The situational leadership (SL) theory, developed by Paul Hersey and Ken Blanchard, is one of the most widely known frameworks for explaining managerial effectiveness. Although the framework is particularly popular among practicing managers and professional trainers, it has not enjoyed comparable attention from the academic community of industrial/organizational researchers. Nonetheless, the theory is recognized among researchers for its intuitive appeal, though it is not considered a clearly valid or robust framework for the prescription of leader behavior.
Since its earliest origins, when it was known as the life-cycle theory of leadership, SL theory has undergone a variety of changes. Some of these changes have been relatively cosmetic—for example, relabeling follower maturity as developmental level and then readiness, relabeling willingness as commitment, relabeling ability as competence, relabeling leader task behavior as directive behavior, relabeling leader relationship behavior as supportive behavior, relabeling the prescriptive curve as the performance curve and then the leadership style curve, and finally, relabeling telling-selling-participating-delegating as directing-coaching-supporting-delegating. Other changes— reflected in the most recent version of the model, termed situational leadership II—such as suggesting that low employee development or maturity involves differing dynamics, are arguably problematic and even suggest that increased maturity may result in decreased motivation. Despite these changes, the core concepts of SL remain largely intact, even if they have not been adequately validated.
Situational leadership theory continues to tie in with other contemporary views of what makes for effective supervision. For example, three contemporary workplace perspectives are completely in accord with SL’s essential principles: (1) Self-directed work teams (a popular performance-enhancement technique) advocates that supervision should be minimal when employees are sufficiently capable of being self-directed; (2) employee competence and dedication or professionalism can be viewed as potent substitutes for leadership; and (3) leaders need to be both socially intelligent and flexible in their behavior.
In relation to other perspectives on leadership, SL theory is often viewed as one of several situational models that arose during the 1960s and 1970s. As part of a trend toward incorporating situational elements into explanations of leader effectiveness, the theory’s appeal was driven by dissatisfaction with earlier paradigmatic approaches that emphasized leader traits and leader behaviors to the exclusion of situational attributes. This theory also builds on earlier behavioral (or stylistic) approaches in that it includes a prevalent perspective wherein leadership is conceptualized along two independent dimensions: leader consideration and leader initiation of structure. The theory is novel, however, in its attempt to specify which combination of leader behaviors along these two dimensions is optimal in light of follower maturity. Within this theory, follower maturity is most often defined as a combination of the ability to perform a task and the willingness (or commitment and motivation) to accomplish a task.
The key principle underlying SL theory’s most essential social dynamic is that as follower maturity increases, optimal leader behavior should involve less structuring and less consideration. Although the decline in the need for structuring is straightforward, the relationship to leader supportiveness is less so. Specifically, followers who are comparatively low on maturity should benefit from high structuring combined with low consideration. As the follower gains maturity, the need for leader structuring declines, but the need for supervisory supportiveness actually increases. At the highest levels of follower maturity, the need for both leader structuring and social supportiveness declines further, such that at the highest levels of follower maturity, leader structuring and consideration are irrelevant to follower performance. This transitioning of prescribed leader style can be summarized as moving from telling to selling to participating and, ultimately, to delegating (along a prescriptive curve).
The theory’s intuitive appeal lies in its simplicity, as well as the self-evident correctness that is attendant to human (especially child) development. Consider that one would not attempt to handle a class of first graders in the same fashion as one would attempt to handle eighth graders, high school students, or college students. Clearly, one would be engaging in more telling at the lowest level of maturity and, ideally, far more delegating at the college (especially the graduate) level. The model is also appealing to military leadership training because raw recruits undergo a transformation as they gain ability and commitment. Because we all vary our own behaviors based on circumstances and expect to be treated differentially based on self-perceived efficacy, the model’s proposed dynamic is inherently enticing. The model is broadly attractive because it focuses on managerial dynamics rather than true leadership, which can be vested in any group member and typically refers to some form of incremental influence beyond one’s nominal position or headship. Hence, the model offers practical guidance to people who find themselves in positions of responsibility (who may have little interest in the subtleties of a variety of alternative models of leadership that are long on evidence of aggregate correlational associations but short on specific advice as to how to relate to individual employees).
An empirical demonstration of the validity of the model’s core tenet (the value of leader adaptability) is desirable. However, a variety of obstacles have impeded progress in studying the model in a rigorous fashion. First, the model is embedded in a training package that includes (along with training videos, worksheets, puzzles, games, and practice activities) a preferred instrument for assessing leader style. Although theoretical ties to the Ohio State University measures of consideration and initiating structure are evident, the instruments that are recommended for assessing a leader’s personal style may not possess comparable psychometric merit. Additionally, the definition and measurement of employee maturity, a key construct, requires further development.
Despite these problems, empirical studies of SL theory have been attempted, yielding a mixed pattern of results. One study of 303 teachers in 14 high schools found support for the model’s predictions for low-maturity subordinates (i.e., followers who were low in competence and commitment performed better with supervisors who were high on structuring but low on consideration) and for moderate-maturity subordinates (i.e., moderate structuring combined with higher considerateness was optimal). However, no support was found for high-maturity subordinates. In a replication of this study with a sample of nurses, similar directional (but nonsignificant) support was found for the earlier findings. In a further replication and extension of this line of research, 332 university employees and 32 supervisors were studied. The authors tested the suggestion that the model may be valid from an across-jobs perspective (in which norms govern how subordinates expect to be treated by a supervisor based on their competency and commitment) rather than a within-jobs perspective. Yet the results continue to suggest that the original model has limited descriptive utility. However, further analyses have indicated that supervisory monitoring and consideration interact with job level such that monitoring has a positive impact for lower-level employees, whereas considerateness has a more positive impact for higher-level employees. This suggests that the model’s most central and intuitively appealing aspect may be correct, whereas specific predictions based on follower maturity may be incorrect. In a related study of 1,137 employees across three organizations, it was found that employees with higher levels of education and greater levels of job tenure express less preference for supervisory structuring. This suggests that an understanding of employee expectations of supervisor behavior may be valuable in optimizing the level and nature of supervisory involvement with subordinates.
Beyond the aforementioned problem of deciding how best to operationalize key constructs, tests of the model have been limited because of the relatively low frequency of “matches” (relative to “mismatches”), wherein the ideal circumstances or combinations specified by the model are obtained. Furthermore, studies of the developmental dynamic proposed by the model (wherein followers gain or even regress in ability and willingness) are virtually nonexistent. Despite these problems, a sufficient number of SL-related studies have been conducted (many of them doctoral dissertations that rely on leader self-assessments) that a meta-analysis was recently conducted. Based on 35 studies, the results were judged to be generally supportive of the relationship between leader adaptability and effectiveness, with an overall corrected effect size of .31 and an estimated 95% confidence interval of the true correlation of .19 to .41. Hence, the authors concluded that the ability to appropriately adapt one’s leadership style to the developmental level of a follower is related to overall leader effectiveness. Judged in their totality, the results of this meta-analysis, as well as other more rigorous studies, suggest that SL theory continues to be a promising approach to understanding leadership.
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