Contingency theory in leadership posits that leaders are consistent in their behavior tendencies with differing situations. It suggests that leaders cannot change their behavior/style and instead recommends finding the right leader for the right situation” (PSU WC L. 6 p. 3). This general idea is that some leaders are more inclined to be successful in certain situations, and that just because they were successful in one situation, does not guarantee success in an entirely different situation. Based on the research of F.E. Fielder, it was concluded that certain leadership styles work best in certain types of situations (Northouse, 2007).
I have experienced this theory in action as someone who frequently participates in the hiring process at my current organization. Recently, there has been a job opening for a leadership position in my sales district. This individual would be a peer of mine. My direct manager asked that I take part in the hiring process for this replacement.
To set the stage, the former manager of this sales team was recently terminated. This was a termination that no one saw coming, and the sales team under this individual felt blindsided. This team was very tight knit, in fact the manager often had them over to his house for barbeques, and took them on “team outings” often. This team was in no way high performing but they were known for being very close with each other. When the manager was terminated, the morale within this group was destroyed. They began to not show up to work, calling off, applying for family leave, results dropped. They were in a bad place.
Considering all of the applicants that we were beginning to interview, we had a wide range of individuals to work with. All of them came with great past results on their current sales team. It was when my DM and I began to eliminate individuals that she made a great observation to me. She would need to be very careful who she put into this role based on the delicate state they were in. If she put someone in there that has a tendency to be more aggressive and tough, it could collapse this team. In effect, what she was doing was applying the contingency theory to her hiring decision. She understood that their leadership style would determine success in the role based around the current situation of the sales team. My DM recognized that “effective leadership is contingent on (depends on) matching a leader’s style to the right setting” (PSU WS L.6 p. 3).
Taking into consideration how Fielder evaluated the general styles applied by leaders, this position would be best suited for a leader that is high on the LPC scale. Leaders that rate high here are motivated by relationships, and focus first on building and maintaining relationships with their followers (PSU WC, L6. P. 5). This is one advantage of the application of this theory; it has predictive power (Northouse, 2007 p. 117). Contingency theory can help us predict the success of a leader in certain situations, and in this case, placing a leader with a high priority of tasks versus relationships could be detrimental to both the leader and team success. In fact, placing a leader in a situation not suited to their style can cause stress and anxiety and result in immature way of that leader coping and likely leads to poor decisions (PSU WC L.6 p.5).
There is truly something to be said about placing the right leader in the right situation. While it may not be realistic to remove a leader from a situation their style does not match with, if you play any part in the hiring process it would be wise to consider the situation in which you are placing this leader and examining if their leadership style is best suited to that unique situation. It is much easier to make smarter hiring decisions that it is to fix a bad hiring decision. In fact, “companies should try to place leaders in optimal situations, in situations that are ideal for their leadership style” (Northouse, 2007 p.117).
Northouse, Peter Guy. Contingency Theory. Leadership: Theory and Practice. Thousand Oaks. SAGE. 2007 1452203407. Pp. 113-126
Pennsylvania State University World Campus. (2019). Lesson 6: Contingency & path-goal theories. PSYCH485: Leadership in Work Settings. Retrieved May 27, 2019, from https://courses.worldcampus.psu.edu/canvas/su19/2195min-5376/content/06_lesson/printlesson.html (Links to an external site.)Links to an external site.