In the early 1970’s Paul Hersey and Ken Blanchard developed one of the most popular and used leadership models which is called Situational Leadership. While I think a more appropriate name would have been situational management since it deals primarily with task execution, the model is still very relevant and useful today. I’ve had several situations while working with managers that we have used the model to help manage staff more effectively.
The theory behind the model is very simple. Effective managers adapt a leadership style that is appropriate to the situation rather than use the same style all of the time. A big “ah ha” for one of my clients recently was that the model applies to tasks not people. The same person will have to be managed differently depending on the task involved.
When determining which style to use, the manager assesses the situation from two dimensions. The first is the person’s level of competency for the task. Competence is the level of skills and knowledge that a person brings to the assigned task.
The second dimension is the level of commitment or motivation to do the task. Commitment involves the person’s confidence to perform the task, their interest in doing it, and their enthusiasm for it. While assessing commitment, it is important to realize that lack of confidence is treated the same as lack of motivation. In fact, what may appear to be an enthusiasm or motivation issue on the surface most likely stems from lack of self confidence.
In the Situational Leadership model, there are two types of management behavior. One is called directive behavior which focuses on how to do a task. It involves telling or showing people what to do, when to do it, and providing feedback on the results. Directive behaviors focus primarily on the competence dimension.
The other type of management behavior is called supportive behavior. It focuses on the confidence and motivation dimension. It involves such actions as listening, praising, encouraging, and involvement.
Applying the wrong style to a task or situation can have two negative impacts. The first is that performance will be less than expected. The second is that it can be demotivating. The theory is simple, yet the application can be difficult because we all tend to have a preferred style, and therefore may have a tendency to use it even when not appropriate.
The first rule of situational management is that the amount of directive style employed is inversely proportional to the competence of the individual to do the task. A common term for a highly directive style is micromanagement. While employees and staff may not appreciate micromanagement, it is an appropriate style when the person lacks the competence to perform the task.
I recently heard an employee express frustration because he spent a lot of time and effort doing an assignment for the boss only to have the boss say it was all wrong and no good. The employee’s competence level on this task was low because he had never done it before. The manager adapted a low directive approach and left the poor employee with the challenge to read the boss’s mind and figure out what to do. In this situation, a highly directive style would have been appropriate.
However, the biggest issue I see is that managers tend to use a highly directive style even with highly competent people. The manager feels a need to be involved in all of the details and requires much more reporting and follow up than is really necessary. Applying the micromanager style too much can be demotivating and ultimately effects the commitment dimension.
The second rule of situational management is that the amount of supportive behavior required in inversely proportional to the level of commitment of the person to perform the task. Think about a brand new person who you just hired. They are usually eager to get started and contribute. They don't need a lot of supportive behavior; they just need be told what to do. This doesn’t mean that the manager ignores the person, but praise is given after the task is accomplished, not before, There is no need to “fire up” the person; they already have the motivation.
A common situation that managers face is the combination of moderate to high competence combined with low motivation. The person knows how to perform the task, yet they just don’t seem to show any enthusiasm for it. The problem can be lack of confidence. This person needs reassurance and a boss who is supportive. When faced with this situation, some managers may revert to micromanagement which is absolutely the wrong style for the situation. Telling the person how to do a task will actually make it worse. The focus should be on encouragement and motivation, not on the how and when of the task.
Finally, being able to recognize situations where the person performing the task is both highly committed and high competent is essential to being an effective manager. Having people with this capability frees up the manager’s time to do other things. Managers needs to avoid the temptation to spend too much time either directing or supporting in these situations.
Think about a current situation you are facing with an employee or staff member. What is the person’s level of competence.? What is their commitment? Then, what is the appropriate style that I should use?