What’s it: Situational leadership emphasizes flexibility to adapt to tasks and teams. Leaders adapt their leadership style to the situation, depending on the task or goals being completed and the team being led. For example, they may be somewhat authoritarian in some situations but democratic in others.
Such adaptations are essential for effectively leading a team and achieving goals. Leading is not only about positional power and authority but about motivating and encouraging subordinates to jointly succeed in achieving goals.
Even though it is considered positive, being flexible in adopting different leadership styles may be difficult in real life because some leaders tend to have a dominant style.
Why is situational leadership style important?
Leaders often have to tackle different tasks with different team compositions. Both need them to play differently. An effective leader is flexible in changing his style and adapting to both situations.
Success in adapting not only makes it easier to achieve goals. But, it also produces other benefits such as high employee motivation and loyalty. Moreover, it results in high organizational performance because subordinates are productive and can bring out their best abilities. In addition, they can also retain their employees, reducing employee turnover and its negative effects.
How does situational leadership work?
Situational leadership emphasizes flexibility in adopting the most suitable leadership style to achieve goals, considering the task and the team being led. This leadership concept is rooted in the model developed by Paul Hersey and Ken Blanchard.
Hersey-Blanchard’s Situational Leadership Theory considers two aspects. The first is how competent, and committed subordinates are. The second is how complex the tasks, functions, and goals are to be achieved.
When combined, those two aspects result in different situations regarding challenges, areas of performance, and the level of support and direction by the leader. And the leader must choose a style unique to each situation to be effective. Then, if successful, they can empower their subordinates better.
Let’s take a simple case of how situational leadership works in the workplace.
Different teams and their competencies require different styles.
Leaders must supervise several people with inadequate skills and knowledge in one situation. Adopting a somewhat autocratic approach may be ineffective in these situations. It was because they had to explain many things to their subordinates. They must help subordinates to be effective at work while encouraging them to learn and train themselves. For example, they must provide guidance and instruction.
Over time, subordinates acquire the skills, knowledge, and expertise to fulfill roles in the workplace. Leaders then change their style and adopt a more hands-off approach. They provide little guidance and more on empowering subordinates to make their own decisions. They feel this approach is more suitable because subordinates are ready. This approach is also important to increase capital and foster motivation among subordinates because they can self-actualize better.
Flexibility to change effective style when facing different tasks
In other cases, the leader may face a difficult task requiring high creativity. Yet, they are supported by a competent team. As a result, each member has high skills and performance.
Finally, the leader allows subordinates to work independently in managing their work. They allow subordinates to self-actualize, put their ideas to work, and make their own decisions. With this approach, they expect high creativity from their subordinates, supporting them to complete the task.
Then, at some point, the company may face a crisis. It requires leaders to make decisive and quick decisions. In this case, they may have to adopt a more authoritarian approach. Previously, they delegated decisions to subordinates. But, now, they may have to take over and center the decision on them. Conversely, if they still allow subordinates to make decisions, the inconsistency between subordinate decisions. And that’s dangerous for the company.
The case above shows that different tasks require different approaches. And nowadays, such a situation is becoming more and more possible due to the fast-paced business environment.
What are the four types of situational leadership?
The Blanchard-Hersey leadership model categorizes leadership styles into four based on the directive behavior and supportive behavior required to lead subordinates and effectively support their needs and progress. The four are:
Leaders empower teams by prioritizing delegation. They give subordinates more autonomy and delegate most of their decisions and responsibilities. They allow subordinates to organize work and make relevant decisions. Thus, they are less involved in decision-making in the specific work area of subordinates.
This approach yields at least two main advantages. On the one hand, subordinates are motivated because they have room to actualize their abilities. On the other hand, leaders can focus on more strategic areas, such as setting a vision.
This style is suitable when subordinates have high competence and motivation. So, they can work independently and effectively. And leaders just monitor their progress.
Leaders emphasize collaboration. They lead a competent team to do their job well. Thus, they focus on supportive behavior rather than directive behavior.
Leaders work with teams by providing more support to subordinates than instructions. They share responsibility for decision-making. They encourage subordinates to improve and offer needed solutions, especially to open up insights.
Such an environment requires open communication between leaders and subordinates, including sharing ideas. Leaders try to be good listeners and are ready to help subordinates when needed. As a result, they maintain quality relationships with the people they lead.
This style combines highly directive and supportive behavior. Leaders sell their ideas to subordinates and encourage them to join. Thus, they set goals and roles for subordinates but are open to suggestions and ideas.
Leaders do not only provide direction to subordinates to carry out tasks. But, they also provide support to them to grow themselves.
This style emphasizes directive rather than supportive behavior. The leader instructs the subordinates and in detail tells them what to do and how to do it. They determine the role of subordinates and concentrate decision-making in their hands.
This style is suitable for environments where subordinates do not have the initiative. Thus, the leadership approach is more top-down:
- The leader specifies the tasks and works to be done, telling how and when to complete them.
- The subordinates carry out the leader’s instructions.
- The leader supervises subordinates directly.
Where is situational leadership effective?
The four leadership styles above will be effective depending on the maturity of the team being led, associated with their competence and willingness. In other words, the leader must adopt a different style when dealing with subordinates with different competencies and wills. They assess and adapt their approach to delivering what is needed to support the team’s success.
The Hersey–Blanchard model identifies four situations in which the four leadership styles above are effective based on the team’s maturity level:
- High maturity (M4)
- Medium maturity (M3)
- Medium maturity (M2)
- Low maturity (M1)
High maturity (M4)
The delegating style fits this situation. Subordinates are not only competent. But, they are also strongly committed.
High competence and skills enable subordinates to be independent in work. They can’t just do a good job. But, they are also responsible for their duties.
Because they are highly skilled and highly committed, leaders give more autonomy to subordinates. They adopt a delegating style to empower subordinates and encourage them to work independently to achieve agreed goals.
Medium maturity (M3)
Subordinates have moderate to high competence. Thus, they do not need direction to carry out their duties. However, their commitment and willingness tend to vary. For example, they lack confidence in their abilities.
In this situation, the leader adopts a participating style. They focus more on providing support to subordinates than on instructions or directions. In addition, they try to be good listeners and are ready to help their subordinates when needed.
Medium maturity (M2)
The team has several competencies. However, they have low commitment and willpower.
Subordinates are not ready to take full responsibility for the process at work. They need time to develop themselves and become competent.
In this situation, the leader relies on the selling style. Leaders rely more on directive behavior while maintaining supportive behavior, though not dominant. In other words, the leader focuses on providing instruction and direction while encouraging subordinates to develop skills. They train subordinates in problem-solving and involve them in the decision-making process.
Low maturity (M1)
Subordinates have low competence. However, they have a high commitment. They are enthusiastic about carrying out orders.
This environment requires a telling style. Leaders rely on the directive style by giving subordinates instructions and direction in their work. Supportive behavior may be less needed because subordinates have low competence. Thus, the leader dominantly determines the role of subordinates. They tell employees what to do, how, and when to do it.
What are the advantages of situational leadership?
Situational leadership has several advantages. First, it creates a harmonized performance language. Leaders are flexible in changing their leadership approach according to context. They try to understand their subordinates’ readiness and abilities and adapt their style.
Second, situational leaders encourage successful collaboration with teams. It increases team productivity and engagement. Finally, they successfully influence team members to achieve optimal strength by maximizing the best ability to achieve goals.
Third, this style is relevant to past, present, and future situations. Because leaders are flexible to adapt to different situations, they are better equipped to deal with different circumstances in the workplace, including changes in task and team composition.
Fourth, effective leaders encourage behavior change. In addition, they accelerate employee development by adapting their leadership approach. For example, at one time, they should place more directive behavior when dealing with a subordinate. Other times, they take a more supportive approach.
Fifth, motivating subordinates. It increases the strong relationship between subordinates and leaders. Subordinates feel the leader values them by paying attention to their conditions and needs, including professional development. In the end, it paid respect to them.
Generally, subordinates adapt to the style adopted by the leader. However, under situational leadership, the adaptation takes place on two sides: superiors and subordinates.
What are the weaknesses of situational leadership?
Being flexible by adapting leadership styles is considered ideal. But, in the real world, that might be hard to do. For example, some leaders tend to have a dominant style. They show it from time to time. So, they may find it difficult to change their mindset and approach to leadership because they are used to it.
In addition, there are several other disadvantages of situational leadership. First, its effectiveness depends on the leader’s ability to identify and assess the degree to which their subordinates relate to their maturity level. Unfortunately, some may fail to do so effectively because it is difficult. Eventually, they adopt an inappropriate leadership style.
Second, it creates confusion within the organization. Leaders are constantly changing their styles to suit different situations. So, they can be adaptive and work effectively with teams with diverse backgrounds.
However, subordinates may view superiors as showing an inconsistency. Finally, they find it difficult to adapt to the leader’s approach.
Third, leaders are too focused on short-term aspects. They spend more time thinking about what their subordinates need from them and how they should adapt. Thus, there is less time to think about what organizations need from them and, in a competitive context, what the business environment requires from their organizations. Long story short, situational leaders may focus more on short-term goals than long-term goals.
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