinative. Therefore Paul Hersey and Ken Blanchard distinguish four levels of maturity that can be placed in their situational leadership model:
S1. Directing: A lot of direction by the leader and little support; low competence and low motivation.
S2. Coaching: A lot of direction by the leader and a lot of support; low competence and high motivation.
S3. Supporting: Little direction by the leader and a lot of support; high competence and low motivation.
S4. Delegating: Little direction by the leader and little support; high competence and high motivation.
According to Paul Hersey and Ken Blanchard a leader will have to adapt his style to level of maturity of the employee. As the maturity increases, the independence of the employee also increases accordingly. Consequently, four leadership styles are created within situational leadership.
S1: Telling (Directing)
At this level, the leader has to deal with employees that are not competent and (still) unmotivated. This may have different causes. New and/or inexperienced employees are not capable enough to carry out tasks independently. It may be experienced as threatening when an employee is not competent enough to perform a task. This might cause him to postpone the task or do this unwillingly. Good instruction and monitoring of the entire work process would be the best style of leadership in this situation. This is also sometimes referred to as task-oriented leadership with little or no concern for human relationships and support.
The employee will receive a lot of direction from the leader when it comes to the tasks they have to fulfil. Not just the final objective is made clear, but also the steps that have to be taken along the way. That is why he needs specific instructions in the form of composed tasks. The leader makes the final decisions. It helps to compliment the employee about progress he is making and not overburdening him with too much information at once. It is a good idea for a leader to have the employee repeat in his own words what he is supposed to do. That way, it becomes clear if the instructions have been correctly understood.
S2: Selling (Coaching)
At this level the employees have a desire to work independently but they are not capable of doing this yet. They are employees who have not reached full maturity and are hindered by circumstances for example a change or a reform of the organization. This employee wants to set to work enthusiastically but he cannot work independently because of his lack of skills and knowledge. A situation like this might make an employee insecure. By explaining his decision-making and by listening to the employee and giving him undivided attention, the leader is guiding him. This style can be compared to the consultative leadership style.
This leadership style is also called selling for a reason; the leader has to ‘sell’ the tasks to the employee and convince him that he is able to do them. Specific instructions are important here, as are communication at a level of equals. The leader makes the decisions, but it is good if the employee asks questions and wants to know the purpose of the task. When the employee shows progress, he should be complimented to make him feel confident about his skills.
S3: Participating (Supporting)
At this level, the employees are capable but (temporarily) unwilling. They are qualified workers but because of the number of tasks, they might get the idea that they are being inundated with work. This can make them insecure and reluctant. To take away this insecurity, it is important that the leader confers with the employees and supports them in their work. By having employees participate in the decision-making process, acceptance will increase and the employees will be able to work independently again. It is also possible that a mistake has been made for which the employee blames himself. This can make him stagnate and lose confidence. That is why support from the leader is important.
The employee needs to be stimulated and has to get back the confidence to make decisions independently again. It is a good idea for the leader to give that confidence to the employee and remind him of other tasks and projects that he did do well in the past. This type of employee can benefit from some calm, face-to-face brainstorming or sparring about a question or an issue. That increases his confidence and makes his superior someone he can talk to. The employee is allowed to take some risks and trust in his own abilities.
At this level the employees can and want to carry out their tasks independently, they have a high level of task maturity as a result of which they need less support. Employees inform the leader about their progress of their own accord and at the same time they indicate when problems present themselves or when the work is stagnating. They become motivated because of their independence and as a result a leader does not have to consult with them continuously.
Delegating may seem easy, but it rarely is in practice. It is a good idea for a leader to discuss the final goal with the employee, when the task has to be (deadline) and how he plans to carry it out. It is possible to plan evaluation moments in order to monitor progress and check if everything is going according to plan. The leader has to realise that delegating involves keeping distance; the employee is responsible for the decisions. If things go well, compliments are in order. Boosting confidence and letting go are the foundational techniques of delegating.