Fiedler's Contingency Theory of Leadership

by Eryn Travis ; Updated September 26, 2017
Plan development

Many people might think of the phrase "back-up plan" when asked to define contingency. However, in Fiedler's Contingency Model, contingency means "depends upon" or "fulfillment of a condition." Fred Fiedler was one of the first scholars to introduce the influence of the situation in determining leadership success in his 1967 book, "A Theory of Leadership Effectiveness."

Determining Style

Fiedler's model assumes that personal leadership style is set at either task-oriented or relationship-oriented. Task-oriented leaders are focused on completing the job and tend to be autocratic. Relationship-oriented leaders put people first and employ creativity and teamwork to complete a project.

The style can be determined through a technique Fielder developed called the least preferred co-worker. The LPC test requires a leader to think about the person she's enjoyed working with the least and then to rate that person on a series of traits including cooperation, friendliness, sincerity, trust and outlook. Fielder theorized that those leaders who gave higher ratings to LPCs were relationship-oriented leaders. Those who gave their LPCs low ratings were task-oriented leaders.

Determining Situation

The Fiedler model also requires the leader to determine his situation. According to Fiedler, situational favorableness depends on three factors: leader-member relations, task structure and a leader's position and power. Leader-member relations refers to the level of confidence and trust team members give their leader. Task structure describes how much the leader and his followers understand about the task at hand. The leader's position and power has to do with how much influence, such as the ability to dole out positive or negative rewards, a leader brings to the situation.

Application

Application of Fiedler's model involves aligning leadership style with situational favorableness for the most effective results. For example, task-structured leaders who have reward power will be more effective in situations where the group has been assigned a clearly defined task, according to Fiedler. Relationship-oriented leaders will be more effective in situations where the task is unclear and requires creativity and where the leader does not have reward authority but enjoys positive relationships with her team. Between these two bookends example are several potential leadership scenarios that depend on leader orientation and situational favorableness.

Strengths

The strength of Fiedler's theory is its ability to predict leadership effectiveness as individual and organizational variables are introduced. In addition, Fiedler's model paved the way for other theories that have no one best style of leadership at their core, such as Hersey-Blanchard Situational Leadership.

Weaknesses

Fiedler argues that it is easier for an organization to change a situation to match a leader than it is for the leader to change his style. The model is inflexible and ignores a leader's potential for adaptability either through training or personal style. In addition, those who score in the middle of the LPC scale can not be decisively labeled as task-oriented or relationship-oriented, and the model does not allow for partial styles.

About the Author

Eryn Travis has over 15 years of freelance-writing experience. She has written for "Aviation News Today" and was the managing producer and host for the cable TV news show of the same name. She has a Bachelor of Arts in journalism from the University of Maryland and is finishing up a master's degree in communication studies from West Chester University.

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