The theory or model of situational leadership is one style of management that many business managers may adopt. It is based primarily on the perceived need to adapt to the immediate situation and takes into account two primary factors: how hard the task at hand is, and the maturity of the worker performing the task. In this way, situational leadership is strongly dependent on the relationship between the manager and the worker.
Four Styles of Situational Leadership
Primarily developed and championed by leadership theorists Paul Hersey and Ken Blanchard, situational leadership emphasizes a high degree of flexibility. Managers who adopt this model of leadership can express one of four different leadership styles: telling/directing, selling/coaching, participating/coaching and delegating/observing.
Each of these styles represents a decreasing level of direction from a leader, along with a corresponding emphasis on the relationship between the leader and the follower (or manager and worker).
In other words, the “telling/directing” style consists primarily of ordering workers to complete specific tasks in certain ways. In the “selling/coaching” style, the manager would back off that more heavy-handed approach in favor of a more interactive coaching process. In the participating/coaching style, the manager gives more weight to the employee’s input, and in the delegating/observing style, the manager allows the employee to decide how to approach the tasks at hand.
How Situational Leadership Shifts Between the Four Styles
Situational leadership embraces all four of these styles of leadership. It recognizes that there are different circumstances or situations a manager might encounter that call for one style as opposed to the others.
Situational leaders, therefore, should move fluidly from one style to another, based on the needs of the situation as the manager perceives them. The situation in question includes the nature of the task to be performed as well as the maturity of the employee in question.
In the Hersey-Blanchard model, the employee’s maturity refers to two different factors. First is the actual physiological or emotional maturity of the individual. Equally important, however, is the person’s maturity in the job or position.
Positive Aspects of Situational Leadership
Situational leadership is both simple to understand and somewhat intuitive to most managers. The majority of people placed into management or leadership positions instinctively grasp that they need to adjust their response to the situation at hand.
Situational leadership also recognizes the need for flexibility on the part of leaders. Rigidly insisting on a specific set of rules and procedures can be demoralizing to a workforce, and can dissuade employees from coming forward with important information about the company and their work.
Finally, situational leadership places the relationship between the manager and the employee at the center of the management experience. Emphasizing this connection helps the employee feel valued and generally leads to a better working experience for both parties.
Drawbacks of Situational Leadership
Situational leadership as a model may not feel intuitive to task-oriented or heavily regimented managers. These individuals may struggle to remain flexible and adapt to various situations that could benefit from more listening and less “telling.”
Additionally, this type of flexible approach to management can create too much emphasis on immediate needs, and thus shift attention away from more long-term goals and objectives. If managers are primarily evaluating and responding to specific and immediate situations, they may find it harder to shift gears and think about future company plans and needs.
Some critics of situational leadership point to the difficulty in defining and quantifying maturity. In the Hersey-Blanchard situational leadership model, maturity refers both to emotional maturity and job maturity which can sometimes result in a conflation between the two. In other words, a manager may assume an emotionally mature worker is likewise adept at taking responsibility for specific job duties, which may not be the case.
Other Flexible Styles of Leadership
Situational leadership isn’t the only leadership style that considers the immediate factors at work in a given situation. Other models place more focus on how well co-workers relate to each other within work groups or teams, recognizing that these relationships can significantly impact work performance. The situational model would ignore these factors in favor of its emphasis on maturity.
As markets shift towards a more global perspective, the rate of change tends to speed up. As a result, models of leadership that emphasize the importance of teams, employee empowerment and ongoing learning are more popular.
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