Have you ever had a leader that motivated you to achieve your organizational, educational, or personal goals? Chances are that this leader leveraged a theory of leadership called the Path-Goal Theory. In the most simplistic terms, path-goal theory is about “how leaders motivate their followers to accomplish goals” (Penn State University World Campus [PSU WC], 2016, L. 6, p. 11). Northouse (2016) posits that this theory of leadership is concerned with enhancing “follower performance and follower satisfaction by focusing on follower motivation,” (p. 115). Similar to the situational approach, which I have previously given an overview, this leadership theory suggests that leaders need to tailor their style to their followers. In the situational approach, the leader tailors their approach to the follower’s development levels; however, in the path-goal approach, the leader tailors their approach to the motivational needs of their followers (Northouse, 2016). In this blog, I will discuss 1) details of the path-goal theory, 2) different types of leader behaviors, 3) the role the followers and situation play, and 4) how one could leverage this theory in a real-world setting.
House and Mitchell (1974) posit that leaders generate follower motivation by increasing both the type and number of rewards the followers can attain in the workplace (as cited in Northouse, 2016). Moreover, leaders help follower motivation by making the path-goal clear, removing obstacles/roadblocks that followers might encounter in the process of goal attainment, coaching/providing direction to keep the followers on track, and increasing work satisfaction (Northouse, 2016). Vroom (1964) states that path-goal theory borrows from the motivation perspective of the expectancy theory (as cited in Northouse, 2016). The expectancy theory of motivation states that follower motivation is dependent on 1) believing that they can do the work, 2) their efforts will lead to goal attainment, and that 3) they will earn a reward they actually value (Northouse, 2016). According to Hughes, Ginnett, and Curphy (2012) the leader’s role is to increase the follower’s belief that their effort will lead to accomplishing a goal, which in turn will lead to attaining the rewards (as cited in PSU WC, 2016, L. 6). Therefore, the leader’s focus should be on eliciting the followers’ goals and expected rewards, increasing the followers’ sense of self-efficacy, and helping the followers see the connection between their efforts and attaining their desired rewards (Northouse, 2016; PSU WC, 2016, L. 6). Additionally, it is important to note that in pursuit of goals, followers will likely face some challenges; it is the leader’s job to remove these challenges and help the followers meet their goals (PSU WC, 2016, L. 6).
Let’s break down the path-goal theory into its components. First, I will start by discussing the leader’s behaviors. According to House and Mitchell, (1974, p. 83), this approach has focused on “directive, supportive, participative, and achievement-oriented leadership behaviors” (as cited in Northouse, 2016, p. 117). The description of each of these behaviors is listed below:
This behavior is characterized as leaders who define expected levels of performance and the processes and procedures the followers should follow in attaining the goals (Northouse, 2016). In other words, directive leadership tells followers what is needed of them, how they should perform their duties, and the deadline for completing their tasks (PSU WC, 2016, L. 6).
This behavior is characterized as leaders who are friendly/approachable, attend to the needs and wellbeing of their followers, and attempt to make the followers’ work more pleasant (Northouse, 2016). Supportive leadership is respectful and treats followers as equals (PSU WC, 2016, L. 6).
This behavior is characterized as leaders who use a collaborative style in decision-making (Northouse, 2016). Participative leadership solicits followers’ opinions/ideas in decision-making and incorporates their suggestions (Northouse, 2016; PSU WC, 2016, L. 6).
This behavior is characterized as leaders who push their followers to reach for excellence in work performance (Northouse, 2016). Achievement-Oriented leadership “seeks continuous improvement” (Northouse, 2016, p. 118) and believes that high levels of followers’ efforts will lead to goal attainment (PSU WC, 2016, L. 6).
Unlike the trait theory, where the leadership style is considered inflexible (e.g., a leader who might be fixed to using a participative leadership style; PSU WC, 2016, L. 6), House and Mitchell (1974) suggest that leaders might use any/all of these behaviors depending on the followers and the situations (as cited in Northouse, 2016).
Next, let’s discuss the follower characteristics of the path-goal theory. Follower characteristics refers to how followers interpret the leader’s behavior in the work context (Northouse, 2016). According to Northouse (2016), the follower characteristics researched are “followers’ needs for affiliation, preferences for structure, desires for control, and self-perceived level of task ability,” (pp. 118-119). These characteristics determine whether followers find their leaders as satisfying or as way to reach future satisfaction (Northouse, 2016). The description of each of these characteristics is listed below:
Needs for Affiliation
Followers with a strong need for affiliation prefer leaders who are friendly and supportive. Supportive leadership provides these followers with work satisfaction (Northouse, 2016).
Preferences for Structure
Followers “who are dogmatic and authoritarian” and who work in uncertain situations prefer leaders who provide direction, structure, and task clarity (Northouse, 2016, p. 119). Directive leadership provides these followers with task clarity and helps make goal-attainment less ambiguous (Northouse, 2016).
Desires for Control
This type of follower characteristic refers to the followers’ personality of having either an internal or external locus of control. Internal locus of control refers to the belief that one is “in charge of the events that occur in their life,” whereas external locus of control refers to the belief that external circumstances determine one’s life events (Northouse, 2016, p. 119). Followers with an internal locus for control prefer participative leadership, because they like to feel in charge of decision making, while followers with an external locus of control prefer directive leadership because it aligns with their perspective on how the world operates (Northouse, 2016).
Self-Perceived Level of Task Ability
According to Northouse (2016), the follower’s self-perception of task ability negatively correlates with directive leadership. This intuitively makes sense, because as the follower becomes empowered to attain a task, the need for a controlling leader is diminished (Northouse, 2016).
Finally, let’s discuss the follower characteristics of the path-goal theory. According to Northouse (2016), “task characteristics include the design of the follower’s task, the formal authority system of the organization, and the primary work group of followers” (p. 119). Together, these characteristics can affect the followers’ motivation (Northouse, 2016). If the situation involves structured tasks, strong group policies/procedures, and a formal authority system, followers will have an easier time following the established path to goal-attainment and will not see a need for a supportive leader; on the other hand, if the tasks are unclear/ambiguous, weak group norms, or lacking a formal authority system, followers will need leaders who can provide the necessary support to keep them on track (Northouse, 2016).
Now that I have laid the foundation for path-goal theory, let’s discuss how it works. As you might recall, path-goal theory advises that leaders use the appropriate style depending on the followers and the situation. According to the PSU WC (2016, L. 6), directive leadership is great for environments where the tasks are unclear/ambiguous, and where the processes and procedures are not clearly defined. On the other hand, supportive leadership is great for environments where the tasks are structured, repetitive, and unsatisfying (Northouse, 2016; PSU WC, 2016, L. 6). Participative leadership is great for environments where the tasks are ambiguous and where the followers have an internal locus of control (PSU WC, 2016, L. 6). Finally, achievement-oriented leadership is great for environments where the tasks are ambiguous (Northouse, 2016; PSU WC, 2016, L. 6). Take a look at the table below for a summary of the how the path-goal theory works.
Source: How Path Goal Theory Works in the Short Form (PSU WC, 2016, L. 6, p. 15)
Did you notice that certain situations require more than one style of leadership? Unfortunately, this is one of the weaknesses of this theory. On the positive side, this theory helps us see how leaders affect follower behaviors in goal-attainment (PSU WC, 2016, L. 6).
Now that I have laid out the essential elements of this theory, let’s see how we can use it in the real world. Frank, the director of marketing for a career development firm is not hitting his lead-generation targets. Upon closer inspection, his manager notes that Frank is not putting in the appropriate amount of effort into his work; in other words, Frank does not seem motivated to do this job. How can the path-goal theory work to increase Frank’s motivation?
As we discussed above, Frank’s motivation depends on believing that he can do his work, that his efforts will lead to achieving his lead-generation targets, and that hitting his targets will earn him a reward he actually values. In an effort to increase Frank’s motivation, his manager might need to display behavioral flexibility in his leader style; in other words, Frank’s manager will need to tailor his leadership approach to meet Frank’s motivational needs. First, the manager needs to assess the workplace rewards available to Frank. What rewards are available if Frank reaches his targets? More importantly, does Frank value those rewards? Second, is Frank facing any obstacles or roadblocks? If so, how can Frank’s manager remove those? Third, does Frank have a high need for affiliation? And, what about the task characteristics? Are they repetitive and unchallenging? If so, his manager might need to use a supportive leadership style. Of course, there are many more questions we can to examine Frank’s situation. The usefulness of this theory is that it provides us with the framework to examine Frank’s issues.
In summary, path-goal theory promotes the idea that leaders can enhance the organization’s output by affecting followers’ motivation. In examining follower motivation, leaders must examine the follower and task characteristics. Is the follower’s locus of control internal or external? Does the follower have a strong need for affiliation or a strong need for control? Is the task ambiguous or clear? Does the environment have clearly defined norms or not? By addressing these questions, leaders can better understand their followers’ motivation needs and adjust their style accordingly.
What do you think of this theory? Have you ever used this theory at work or at school? Have you been the recipient of this theory? I would be interested in hearing your story.
Northouse, P. G. (2016). Leadership theory and practice (7th ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.
Pennsylvania State University World Campus. (2016). PSYCH 485 Lesson 6: Contingency and path theories. Retrieved June 28, 2016 from https://courses.worldcampus.psu.edu/su16/psych485/001/content/06_lesson/01_page.html.