Northouse (2013) states that studies have not completely validated the prescriptive nature of the situational approach; however, I have used many of its aspects at work. The situational approach involves leaders being able to adapt depending on the needs of subordinates. This approach is illustrated by the Situational Leadership II Model developed by Hersey and Blanchard (Northouse, 2013). The theory states that different leadership styles are required in different situations. Then, depending on the development levels of the subordinates, leaders should use varying levels of directive behaviors and supportive behaviors in order to reach the goals of the group (PSU WC, 2014, L. 5). Directive behaviors are those that emphasize tasks and schedules in order to attain goals. Supportive behaviors are used to help subordinates feel comfortable and reach goals. According to the approach, there are four combinations of leadership styles that the leader can choose from, and four different development levels that determine which style a leader chooses (Northouse, 2013).
Leadership styles are varying combinations of directive behaviors and supportive behaviors. The first style is called directing style (S1). It is characterized by a leader using directive behaviors rather than supportive behaviors. The next style, coaching (S2), is characterized by a leader using high directive and supportive behaviors in order to communicate goals and then help subordinates reach them. The supporting (S3) style is characterized by a leader who uses supportive behaviors rather than supportive behaviors, giving control to subordinates while still being involved to help make them feel comfortable. Lastly, the delegating (S4) style is characterized by a leader who does not use directive or supportive behavior, trusting subordinates to get the job done. The development levels of a group of subordinates determine which style a leader should use.
Development levels are the degrees to which subordinates are competent and committed. A leader needs to know the levels of all his employees in order to determine how to manage each of them individually. When employees are on the first level, D1, they are not competent in the task, but they have confidence that they will complete it. D2 employees are somewhat competent, but not committed. D3 employees are mostly competent, but lack commitment to the task. Lastly, employees that are on the level D4 are very competent and have high commitment to the task. Clearly, employees on each level need different management styles in order to be the most effective and perform the best. For example, an employee who is on the D4 level with high competence and high commitment would only require a delegating style of leadership. The leader would feel comfortable giving this type of employee control over the task without much direction or support.
When I was working as the general manager of a pizza restaurant, I had a staff of about 20 different employees. Each of these employees had a different work ethic, as well as different strengths and weaknesses. Thus, each employee required different levels of direction and support from me. Thinking back on this job experience, I had no idea I was utilizing the situational approach so practically. I did not think in terms of leadership style or development levels; however, I did recognize that certain employees needed tasks specifically delegated to them while others were self-starters. In the same vein, some employees needed more of my time and support than others – some needed me to hold their hand during their shifts in order to make them feel confident and motivated. There was one employee in particular that I utilized a coaching style with on a daily basis. She needed a great deal of direction and tons of support in order to reach the goals of the shift (i.e. stocking and prepping food supplies, and customer service). I would have categorized her as D1, and D2 with some tasks that she was more familiar with. Not only did she need almost constant direction, but she also needed unending verbal support from me. This went on even after her “new employee” phase had ended – she did not seem to be grasping the skills needed to complete tasks. This could entirely be because she did not feel committed to the job, and lacked motivation. It was hard to work with someone like this who required so much of my time and energy. I eventually had to let her go in exchange for someone who started as D1 or D2 and grew to become D3 and D4, so that I could focus my energies on my own tasks, trusting my subordinates to successfully complete theirs.
I can understand why this approach is the most widely recognized leadership theory. One of its major strengths is that it can be used by any level of management in any organization. I think that it is used way more often than people would think because of how intuitive it is (Northouse, 2013). Looking back on all my managerial experience, I needed to be flexible constantly; especially with new employees and promoted employees who were going back and forth between development levels. I bet that most people can name a time when they had to manage two different employees differently. The most universal aspect of this theory is that flexibility is the key to effective management, and I have seen this in action.
Northouse, P. G. (2013). Leadership: Theory and practice (6th ed.). Los Angeles: SAGE.
Pennsylvania State University World Campus (2014). Psych 485 Lesson 5: Style and Situational Approaches. Retrieved from https://courses.worldcampus.psu.edu/fa14/psych485/001/content/05_lesson/printlesson.html