Fred Fiedler, a business and management psychologist, developed a theory of situational leadership in the 1960s, arguing that businesses should pair leaders with duties that suit their natural leadership style. Many decades later, the Fiedler contingency theory of leadership continues to hold sway in workplaces across the business community.
What Is The Contingency Theory of Leadership?
According to the contingency theory of leadership, different leadership styles work best in different situations. Fred Fiedler, an Austrian-born psychologist who taught business and management psychology at the University of Illinois and the University of Washington, is credited with developing the modern leadership contingency theory. Here are some of the theory's components:
Multiple leaders for a wide range of skills: Organizations function best when they have multiple leaders, each with their own specific leadership skills, who can work on tasks that best suit their personal leadership styles, according to the contingency theory of leadership effectiveness.
Tasks and natural leadership style: Because a leader's style can easily become ingrained, the contingency approach suggests that organizations should not force leaders to change their methods whenever a new situation arises. Companies should instead put their leaders in situations that will bring out the best in them.
Traits become ingrained: According to Fiedler's theory, great leaders thrive because of favorable circumstances. In other words, different circumstances can bring out the best or worst in a person's leadership abilities. According to Fiedler's contingency theory, a leader with strong delegation skills should be able to handle situations that require a leader's ability to share power. However, this type of leader is less likely to thrive in a situation where all decisions must be made by a single person. Rather than forcing the leader to change, Fiedler's model suggests that the company assign the work to someone with different types of leadership strengths.
Models of Contingency Theories of Leadership
The contingency theory of leadership has given rise to a number of leadership models that are now used in the study of organizational behavior. These are some examples:
Least preferred co-worker scale: Fred Fiedler created a questionnaire to help him distinguish between two types of leaders: task-oriented leaders and relationship-oriented leaders. He asked organizational leaders to consider their least preferred coworker (LPC)—the person with whom they had the least fun collaborating—and to rank the attributes of this colleague on a scale of one to eight. Fielder classified respondents who rated their least favorite coworker as "high LPC leaders," or relationship-oriented leaders. In other words, they valued interpersonal relationships over other aspects of the workplace. Fielder classified respondents who rated their least preferred colleagues as "low LPC leaders," indicating that they were better suited as task-oriented leaders. These leaders prioritized a specific situation's task structure. They were more motivated by great work than by positive leader-member relationships.
Normative Decision Theory: This leadership theory was developed in 1973 by collaborators Victor Vroom and Phillip Yetton. Arthur Jago joined the Vroom-Yetton team in 1988 and contributed to the theory. The trio defined three kinds of leaders: autocratic leaders, consultative leaders, and group-based leaders. They also created a seven-question rubric for leaders and group members to use when assessing their decision-making relationship.
Path–Goal Theory: This theory, articulated by Robert House, was based on the work of Victor Vroom and Martin G. Evans. House identified four key workplace leadership behaviors: achievement-oriented leader behavior, directive-oriented leader behavior, participative leader behavior, and supportive leader behavior. In contrast to Fiedler's contingency model, the Path-Goal theory proposes that good leaders must adopt different leadership styles to address different types of employee motivations.
Situational leadership theory: Situational leadership was developed by Paul Hersey and Ken Blanchard between 1969 and 1970. The concept was included in the team's 1970 text Management of Organizational Behavior. Leadership styles (or management styles) are classified by Hersey and Blanchard into task behavior (tactics used to complete a task) and relationship behavior. They identify four different leadership styles for both task behavior and relationship behavior, which they label S1 through S4, and range from fairly autocratic leadership (S1) to highly collaborative leadership (S4). They also developed a metric called "maturity level," which refers to the team members managed by a leader. Someone with high competence and commitment to their job may respond differently to leadership than someone with low competence and commitment to their job. Blanchard and Hersey grade these maturity levels from M1 to M4.
Fiedler's work influenced the development of additional leadership theories, such as the cognitive resource theory, the leadership substitutes theory, and the multiple-linkage model. All of these leadership and organizational behavior theories have supporters among contemporary organizational psychologists.
How to Apply the Contingency Theory of Leadership
The key to implementing the contingency theory of leadership is to present leaders with scenarios that call on their natural leadership instincts. Leadership styles, according to Fred Fiedler, become ingrained, and asking managers to lead differently in different situations could set them up for failure. Rather than forcing a square peg into a round hole, the contingency theory of leadership advocates empowering leaders by embracing their core competencies and keeping them out of situations that conflict with their leadership style.
In practice, a leader with a low LPC score (someone who rates their least preferred coworker negatively) should be assigned task-oriented projects in which high-quality work takes precedence over leader-member relations. A leader with a high LPC score (someone who gives relatively high marks to their least-preferred coworker) thrives in a relationship-oriented project, where camaraderie and trust among team members matter more than actual work outputs. Organizations can get the most out of their leaders by embracing these natural competencies.