The path-goal theory of leadership is to provide followers a goal and the means to achieve that goal (Northouse, 2016; PSU WC, 2019, L. 6). Today, I will describe in detail the elements of this theory and how these elements influence the choice of leadership behavior.
The path-goal theory, developed in 1971 by Robert House, examines how leaders can use what motivates followers to attain a goal (Penn State University World Campus [PSU WC], 2019, L. 6, p. 11). Motivation in this context can be explained using the expectancy theory of motivation (Vroom, 1964), which has three assumptions regarding followers motivation: if effort is given then the goal can be achieved; if the goal is achieved then there will be a reward; the reward is considered valuable by followers (Hughes, Ginnett, & Curphy, 2012). In this theory, leaders are responsible for outlining a clear path for followers to achieve goals, eliminating obstacles that stand in the way of the target (Northouse, 2016; PSU WC, 2019, L. 6). Path-goal theory, as defined by Northouse (2016), consists of three major components; leadership behaviors, follower characteristics, and task characteristics.
The first component, leadership style describes how the leader can tailor their behaviors to meet the needs of a specific follower and task type (Northouse, 2016; PSU WC, 2019, L. 6). There are four types of leadership styles utilized by this theory: directive, supportive, participative, and achievement-oriented. A directive leader will dictate how a task should be performed, communicating rules and policies, and specifies standards of performance (Northouse, 2016). A supportive leader’s primary concern is the welfare of the follower and providing a friendly work environment(PSU WC, 2019, L. 6). According to the PSU WC lesson commentary (2019), the participative leader calls on followers to share their opinions and envolves followers in the decision making and goal-setting process. An achievement-oriented leader sets high-performance expectations and establishes challenging goals.
To determine which leadership style is appropriate, we will next need to consider the characteristic of the individual followers. Since each follower is unique with different levels of experience, confidence, and abilities, as well as drives and needs, these characteristics will need to be evaluated when choosing a leadership style to encourage the best performance. As Northouse (2016) explains, follower characteristics include the perceived ability of the employee, their locus of control; it is how much control an individual believes they have over their lives. Someone with an external locus of control believes that a majority of what happens to them is a result of factors beyond their control (Northouse, 2016). In comparison, the Northouse (2016) text describes someone with an internal locus of control as someone who believes that a majority of what happens to them is a result of their behavior. The ability that an employee perceives they possess affects the choice of leadership styles. Employees with low perceived ability need more direction as well as supervision since they lack the means to perform their job effectively. So a directive leadership style is likely to be the best choice here. However, an employee with high perceived ability would be unlikely to thrive in such a situation. Instead, employees may feel insulted and unappreciated as the manager, through their choice of leadership style, displays little confidence in their abilities. An employees locus of control should also be considered when selected a leadership style.
The next element of the path-goal theory is task characteristics, as defined on the PSU WC lesson commentary, include task structures, formal authority systems, and the primary workgroup (PSU WC, 2019, L. 6). Task characteristics influence the type of leadership behaviors best suited for the situation (Northouse, 2016). Let us now discuss the application of a leadership style in relation to the three types of tasks; for example, if a work environment has a great deal of task structure, which means tasks are clearly specified, the leader shouldn’t duplicate these efforts by engaging in a directive style. However, jobs that don’t provide a great deal of task structure may create a need for more directive leadership (Northouse, 2016). Now a formal authority system represents the policies, rules, and procedures that provide employees with information on what to do in certain situations. Similar to the task structure, if the formal authority system is clear, then managers wouldn’t need to use a directive leadership style. The last characteristic of the environment is the primary work group; according to Northouse (2016), this represents the support that an employee receives from fellow employees. If employees receive more emotional support from their workgroup, then leaders don’t need to duplicate this in their behavior.
In its simplest form, the path-goal theory works when a leader attends to the needs of followers (PSU WC, 2019, L. 6). Path-goal theory has been shown to produce greater employee satisfaction and performance (Colquitt, LePine & Noe, 2000; Djibo, Desiderio & Price, 2010). However, due to the many variables that need to be considered, data analysis hasn’t been conclusive to show the correlation between the application of this theory to leadership effectiveness. Until enough data has been collected and analyzed path-goal theory can be considered more of a tool used for insight on how to behave in a leadership situation based on a follower’s needs to achieve a goal (Northouse, 2016).
Colquitt, J. A., LePine, J. A., & Noe, R. A. (2000). Toward an integrative theory of training motivation: A meta-analytic path analysis of 20 years of research. Journal of Applied Psychology, 85(5), 678-707. doi:10.1037/0021-9010.85.5.678
Djibo, I. J. A., Desiderio, K. P., & Price, N. M. (2010). Examining the role of perceived leader behavior on temporary employees’ organizational commitment and citizenship behavior. Human Resource Development Quarterly, 21(4), 321-342. doi:10.1002/hrdq.20049
Hughes, R. L., Ginnett, R. C., & Curphy, G. J. (2012). Leadership: Enhancing the lessons of experience. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill Companies.
Northouse, Peter G. (2016) Leadership, Theory and Practice, 7th ed., Sage Publications.
Pennsylvania State University World Campus (2019). PSYCH 485: Leadership in work settings. Retrieved from https://psu.instructure.com/courses/1985970/modules/items/26589506
Vroom, V.H. (1964). Work and motivation. New York: McGraw Hill.