Contingency Approach

Learning Outcomes

  • Describe the contingency approach and its variations

We know that traits and behaviors both have an impact on a leader’s success, but what about situation? This is the contingency approach. Circumstances might lead to peers and followers shunning a particular leader, and then seeing him or her in a different way later on. Since the 1960s, the guiding light for research has been the assumption that what makes a leader great depends on the situation.

The failure of researchers to arrive at any consistent results around leadership in the mid-twentieth century led to the study of situational influence. As they started to realize that a certain style and set of skills was appropriate for one situation and failed in another, they sought to determine which conditions matched which styles and skills. This led to several theories on isolating key situational variables, and we’ll look at a few of those now.

Fiedler Model

Fred Fiedler developed the first comprehensive contingency model for leadership and proposed that effective group performance depended on a solid match between the leader’s style and the degree to which the situation gives control to the leader.[1]

Fiedler started his study by determining whether a leader was more task oriented or relationship oriented in his or her behavioral traits. He determined to measure the leader’s propensity to one trait or another by developing the least preferred coworker questionnaire (LPC). The least preferred coworker asked leaders to react to sixteen sets of contrasting adjectives that would describe their least preferred coworker. LPCs respondents that described their least preferred coworker in relatively positive terms, it stood to reason that the leader employed a relationship based approach. Those that described their least favorite coworker unfavorably were deemed to be more task oriented.

It’s worth noting that about sixteen percent of those taking the evaluation scored right in the middle and fall outside the predictions of this theory. So the rest of our discussion concentrates on that 84% of respondents that took one side or the other.

At this point, Fiedler sought to define situations by which to compare these results. He did, in fact, identify three contingency dimensions that he was convinced defined the key situation factors that determine leadership effectiveness. Those situations were

  • Leader-member relations: the degree to which members have confidence and trust in their leader (good or poor).
  • Task structure: the degree to which job assignments are proceduralized (high or low).
  • Position power: the degree of influence a leader has over power variables, such as hiring, firing, discipline, promotions and salary increases (strong or weak).

Fiedler then started comparing task-oriented and relationship-oriented leaders and their performances, based on the twenty-four possible combinations of the situations above, and this was the result:

The Fiedler Model shows the task-oriented performance, relationship-oriented performance, leader-member relations, task structure, and leader position power of eight categories of leaders. Category 1 has good task oriented performance, poor relationship performance, good leader-member relations, high task structure, and strong leader position power. Category 2 has good task oriented performance, poor relationship performance, good leader-member relations, high task structure, and weak leader position power. Category 3 has good task oriented performance, poor relationship performance, good leader-member relations, low task structure, and strong leader position power. Category 4 has poor task oriented performance, good relationship performance, good leader-member relations, low task structure, and weak leader position power. Category 5 has poor task oriented performance, good relationship performance, poor leader-member relations, high task structure, and strong leader position power. Category 6 has average task oriented performance, average relationship performance, poor leader-member relations, high task structure, and weak leader position power. Category 7 has good task oriented performance, poor relationship performance, poor leader-member relations, low task structure, and strong leader position power. Category 8 has good task oriented performance, poor relationship performance, poor leader-member relations, low task structure, and weak leader position power.

Figure 1. Fiedler Model

Fiedler concluded that task oriented leaders tended to perform better when situations were very favorable or very unfavorable to them. Relationship oriented leaders perform better when situations are moderately favorable. Fiedler then modified his conclusions to state that task oriented leaders performed better in situations of high or low control, while relationship oriented leaders performed better in situations of moderate control.

While there are problems with the LPC evaluation and studies show that respondents’ scores are not stable, there is considerable evidence to support Fiedler’s conclusions. Still, it’s often difficult in practice to determine the quality of leader-member relations, the structure of task and how much position power the leader possesses.

Cognitive Resource Theory

More recently, Fiedler and an associate, Joe Garcia, reconceptualized Fiedler’s original theory, this time focusing on the role of stress as a form of situational unfavorableness and how a leader’s intelligence and experience influence his or her reaction to it.[2]

Essentially, Fiedler and Garcia propose that it’s difficult for leaders to think logically or analytically when they’re under stress, and how their intelligence and experience impacts their effectiveness in low- and high-stress situations. In other words, bright individuals perform worse in stressful situations, and experienced people perform worse in low-stress situations. This theory is garnering solid research support.

Hersey and Blanchard’s Situational Theory

The term “situational leadership” is most commonly derived from and connected with Paul Hersey and Ken Blanchard’s Situational Leadership Theory. This approach to leadership suggests the need to match two key elements appropriately: the leader’s leadership style and the followers’ maturity or preparedness levels.

The theory identifies four main leadership approaches:

  • Telling: Directive and authoritative approach. The leader makes decisions and tells employees what to do.
  • Selling: The leader is still the decision maker, but they communicate and work to persuade the employees rather than simply directing them.
  • Participating: The leader works with the team members to make decisions together. They support and encourage the team members and are more democratic.
  • Delegating: The leader assigns decision-making responsibility to team members but oversees their work.

In addition to these four approaches to leadership, there are also four levels of follower maturity:

  • Level M1: Followers have low competence and low commitment.
  • Level M2: Followers have low competence, but high commitment.
  • Level M3: Followers have high competence, but low commitment and confidence.
  • Level M4: Followers have high competence and high commitment and confidence.
The four maturity levels are M1: low competence, low commitment; M2: low competence, high commitment; M3: high competence, low commitment/confidence; and M4: high competence, high commitment/confidence

In Hersey and Blanchard’s approach, the key to successful leadership is matching the proper leadership style to the corresponding maturity level of the employees. As a general rule, each of the four leadership styles is appropriate for the corresponding employee maturity level:

  • Telling style works best for leading employees at the M1 level (low competence, low commitment).
  • Selling style works best for leading employees at the M2 level (low competence, high commitment).
  • Participating style works best for leading employees at the M3 level (high competence, low commitment/confidence).
  • Delegating style works best for leading employees at the M4 level (high competence, high commitment/confidence).
M1 corresponds to telling style, M2 corresponds to selling style, M3 corresponds to participating style, and M4 corresponds to delegating style

Maturity levels and leadership styles

Identifying the employee maturity level becomes a very important part of the process, and the leader must have the willingness and ability to use any of the four leadership styles as needed.

Practice Question

Leader-Member Exchange Theory

The leader-member exchange theory considers leaders relationships with people, and proposed that, because of time constraints, leaders establish relationships with a small group of their followers.[3] These individuals make up an “in-group” and are more likely to receive attention from the leader. Other followers fall into the “out-group.”

How the leader chooses the “in-group” is somewhat unclear, but it’s assumed that the leader chooses the individuals based on their similarities to his or her own characteristics, or because of their higher competence levels.

Research testing the leader-member exchange theory has been generally supportive and provides evidence that leaders do differentiate among followers, that these disparities aren’t random, and that the individuals in the “in-group” will perform better, have lower turnover, etc.

Path-Goal Theory

In the Path-Goal theory, it’s the leader’s job to assist followers in attaining their goals and to provide the necessary direction and/or support to ensure their goals are compatible with the overall objectives of the group or organization.[4] Developed by Robert House, he determined that there were four types of leaders that played into this theory:

  • The supportive leader: is friendly and shows concerns for the followers.
  • The participative leader: checks with followers for suggestions before making a decision.
  • The directive leader: lets followers know what work is to be done, gives guidance on how to accomplish tasks.
  • The achievement-oriented leader: sets challenging goals, expects followers to perform at high levels.

The factors are environmental (task structure, formal authority system, work group) and subordinate (locus of control, experience, perceived ability). The environmental factors are beyond followers’ control, and the subordinate factors are, obviously within their control. Environmental factors dictate which of the leadership behaviors above will be most effective, and the subordinate factors dictate how those leadership behaviors are interpreted.

In other words, if a directive leader is paired with followers who already have a high ability and experience, the leader’s skills are likely to be perceived as redundant. The followers don’t need someone to tell them what to do. They’d be more successful with an achievement-oriented leader.

Research supports this theory. It’s logical that a leader will be successful if he or she is “filling in the blanks” where environmental and subordinate factors are concerned, and giving the team what they don’t already have.

Leader-Participation Model

Victor Vroom, the researcher who developed the expectancy framework by which we compared motivational approaches, also has things to say about leadership.[5] He paired with Phillip Yetton to create a leader-participation model, and then with Arthur Jago to create a revised one. The revised model , the more widely accepted of the two, provides a set of rules to determine the form and amount of participative decision making in different situations.

In fact, there are 12 contingency variables, 8 problem types, and 5 leadership styles to be considered in the process, and that’s part of what makes the model difficult for managers to use. Beyond the complexity of the model, this model doesn’t take stress, intelligence and experience into consideration as important variables.

Practice Question

All of these contingency models, which have been discussed and contemplated for more than forty years, seem to suggest, above all things, that there is no one right way to lead.  But don’t worry, that doesn’t mean we’ve wasted our time!

  1. Fiedler, F. E. (1967) A Theory of Leadership Effectiveness, New York: McGraw-Hill.
  2. Fiedler, F. E. and Garcia, J. E. (1987) New Approaches to Leadership, Cognitive Resources and Organizational Performance, New York: John Wiley and Sons.
  3. Dienesch, R.M. and Liden, R.C. (1986) Leader-Member Exchange Model of Leadership: A Critique and Further Development. Academy of Management Review, 11, 618-634.
  4. House, Robert J.; Mitchell, T.R. (1974). "Path-goal theory of leadership". Journal of Contemporary Business. 3: l–97.
  5. Vroom, Victor H.; Yetton, Phillip W. (1973). Leadership and Decision-Making. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh