Behavioral Approach to Leadership

The behavioral approach to leadership involves attempts to measure the categories of behavior that are characteristic of effective leaders. Two research projects, one at Ohio State University and another at the University of Michigan, are most commonly associated with the behavioral approach to leadership. The results of both research programs suggested that the behavior of effective leaders could be classified into two general categories. The behavioral approach dominated leadership research throughout most of the 1950s and 1960s.

The Ohio State Studies

Immediately following World War II, a group of scholars, including Carroll L. Shartle, John K. Hemphill, and Ralph M. Stogdill, conducted a series of investigations that became known as the Ohio State Leadership Studies. Rather than focusing on the traits or styles of effective leaders, as had been the focus of much early psychological research on leadership, these researchers studied the behaviors that leaders engaged in during the course of their interactions with followers. In a review of early leadership research, Stogdill (1963) declared that attempts to discover the traits shared by effective leaders had largely failed. This presumed failure, coupled with the rise of the behaviorist school of psychology, which emphasized behaviors rather than personality or mental processes, helped prompt the abandonment of trait-oriented leadership research and the rise of the behavioral approach.

Using detailed observations of leaders’ behaviors, as well as reports from the leaders themselves and from their subordinates, the Ohio State researchers accumulated a list of hundreds of leader behaviors. From these a list of 150 statements was derived that represented unique leader behaviors, such as “He assigns group members to particular tasks” and “He finds time to listen to group members.” These 150 items composed the first form of the Leader Behavior Description Questionnaire (LBDQ). The LBDQ was administered to workers who rated how often their leaders engaged in each of the behaviors, using a five-point scale from never to always.

The responses to these items were subjected to factor analysis. The results suggested that the various leader behaviors clustered into one of two factors or categories: initiation of structure and consideration. Initiation of structure includes leader behaviors that define, organize, or structure the work situation. For example, clearly defining roles, assigning specific tasks, communicating work-related expectations, emphasis on meeting deadlines, maintaining standards of work performance, and making task-related decisions are all examples of initiation of structure behaviors. The orientation of these initiation of structure behaviors is focused primarily on the work task.

Consideration behaviors are those where leaders show concern for the feelings, attitudes, needs, and input of followers. They include the leader developing rapport with followers, treating them as equals, showing appreciation for their good work, demonstrating trust in followers, bolstering their self-esteem, and consulting with them about important decisions. The considerate leader is concerned with follower job satisfaction and with developing good interpersonal relationships with and among members of the work group.

The Ohio State researchers concluded that these two leadership behavior dimensions, initiation of structure and consideration, were not opposite ends of a continuum. They were independent of each other. In other words, both were independently related to effective leadership. They found that some effective leaders displayed high levels of initiation of structure behaviors, others engaged in high levels of consideration behaviors, and some displayed high levels of both. Only low incidences of both initiation of structure and consideration behaviors were associated with ineffective leadership.

The two dimensions of initiation of structure and consideration struck a responsive chord with leadership scholars, and a great deal of research followed. One line of research examined the robustness of the initiation of structure and consideration dimensions. Those results were generally supportive, suggesting that most leader behavior can indeed be grouped into one of the two general categories.

Research also refined the LBDQ. It was first reduced to 40 items, and a special version, the Supervisory Behavior Description Questionnaire, was constructed to measure the behavior of lower-level managers. A final revision yielded the LBDQ-Form XII, consisting of 10 items measuring initiation of structure and 10 items measuring consideration. The LBDQ-XII is the most widely used in research and is still readily available to scholars.

Additional research investigated the relationship between the two categories of leader behavior and work outcomes. For example, initiation of structure was found to correlate positively with effective group performance, but the relationship between initiation of structure and group member job satisfaction is less clear. There is some evidence for a positive relationship, but some conflicting evidence suggests a possible negative correlation between initiation of structure and job satisfaction, with a corresponding increase in employee turnover. Conversely, leader consideration was found to correlate positively with follower job satisfaction, but there have been inconsistent findings regarding work group performance. Correlations between leader consideration and performance have ranged from slightly positive to slightly negative.

These inconsistent results led researchers to conclude that the effectiveness of these broad categories of initiation of structure and consideration leader behaviors was likely dependent on contingencies in the leadership situation. Factors such as the type of work task, the structure of the work group and organization, the size of the group, and the level of the leader (e.g., executive versus middle manager versus frontline supervisor) can all influence how initiation of structure and consideration relate to key outcomes such as group performance and satisfaction.

The University Of Michigan Studies

About the same time as the Ohio State studies, researchers at the University of Michigan, including Rensis Likert, Robert L. Kahn, Daniel Katz, Dorwin Cartwright, and others were also focusing on leader behaviors, studying leaders in several large, industrial organizations. They reached a conclusion similar to the one reached by the Ohio State researchers. Leader behavior could indeed be clustered into two broad categories. The Michigan State researchers distinguished between task-oriented (also referred to as production-oriented) and relationship-oriented (also referred to as employee-oriented) leader behaviors.

Task-oriented leader behaviors tend to focus on performing the work group’s job and are similar to initiation of structure behaviors. Task-oriented behaviors include setting clear work standards, directing followers’ activities, instructing them on work procedures, and meeting production goals. Relationship-oriented behaviors focus more on employee well-being and allowing them to participate in decision-making processes, similar to consideration behaviors. The main difference between the Ohio State and the University of Michigan approaches was that the Michigan results suggested that relationship-oriented leader behaviors were more effective overall than task-oriented behaviors, but both types of leader behaviors were displayed by the most highly effective leaders. This makes intuitive sense considering research findings that suggest stronger connections between task-oriented leader behaviors and group performance and relationship-oriented behaviors and follower satisfaction, rather than vice versa. Therefore leaders who are both task and relationship oriented should turn out workers who are both productive and satisfied.

This notion influenced the development of the Leadership Grid, a leadership intervention program designed to foster both task- and relationship-focused leader behaviors. In the Leadership Grid, leaders are taught to be concerned with both production and people. Leaders who demonstrate both categories of leader behavior are seen as team leaders, whereas those who lack both are considered impoverished.

Contributions and Limitations of the Behavioral Approach to Leadership

The main contribution of the behavioral approach to leadership is the explication of two very different forms of leader behavior: those that focus on the work task and those that focus on the follower. The fact that two independent lines of research arrived at the same two general categories suggests that these factors are clear and distinct.

The primary limitation of the behavioral approach was suggested by the research findings. How could such very different forms of leader behavior—focusing on the task, versus focusing on the people—both lead to effective leadership in some cases but not in others? The answer is that elements of the situation interact with styles of leader behavior to determine when the two categories of leader behavior might be effective and when they are not. This led to the development of contingency, or situational models, of leadership that examined the interaction between leader behavior and styles and variables in the situation that facilitate effective leadership. Although the situational theories of leadership go beyond the simple focus on leader behavior, most incorporate the results of the behavioral approach as an important element of their models.


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