Behavioral Approach

Learning Outcomes

  • Describe the behavioral approach

If the answer isn’t in the traits a leader exhibits, perhaps it lies in what a leader does. Behavioral theories of leadership suggest that specific behaviors differentiate leaders from nonleaders. The implications for this idea are pretty big. Think about it. The trait approach can help you pick out a leader, or predict that an individual might step up to leadership. The behavioral approach suggests that leaders can be trained.

Let’s head back to the 1940s, around the time that Stogdill sent leadership studies off in a different direction, and look at the emergence of a few different instances of behavioral leadership research.

The Ohio State University Studies

Back in the late 1940s, research began at The Ohio State University to identify independent dimensions of leader behavior.[1] The team began with a list of over a thousand different dimensions and eventually narrowed the list to two leadership behaviors as they were described by employees. Those behaviors were task focused and people focused.

Those leaders that are concerned with the task are engaging in behaviors called initiation of structure. This doesn’t mean that they don’t care about people—it means that they approach leadership from the task point of view. They organize and define the task so that followers can achieve the goal. For instance, a CEO might want to acquire a new company for a conglomerate. In the initiation of structure framework, the CEO will bring in his or her senior staff and start to direct them as to how and when he or she believes the work should be done.

Alternatively, consideration is a leadership behavior aimed at creating mutual trust and respect with their followers. An example of consideration might be a leader who, in a time of change and turmoil in an organization, walks the floor of the assembly plant to see how workers are faring, or meets with the his team to determine if they need extra support.

Extensive research showed that leaders who rated high in both initiation of structure and consideration (a “high-high”) were more likely to achieve high employee performance and satisfaction more frequently than those that scored high in only one of the two categories, or low in both categories. However, “high-high” scoring did not always result in positive consequences. Those leaders that scored high in initiation of structure often experienced higher levels of grievances, absenteeism and turnover. Others found that high consideration scores for a leader resulted in lower performance evaluation scores from that leader’s own manager.

The Ohio State team suggested that “high-high” generally resulted in positive outcomes but there were enough exceptions to indicate that situational factors also needed to be considered.

The University of Michigan Studies

Studies at University of Michigan were conducted around the same time the Ohio State research was going on, and they had similar research objectives.[2] The University of Michigan team wanted to locate behavioral characteristics of leaders that appeared to be related to measures of performance effectiveness.

The University of Michigan team also came up with two dimensions of leadership behavior. They labeled them employee-oriented and production oriented.

Employee-oriented leaders emphasized interpersonal relations. They took a personal interest in the needs of employees and embraced individual differences among members. The production-oriented leaders tended to emphasize the technical or task aspects of the job. Their main concern was accomplishing objectives and the group members were just a means to reach that goal.

The University of Michigan team concluded that employee-oriented leaders were associated with higher group productivity and higher job satisfaction, and production-oriented leaders tended to score low in both those areas.

Blake and Mouton’s Managerial Grid

In 1964, researchers Robert Blake and Jane Moutin introduced their managerial grid as a graphic portrayal of a two-dimensional view of leadership.[3]

Like the Ohio State and University of Michigan studies, Blake and Mouton concentrated on concern for production and concern for people. They scored each of those areas on a scale of 1 (low) to 9 (high) to create 81 different positions in which the leader’s style might fall. The result was five different types of behavioral styles.

Blake and Mouton’s Managerial Grid. The x-axis has concern for production, rated from low (one) to high (nine). The y-axis has concern for people, rated from low (one) to high (nine). There are five types of management on the grid. Indifferent management has low concern for production and low concern for people. Accommodating management has low concern for production and high concern for people. Dictatorial management has high concern for production and low concern for people. Sound management has high concern for production and high concern for people.
  • In the accommodating management style, leaders yield and comply. They pay attention to the comfort of the employees in hopes that they’ll be productive. This style often results in happy employees but is not necessarily productive.
  • In the indifferent management style, leaders evade and elude. They don’t give much consideration to people or production, and try to fly under the radar a bit without getting into trouble.
  • In the sound management style, leaders contribute and commit. They pay high attention to both people and production and encourage teamwork and commitment. It’s very Theory Y!
  • In the dictatorial management style, leaders control and dominate. They pay attention to production but not to people, and use rules and punishment to achieve goals. It’s very Theory X!
  • In the status quo management style, leaders balance and compromise. They are middle-of-the-road, and as a result, people needs and production needs aren’t necessarily met.

Managers performed best when they scored in the “sound” area. But the grid offered better framework for conceptualizing leadership style rather than presenting any new information in clarifying leadership behaviors, because there’s very little substantive evidence to support the conclusion that a sound style is most effective in all situations.

The Scandinavian Studies

We’re going to fast forward a few years to the 1990s, when Scandinavian researchers Ekvall and Arvonen began to reassess the idea that there were only two dimensions that captured the essence of leadership behavior.[4] In a changing world, they decided, leaders would exhibit development-oriented behavior. By exhibiting development-oriented behavior, these leaders would value experimentation, seek out new ideas and generate and implement change.

In their review of the Ohio State studies, Ekvall and Arvonen found that the researchers had identified behaviors such as “pushes new ways of doing things” and “encourages employees to do new things,” but those items didn’t explain much about leadership in 1940s, when those behaviors didn’t have as great an impact. Their studies indicate that just concentrating on two different dimensions of behavior may not be adequate to capture leadership in the twenty-first century.

PRactice Question

Behavioral theories had modest success in identifying consistent relationships between leadership behavior and group performance. But none of these consider situation as a factor. Would Ralph Nader have been as successful a consumer activist if he’d been in Nicaragua and not the United States? Would Franklin Delano Roosevelt have been as successful leading the nation through the Revolutionary or the Civil Wars? None of these behavioral theories could clarify these situational differences. So, as we continued to grow in our theories of leadership, we started to look at contingency theories—theories that considered the leader and the situation.

  1. Stogdill, R and A. E. Coons, Leader Behavior: Its Description and Measurement, 1951
  2. Kahn, R and D. Katz. “Leadership Practices in Relation to Productivity and Morale,” Group Dynamics: Research and Theory, 1960
  3. Blake, R. R. and J. S. Mouton. The Managerial Grid. 1964
  4. Ekvall, G and J. Arvonen, “Change-Centered Leadership: An Extension of the Two-Dimensional Model,” Scandinavian Journal of Management, 1991. M. Lindell and G. Rosenqvist, “Is there a Third Management Style?” Finnish Journal of Business Economics 3, 1992. M. Lindell and G. Rosenqvist, “Management Behavior Dimensions and Development Orientation,” Leadership Quarterly, 1992.