There are so many leadership models, theories, and leadership styles out there that it can be quite daunting for a manager to know what to do and when. One of the most popular and coveted leadership style is known as situational leadership which basically means that the manager adjusts and changes their approach based upon the task or situation at hand.
It’s a model that we sometimes cover in the Leadership Development Training and Management Development Programmes that we cover.
Within this guide we’re going to look at the definition of situational leadership, the common traits of a leader who uses this approach, the pros and cons of the model and we’ll finish up with some situational leadership examples.
Situational leadership is based on the idea that one leadership style is not inherently better than another. Instead, a person’s situation (hence the name) should determine the type of leadership they practise.
Situational leadership is also known as the Hersey-Blanchard Situational Leadership Theory. It’s named after its creators, Dr Paul Hersey and Kenneth Blanchard.
According to Hersey and Blanchard’s situational Leadership Model, there are four primary leadership styles:
Leaders should choose between these four situational leadership styles based on the maturity level of the members of their group. There are four maturity levels:
The following leadership styles and maturity levels typically work best together:
Situational leaders choose between various combinations based on their assessment of their team members’ skills and willingness to contribute. Situational leaders must be adaptable and able to alter their approach depending on their team and circumstances.
To effectively lead their team and get things done, situational leaders must possess the following traits:
Good situational leaders must know how to give direction and set clear expectations. They must also be able to provide consistent supervision and follow-up with team members to ensure expectations are met.
Situational leaders constantly modify their leadership style based on the current situation.
To quickly alter their approach, they need to be flexible. If leaders struggle to adapt, they may find themselves favouring one leadership style over another, even if it’s not the best fit for a particular group or problem.
Situational leaders must be encouraging and good at motivating their fellow team members. If a leader doesn’t know how to encourage their team and convince them to participate, they might struggle with certain situational leadership styles, including the more advanced approaches like Participating and Delegating.
A successful situational leader must be able and willing to delegate. If they’re too controlling and unwilling to loosen their grip, they will struggle with styles like Participating and Delegating, even if they’re the best options for a specific circumstance.
Situational leaders must be honest with themselves and their team members. If they can’t be honest about a situation or the maturity level of their team, they’ll struggle to adapt and choose the best leadership style.
Along with honesty, situational leaders also need courage. It takes bravery to adjust your leadership style and step out of your comfort zone for the good of the group, especially if you’re unfamiliar or uncomfortable with a particular approach.
Humility is also necessary for situational leaders. They must be willing to admit when a particular leadership technique isn’t working. If they can’t honestly assess the situation and acknowledge the need for change, they could be putting their team and business at risk.
Like any leadership model, there are some advantages and disadvantages of situational leadership. The following are nine of the greatest benefits of situational leadership worth considering:
The basic principles of the situational leadership model are straightforward. Once you understand the four leadership styles and the four maturity levels, you can evaluate your team and choose the approach that works best for them and the task you’re trying to accomplish.
Because situational leadership theory is so understandable, it can be used in various situations. Whether you’re an HR manager or a software development project manager, you can rely on the tenets of situational leadership to make decisions for your team.
Many well-known leadership styles focus primarily on the leader, their personality, and their preferences. Situational leadership is unique because it’s centred around the employees or team members.
Situational leaders must get to know their team members and evaluate their maturity level before deciding which Leadership Style to practice. It’s their responsibility to change to fit their team instead of expecting their team members to change to fit them.
The situational leadership model is built around the idea that teams are made up of individuals, each with their own distinctive strengths and weaknesses.
Rather than implementing a one-size-fits-all approach and sticking to it no matter what, situational leadership requires leaders to be versatile. They must acknowledge the uniqueness of each team member and make the decision that best serves the group and helps them accomplish a particular goal.
Regardless of the type of team they lead or the goal they’re trying to achieve, every leader wants their employees to be as productive as possible. In many cases, the situational leadership model leads to increased productivity.
One reason it improves productivity is that it plays to team members’ strengths. The leader evaluates their team and chooses the leadership style that works best for them.
Forcing square pegs into round holes is time-consuming and frustrating. Meeting employees where they are and using a leadership style that caters to their strengths and weaknesses allows them to get things done more efficiently and accurately.
Empathy is the practise of putting yourself in someone else’s shoes. When you see the world from other people’s perspectives, it’s easier to have compassion for them, understand their decision-making process, and set them up for success.
Situational leadership works, largely, because it encourages empathy.
When practising this approach, leaders must get to know each team member and assess their strengths and weaknesses. Learning more about their employees helps leaders make the right decisions for them and for the group.
In addition to helping leaders become better acquainted with their team members, situational leadership also helps leaders become more aware of themselves, their habits, their strengths, and their shortcomings.
Situational leaders constantly evaluate situations and make decisions based on what will benefit their team and help them accomplish a specific goal. Through this decision-making process, leaders learn a lot about their default leadership style and what traits they need to work on developing.
For example, a leader might find that they’re prone to a Telling leadership style, even in situations when Delegating makes more sense. They can use this discovery to check in with themselves and ensure they’re only practising Telling when it’s most appropriate.
Did you know that we offer a Free Leadership Assessment Test. Please feel free to take it and find out your leadership strengths and areas of development.
Leaders who subscribe to the situational leadership model may also notice improvements in morale among their team members.
When their leader is empathetic and chooses leadership styles that align with their levels of knowledge and enthusiasm, it stands to reason that team members will be happier at work and more satisfied with their jobs.
Happy, satisfied employees tend to do better work and are more engaged. They’re also less likely to jump ship and find a different job, meaning businesses might notice a reduction in employee turnover.
Practising situational leadership can also make it easier for your team members to collaborate.
Situational leaders don’t set their teams up to fail. Sometimes, a leader assesses the team’s maturity and decides that a Telling or Selling approach works best. In other cases, they decide the team is more mature and can handle a Participating or Delegating approach.
In the former situation, the leader has decided that the team needs more direction and that they need to do more of the talking. They don’t put their team in a collaboration-heavy position when they’re not ready for it.
In the latter situation, the leader has decided that the team has the skills and/or willingness to handle a particular task. Because they’re capable of doing so, the leader can take a step back and give them a chance to work together to get things done.
The best leaders are critical thinkers. They don’t believe in cookie-cutter solutions and they’re willing to adapt as needed to best serve their teams and produce the best results for their companies.
Situational leadership demands continuous critical thinking. Leaders must regularly evaluate their teams and the objectives they’re trying to accomplish, then make decisions based on their evaluations.
Developing stronger critical thinking skills will serve leaders now and in the future. They’ll be better equipped to make tough decisions and find solutions that generate the best outcomes for the greatest number of people.
Along with the advantages discussed above, you must also understand some situational leadership disadvantages. Here are seven of the most noteworthy downsides of situational leadership to keep in mind:
Situational leadership is not for the faint of heart. It requires ongoing assessment of team members and careful decision-making to choose the approach that works best in each scenario.
Because situational leadership requires a lot from those in charge, it might seem intimidating at first. Even though the framework is relatively simple, it still involves a lot of precision and attention to detail, which can feel daunting, especially to new leaders.
The good news is that practise is powerful. The more leaders practise situational leadership, the easier it becomes to evaluate teams and make decisions based on the members’ maturity levels.
Speaking of evaluating teams, one of the biggest challenges associated with situational leadership is the idea of grading employees or rating them according to their maturity levels.
Sometimes, it’s obvious that a group is inexperienced and requires a Telling leadership style. In other cases, it can be hard to decide between a Telling and Selling approach — especially when you’re working with a new team or don’t know your employees well.
Again, the more you practise making these decisions and grading your team members, the easier it becomes.
Many leaders are drawn to the flexibility of the situational leadership model. However, it can be tough initially for team members to acclimate to frequently shifting leadership styles.
Employees might be confused about why their leader sometimes tells them exactly what to do and sometimes gives them lots of freedom to make their own choices. They might also become frustrated if they don’t understand the reasoning behind these leadership decisions.
To prevent confusion, it’s helpful for team leaders to explain their approach and let their team know why they’re practising a certain leadership style.
When you practise situational leadership — particularly when you first start adopting this leadership strategy — you must be attentive to your team.
Even if you’re using a more hands-off leadership style like Participating or Delegating, you still need to monitor team members and offer coaching to ensure they stay on the right track.
Some leaders struggle with the added demands situational leadership places on their attention. They might feel that they’re always busy assessing their team and don’t have time for other tasks.
Initially, the situational leadership approach can feel more stressful than other leadership models.
Between the ongoing attention leaders must place on their team members to the frequently shifting leadership styles, there’s a lot going on each day. Some leaders might even start to feel burnt out when they first start experimenting with this approach.
As leaders get more comfortable with the different styles associated with situational leadership, the process of deciding which one to use will become less stressful. Switch between the various styles will also become less taxing.
Some critics of the situational leadership model say that it concentrates more on short-term accomplishments instead of long-term changes.
It’s true that situational leadership requires you to focus on the task at hand and choose the best way to manage it. However, there’s still room for long-term planning and improvement.
To avoid becoming too myopic, team leaders must make time to set long-term goals and create strategies for accomplishing them. They should also find ways to use their short-term goals and projects as steppingstones to accomplishing bigger objectives.
Some critics also say that situational leadership is inefficient. They argue that leaders don’t have time to continuously evaluate situations and decide which leadership style works best.
This perspective is understandable. There’s another way to look at it, though.
How much time gets wasted if a leader uses a leadership approach that’s not right for their team? Wouldn’t it be better for them to take some time, weigh their options, and then pick the leadership style that sets their employees up for success?
It’s often better to take extra time at the beginning to plan and make informed decisions. This tactic can save you time in the long run and reduce your team’s chances of making mistakes or getting overwhelmed.
If you’re still confused about situational leadership or how you can implement this model into your approach, some examples might help. Here are five examples of situational leadership to inspire you:
Teachers often must adjust their leadership style depending on the age and skill level of their students.
For example, if you teach young primary school children, they likely need a lot more direction and specific instruction than secondary school pupils who will soon head to university.
For primary school students, Telling is often the most effective leadership style. For older students, though, a Participating style might be more effective and get them more engaged in the learning process.
Imagine you’re the head physician working in an emergency room.
When someone comes in after an accident with severe injuries, you’ll likely assess the situation and choose a Telling approach to leadership. Your team needs to know what to do, and you don’t have time to hear other perspectives. You need to care for this patient right away.
Now, imagine you’re the head of a research team at a hospital. In this situation, a Participating or Delegating style might be more appropriate. The setting is not as intense as the emergency room, leaving room for various points of you and more employee decision-making.
When they’re working with inexperienced athletes, sports coaches often use a Telling approach. When their players are more seasoned, though, they might switch to a Participating style and let the players have more input.
A selling style could also be more beneficial when the head coach is working with their assistant coaches. They might need to sell the assistant coaches on a particular strategy and get them on board with trying it out.
The situational leadership model can also help you decide which approach to Learning and Development is the best fit for your employees.
For example, if you want to teach a team of recently hired employees how to use a specific program or tool, you’ll likely default to a Telling leadership style.
However, you’re working with other leaders and creating a new employee onboarding program, you might choose a Participating or Delegating style and give people more freedom to make decisions.
Let’s say you’re a Project Manager who values and wants to improve employee collaboration.
If you want to encourage your team to work together — and have faith that they have the skills to solve problems without extensive coaching from you — you might choose the Delegating style and give them freedom to work things out among themselves.
On the flip side, if you decide your team is not mature enough, you might decide on a Participating style and work alongside them to improve their collaboration and problem-solving efforts.
The situational leadership model is an excellent option for team leaders who want to increase productivity, enhance collaboration, and boost morale. It encourages flexibility and empathy and is centred around the employees rather than the leader.
Now that you know more about how this approach works, and the pros and cons of situational leadership, are you interested in giving it a try?
Check out our Management Skills Training and Management Apprenticeships.
If you’re looking for bespoke Management Training we can include Situational Leadership if the needs be along with leadership diagnostic tools like 360 Degree Feedback, DISC Profiling and MBTI.
Updated on: 13 December, 2022
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