The path-goal theory of leadership is a situational theory of leadership and is closely aligned with expectancy theory. The theory holds that the major function of the leader is to enhance subordinates’ instrumentalities, for example, perceived degree of relationship between behavior and outcome; expectancies, such as perceived relationship between effort and behavior; and valences including feelings regarding attractiveness of outcome to increase subordinate force such as motivational effort. Thus, although the theory is a leadership theory, it relies heavily on the work motivation literature.
Path-goal theory was originally contrived as a dyadic theory of leadership concerning relationships between appointed supervisors and subordinates, but it has been expanded to include supervisor and unit relationships. It is generally concerned with how formally appointed supervisors influence the motivation and attitudes of their respective subordinates. It is not concerned with organizational leadership, emergent leadership, leadership strategy, or leadership during times of organizational change; it is concerned with job task leadership. In more concrete terms, path-goal theory proposes that the primary function of a leader is to increase individual employee gains, rewards, and other positive outcomes for work goal attainment by creating a more easily traversed path to goal attainment (i.e., removing obstacles, clarifying goals, increasing job satisfaction). Whether the leader can do so effectively depends heavily on various contextual and situational factors and subordinate characteristics. Thus according to the theory, effective leaders streamline work processes by complementing the characteristics of the environment and subordinates. If such situational affordances are present, leaders can increase subordinate motivation, job attitudes, and performance.
The theory further states that a leader might display four different types of leadership styles, depending on the situation, to maximize employee effectiveness. Some researchers state that more effective leaders simultaneously incorporate all four styles because of the unique effects of each style across varying work tasks and conditions. The four styles are as follows:
- Directive Leadership: Effective leaders should provide specific guidance of performance, set acceptable standards of performance, and provide explicit performance expectations to subordinates. Generally, this approach is best when work is unstructured and complex and the subordinates are inexperienced. Such an approach tends to increase subordinates’ sense of security and control.
- Supportive Leadership: Effective leaders should be friendly to subordinates and demonstrate concern for each subordinate’s well-being by considering each individual’s needs. Generally, this approach is best when work is stressful, boring, and hazardous.
- Participative Leadership: The effective leader consults with subordinates by soliciting ideas and suggestions from subordinates, soliciting participative decision making affecting subordinates, and valuing and considering subordinate suggestions. Generally, this approach is best when the subordinates are experts and their advice is necessary for achieving work goals.
- Achievement-Oriented Leadership: Effective leaders set moderately difficult and challenging goals, continuously emphasize work performance improvements, and expect subordinates to achieve high levels of performance. Generally, this approach is optimal for complex work, but research suggests it is important across all types of work.
Path-goal theory also contends that leadership effects on subordinates are moderated by two general classes of boundary conditions:
- Environmental Characteristics: task structure and demands, role ambiguity, work autonomy, task interdependence, and task scope
- Subordinate Characteristics: cognitive ability, dependence, locus of control, goal orientation, and authoritarianism
Using one of the four styles of leadership just described and considering situational factors, leaders try to influence employee perceptions and motivate them toward goal attainment by clarifying roles, expectancies, satisfaction, and performance standards.
Support for the Path-Goal Theory
Although path-goal theory can be classified as one of the major triumphs for leadership theory, empirical support for many of its mechanisms is lacking. The theoretical crux of the theory was motivation: Motivation was posited as a mediator between leader behavior and subordinate behavior and outcomes such as satisfaction and performance. However, the major pitfall of research on path-goal theory was the lack of integration of motivation into empirical assessments of the theory. Empirical assessments have focused on the direct effects of leader behavior on subordinate behavior and outcomes. This was a major problem in most leadership and work motivation research until the early 1990s. Additionally, empirical studies on path-goal theory were quite restrictive in the variety of leader behaviors examined, the outcomes studied, and the situational and person moderator variables examined. For example, nearly all empirical work on path-goal theory has focused on only two leader behaviors: directive leadership behavior and supportive leadership behavior. These two classes of behavior have generally been examined in light of task structure, task and job performance, and facets of satisfaction (e.g., job, intrinsic, extrinsic satisfaction), and results are mixed. Because of these shortcomings, the original theory has been recast to encourage researchers to reexamine the theory by including more leadership behaviors, motivational influences, and subordinate and work unit outcomes.
Reformulated Path-Goal Theory (1996)
The increasing use of teams and other more structurally and socially defined units in organizations has forced organizational researchers to modify their way of thinking about organizational behavior and consequently the way we conduct organizational research. This change, among others, forced path-goal theory to adapt. In 1996, the theory was recast to be more inclusive of recent theoretical advancement and more readily testable. The reformulated theory concerns work-unit leadership and is not limited to dyadic relationships. This is partly because of the transition of organizations to more team-based structures. The theory is now driven by mechanisms aimed at enhancing empowerment and motivation of all subordinates within a work unit and how such empowerment influences work unit effectiveness via motivation.
When comparing leadership theories, path-goal theory has stood the test of time, even with the lack of empirical support, which is easily attributable to the lack of appropriate empirical investigations. It is a theory that has helped direct the leadership area by expanding theoretical thinking and has given rise to many important leadership theories such as transformational leadership. It has done so by incorporating two important areas of industrial/organizational (I/O) psychology: motivation and power. Overall, and as with many other I/O theories, more research is needed, especially in testing the reformulated theory. The theory is certainly worthy of future attention.
- Bass, B. (1985). Leadership and performance beyond expectations. New York: Free Press. Evans, M. G. (1996). R. J. House’s “A path-goal theory of leader effectiveness.” Leadership Quarterly, 7, 305-309.
- Georgopoulos, B. S., Mahoney, T. M., & Jones, L. W. (1957). A path-goal approach to productivity. Journal of Applied Psychology, 41, 345-353.
- House, R. J. (1996). Path-goal theory of leadership: Lessons, legacy and a reformulated theory. Leadership Quarterly, 7, 323-352.