Contingency Model of Leadership Definition
The contingency model of leadership is a model of leadership effectiveness that predicts group performance will be based on the interplay between leadership style and various situational factors. Because different leadership styles work more effectively in certain situations than in others, the model predicts optimal group performance will result when a leadership style accords with the situational contexts it is best suited to handle.
Four Elements of the Contingency Model of Leadership
Depending on the situation and their personalities, leaders use different tactics to plan, coordinate, and oversee group activities. Certain personalities will better fit certain contexts than others, and conversely, certain contexts will better accommodate certain personalities. One could imagine the mismatch of a drill sergeant berating a symphony orchestra or an orchestra conductor silently coordinating military operations with a baton. This basic premise of the interplay between person and situation underlies the logic of the contingency model of leadership.
There are four elements of the model. The first concerns the personality of the leader. Broadly, a leader may be classified as either task-oriented or as relationship-oriented. Task-oriented leaders care primarily about the bottom line (i.e., whether the job gets done), whereas relationship-oriented leaders care primarily about establishing pleasant interpersonal relationships with coworkers. One commonly used approach for assessing leadership orientation asks the leader to recall and identify the person with whom he or she has had the most trouble working. This person may or may not be the most disliked person, but he or she must be the person with whom it is (or has been) particularly difficult to accomplish various work-related tasks. Next, the leader rates this person on various dimensions, such as pleasant-unpleasant, cooperative-uncooperative, and efficient-inefficient. Some leaders tend to rate this coworker negatively across all possible dimensions, whereas others tend to find in this coworker at least some positive qualities. These tendencies signify different leadership orientations: Across the board, negative evaluations indicate a more task-oriented leadership style, whereas a blend of positive and negative ratings indicates a more relationship-oriented leadership style. This measure, called the least preferred coworker (LPC) scale, has inspired a wealth of research but to this day remains controversial.
The other three elements of the model concern a leader’s situational control. Broadly, situational control refers to the leader’s sense of influence and control over the situation. Each element of the model corresponds to a different aspect of situational control and will be dealt with in order of importance. The first element, leader-member relations, refers to how cohesive the group is and how much the group supports the leader. Without good leader-member relations, all group energy becomes bound up in controlling the group rather than on work productivity. Furthermore, a respected leader better influences the group than a leader with poor relationships with his or her coworkers. The second element, task structure, refers to the clarity of task goals. Leaders usually prefer clearly defined tasks with clearly defined requirements (i.e., structured tasks) because they can then more effectively guide their coworkers. The third element, position power, refers to the official authority accorded to the leader by the group or by the leader’s supervisor. A leader with high power has the capacity to reward and punish workers, a desired commodity for most leaders. Overall, good leader-member relations, a highly structured task, and high position power represent the most positive situation for a leader; conversely, poor leader-member relations, a highly unstructured task, and low position power represent the least favorable situation.
Predictions of the Contingency Model of Leadership
Overall, the contingency model of leadership stipulates that group performance cannot be predicted by either the characteristics of the leader alone or by the characteristics of the situation alone; only their interaction can adequately predict group performance. More specifically, the model makes clear predictions about which leadership styles are most effective under which situations. The model predicts task-oriented leaders are most effective under either highly favorable or highly unfavorable situations; relationship-oriented leaders, on the other hand, are most effective in reasonably favorable situations. Task-oriented leaders succeed under highly unfavorable situations because they are willing to forego congenial relationships with coworkers to accomplish a goal. They also succeed in highly favorable conditions because they are able to relax, assured the team will most likely accomplish the desired goal. Relationship-oriented leaders, however, flourish in conditions of moderate favorability. In situations of moderate favorability, both positive and negative events will likely occur. With positive and negative events essentially balanced, interpersonal problems become the prominent source of reduced productivity. The relationship-oriented leader can sooth these relational problems, allowing team members to refocus on the task at hand. On the extremes of favorability, the relationship-oriented leader struggles. The relationship-oriented leader has difficulty sacrificing interpersonal relationships for a task goal (extremely unfavorable situation), and (interestingly) becomes antsy and overbearing when things are going too well (extremely favorable situation).
Evidence for Contingency Model of Leadership
The criteria for determining the predictive value of the contingency model of leadership has overwhelmingly focused on work group performance or productivity. Whenever possible, tests of the model have employed objective outcome measures that can be unambiguously quantified, such as win-loss records for sports teams or tons of steel produced per worker. Outcome measures have always been assessed by individuals unconnected to the work group to avoid bias in measurement. A typical study might manipulate various elements of the model and evaluate the extent to which the data agree with what the model would predict. For example, researchers have created experimental conditions where the task is either structured or unstructured or where the leader has either high power or low power. The researchers can then examine the group’s productivity and see which leaders perform better in which situations. Most of these studies come from the 1970s and early 1980s; not much research about the model has been done recently.
Although exceptions exist, data collected by various researchers generally tend to support the contingency model of leadership. A statistical technique known as meta-analysis, which allows researchers to combine results from previous studies, has helped settle some of these debates. However, critics continue to question the model’s merit, mostly with respect to how some of the variables are measured and interpreted. The LPC scale has been by far the most heavily scrutinized, perhaps for good reason. At face value, it is not unequivocally clear that the LPC scale in fact measures leadership orientation; it might instead measure something else, such as the extent to which one feels psychological distance toward one’s disliked coworkers. Indeed, these measurement issues cannot be taken lightly. Researchers must always be painstakingly clear about what they are measuring in their experiments; otherwise, drawing sound conclusions from their data becomes impossible.
Contingency Model of Leadership Implications
The contingency model of leadership was an important breakthrough in predicting group performance. It is theoretically compelling (incorporating both the person and the situation), clearly testable, and widely applicable. (In fact, training programs based on the model have been implemented in business.) Most importantly, in most cases the model appears to work. Although researchers have not published much about the model recently, proponents still argue there are theoretical issues that need to be clarified and resolved. If these gaps in the model are adequately addressed, the model might still uncover novel, interesting phenomena about group behavior and performance previously unknown.
- Chemers, M. M., & Skrzypek, G. J. (1972). Experimental test of the contingency model of leadership effectiveness. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 24, 172-177.
- Strube, M. J., & Garcia, J. E. (1981). A meta-analytic investigation of Fiedler’s contingency model of leadership effectiveness. Psychological Bulletin, 90, 307-321.