If you’re a leader, you’ve hit a “leadership roadblock” at some point:
An employee who seems immune to your best strategies and tactics
A project with performance issues that you just can’t manage your way out of
A high performer that suddenly becomes a low performer despite your best efforts
Whether you’ve been in leadership for a long time or have just recently transitioned into a leadership role, leadership walls or roadblocks happen to everyone eventually.
As one of the four key functions of management, leadership is an integral part of every manager’s job. Leading well requires finding new tactics and strategies to overcome even the most complex leadership challenges.
Situational leadership is an approach that’s gotten many leaders over all kinds of leadership roadblocks. Below we’ll look at what it is, what it can do, and how to use it.
What is situational leadership?
Situational leadership is a method of leadership that embraces multiple leadership styles, using context to determine the style that best meets the needs of any given situation. This leadership approach adapts both to the needs of each situation and the capabilities or readiness of the group, individual, or both.
The situational leadership model was created by Paul Hersey and Ken Blanchard, who first wrote about it in the 1969 work, "Management of Organizational Behavior."
What does situational leadership accomplish for a leader?
Situational leadership works by recognizing that people are unique. Every employee you’re responsible for is at a different level of maturity, capability, emotional intelligence, and more. Using the exact same approach (let’s call it your default approach) with everyone will yield mixed results: it might work wonderfully with some, but not at all on others.
Situational leaders gain the ability to meet the needs of people at different ability or development levels by tailoring their approach as needed. In better reaching every member of a team, the situational leader cultivates stronger, deeper relationships.
The 4 types of situational leadership styles
In the Hersey-Blanchard situational leadership theory, there are four styles or types of situational leadership. Others have added additional styles (which we won’t examine here), and you’ll find variations on each of the four's key words or titles. (We’re using the most widely accepted terms in this article and will note common variants.)
1) Directing situational leadership style
Also called the “telling” leadership style, directing leaders take a firm, hands-on approach to leadership. They tell people exactly what to do and how they should do it. The directing style is marked by high direction levels and lower support levels (active listening, praise for well-done work).
Right off the bat, you might bristle at this leadership style: It’s probably not how you want to be led. But in the right situations, directing leadership is exactly the right choice. For example, directing makes sense when you’re closely supervising a low competenceteam member who isn’t confident in their skills or capabilities, or someone with a low commitment level.
When it makes sense to use this type of leadership
The most common place that effective leaders use the directing style is with new hires or inexperienced employees. When someone is learning a new or unfamiliar task, they probably aren’t looking for open-ended dialog or a chance to give input. They just want to know what to do — so that’s what you provide for them.
Take learning a new CRM software suite. A team member who just walked in on their first day or doesn’t know what CRM stands for will need step-by-step guidance with close oversight.
2) Coaching situational leadership style
Also called “selling” or sometimes “explaining,” the coaching situational leadership style mixes a higher level of support with a still-high level of directive behavior. This style still tells people what to do but from the perspective of a coach rather than a commander.
In practice, this could look like suggesting or guiding toward the next step rather than all-out dictating. Combined with the high level of direction comes a high level of support: situational leaders follow up, offer praise and feedback, and may invite the employee to give feedback or make suggestions.
When it makes sense to use this type of leadership
Coaching makes sense in a few situations. Employees with high enthusiasm but low knowledge or experience (enthusiastic beginners) can be coached. They want to do well, but they might not achieve it on their own. Capable but uncommitted employees may also benefit from this style: They don’t need all-out direction, but they do need a combination of clear goals and someone checking in to make sure they’re doing their job.
Here’s an example where the coaching situational leadership style could work well. Say you have an employee who's been in her current role for two years. She’s done well, but it’s clear she doesn’t love the work. She comes to you and expresses passionate interest in an adjacent position, task, or project. She brings talent, enthusiasm, and even great ideas to this new work but lacks experience and still needs guidance.
The coach provides that guidance and keeps an eye on the employee’s progress. The coach also invites the employee to discuss her experience and share ideas, and the coach provides feedback and correction along the way as necessary.
3) Supporting situational leadership style
With the supporting situational leadership style (also called “participating” or “facilitating”), you’ll drop down to a low level of direction but offer a high level of support. Team members ready for the supporting situational leadership style are skilled and capable. So rather than have the boss tell them what to do, team members gain more freedom to make decisions or offer ideas on how to complete the task at hand.
At the same time, situational leadership is for team members that aren’t ready for full autonomy. They still need plenty of support, whether that’s encouragement for a job well done, checking to make sure the work was done (and done well), reinforcement or positive feedback that their solution is a good one, or something similar.
When it makes sense to use this type of leadership
Imagine you have a high-performing designer who’s been with you for three years. He turns in impeccable work that’s rarely late and consistently pleases your clients. You want to hand him a new VIP client in an industry in which he hasn’t done much work, and he’s not confident that he’ll succeed.
You know he has the skills — but he needs extra context and confidence. The supporting leadership style makes perfect sense: You come alongside offering support, but not firm direction. It feels much more like teamwork than like coaching.
4) Delegating situational leadership style
The delegating situational leadership style is intentionally low in both directive and supportive efforts from the leader. Work is delegated to team members with clarity and precision, but the delegating leader takes hands off the wheel, so to speak — letting the team members determine how to do the work (and, sometimes, even how to measure if the work was successful).
This leadership style is the ultimate goal for many managers (and employees). But if you use it too often or in situations where people aren’t ready for it, it can lead to conflict, degraded performance, and even project failure.
When it makes sense to use this type of leadership
The delegating style is for highly competent, confident, motivated teams and team members. They don’t need to be told exactly what to do, and they don’t need constant support as they do it.
Take that high-performing designer we talked about for “supporting” just above. Thanks to your effective leadership, he excels in his work with the new client, who’s beyond thrilled with your designer’s work. He gains confidence and motivation as a result. Eventually, you notice he’s not coming to you with questions — and his client is still thrilled. He knows what to do, and he consistently gets it right.
In other words, he’s moved into a high competence, high commitment state. He’s ready for the next situational approach: delegating leadership.
Benefits of situational leadership
When mastered and used well, the situational leadership framework delivers all sorts of benefits — to leaders and their direct reports alike. Here's what it can do for your team.
Increases your effectiveness
You’ve surely encountered that one person who just doesn’t seem to get you — and the feeling is mutual. You know your go-to strategies that usually work? They don’t anymore.
It’s a frustrating experience — for you and the other person.
Situational leadership gives you a broader toolbox, with four distinct leadership styles you can try. And more tools or approaches usually equate to more effectiveness and leadership success.
See how Teamwork.com gives business leaders the tools they need to optimize their professional services, including robust task management and templates to help you scale.
Helps grow your EQ
When you’re forced as a leader to take a step back and think about what your people need, you’re using emotional intelligence (EQ). Think of EQ like a muscle: The more you use it, the stronger it gets. So by adopting a framework that requires thinking about people’s capabilities, personalities, and even emotional states, you’ll get better and better at thinking about those things and responding accordingly.
Self-correcting and self-reinforcing
Another great thing about this model is that it’s both self-correcting and self-reinforcing. In other words, when you get comfortable enough that you can use each style effectively, you’ll get pretty clear feedback on whether you’ve selected the right one. When you do, your people respond well — they’re generally happy and empowered. When you don’t, you’ll notice the signs in the work itself and the responses of your people.
From there, it’s easy to make adjustments. Were you wrong about the person’s maturity level? Do they need more supportive behavior? Less? Did you find a task where your typical management style for that person doesn’t apply?
Make the adjustments that make sense to you, and the system will keep working, reinforcing success or offering more correction.
Fosters growth and development among your direct reports
Last, situational leadership is more than just a tool for becoming a better manager. The framework also helps your team members improve their performance and confidence in their skills.
In the context of nursing education, one researcher concludes that using situational leadership provides two things:
An example of proper leadership for future leaders
Support that fosters individual growth in both skills and confidence
Creating better future leaders and stronger, more confident current employees is a powerful combination. That’s what situational leadership can deliver.
Challenges of situational leadership
As transformative as situational leadership can be, you may encounter resistance or unexpected challenges as you change to this approach. Be aware of these three challenges — and don’t miss the solutions we’re providing for each.
Challenge 1: Your team thinks you’re inconsistent
Situational leadership is, well, situational. (It’s right there in the name.) And that means you intentionally manage Sarah in a different way than you manage Anita. You might even manage Sarah differently on one project than on another, and the way you interact with most team members will change over time.
Left unmanaged, this reality can lead to your team viewing you as inconsistent or unpredictable. They might talk behind your back about “you never know which version you’re going to get” or mumble something about Jekyll and Hyde. (Well, no version of situational leadership should look like Mr. Hyde, but you get the idea.)
Solution: Set clear expectations
This challenge is easy to overcome because it’s mostly a lack of knowledge. If your team doesn’t know what situational leadership is, they might not have the language to understand why you seem to take differing approaches.
A quick seminar or meeting where you outline the progression toward autonomy you’re trying to achieve with your teams and team members can make a big difference. When they understand that you’re being intentional — not random, moody, or inconsistent — they’ll have even more reason to trust.
Challenge 2: Can be difficult with large teams or departments
Situational leadership is highly customized to each task and individual. The more tasks or individuals you lead, the more customization (Read: time and focus) you have to put in to make the system work.
Solution: Right-size and strategize
The “easy” solution is to lead the right number of people (which is probably around seven, though it depends on your industry and work culture).
But what about here in the real world, where leaders don’t usually get to pick how many direct reports they have?
You might need to get strategic, applying situational leadership only to the highest priority or most troubled tasks and projects. Especially if you find your default managing style to work well most of the time, then situational leadership may be a tool you pull out when necessary, not an all-encompassing philosophy.
Another solution is simplifying your project planning by using project planning software like Teamwork.com. See why Teamwork.com is world-class project planning software.
Challenge 3: Puts pressure on your own performance
Situational leadership also creates pressure for you as a leader: It’s up to you to choose the best leadership style for any specific task or project, and the decision-making process can feel uncomfortable. Where the attention used to be on your employees’ performance, now it feels like it’s on yours.
Solution: Focus on progress, not perfection
Situational leadership doesn’t create management perfection. Good leaders, even great leaders, make mistakes. No matter your feelings about your own leadership qualities or how developed your leadership skills are, you can ease the pressure of navigating different leadership styles by remembering that the goal is progress.
Don’t forget that piece of advice you probably tell your new hires: Mistakes are how we learn.
So instead of chasing perfection, think about this: Are you a more effective manager today than you were last year? Six months ago?
Lead your team to success with Teamwork.com
Situational leadership is a powerful framework that can make you a stronger leader — but it does take work, time, and focus. It also requires understanding your team’s current performance and the status of their projects.
Teamwork.com helps on both fronts. Our project management platform saves you time on project planning and tracking, so you can devote that time to leading instead. Teamwork.com also gives you deep visibility into project status and performance, with all sorts of metrics to explore.
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