As a student in a leadership theory course, I can look back and evaluate what theory of leadership the managers I reported to have used and the impact it had on my career development. Path-goal theory is based on the combination of contingency and expectancy theories. Contingency theory is the idea that there is a perfect way to lead overall instead depending on the internal and external factors of the situation determine the form of leadership (Northouse, 2016). Expectancy theory is the idea that followers behaviors result from conscious choices to maximize pleasure and minimize pain. Path-goal proposes that followers are on a path toward a goal, and leaders are there to help followers reach that goal through guidance, coaching, and direction. This requires leaders should be flexible with their leadership style and discover what motivates their followers to maximize productivity (Northouse, 2016; PSU WC, 2019, L. 6). The theory has two variables for determining the appropriate leader behavior for a given situation: follower characteristics and task characteristics.
I worked for Bob several years ago as a mechanical designer, in the beginning, my follower’s characteristics were that of needing to feel part of the team and requiring highly structured tasks. New to the organization, I wanted to know I fit within the group and being new, I wasn’t clear on how to use their engineering software and what the standards were for modeling and drafting. Being a new designer, they start you off with small drafting changes so you can get acclimated to their system and standards; the task characteristics at this point were clear, well-defined tasks that required repetitive behaviors to complete. Bob’s leadership style at this time was directive, bordering on supportive; he clearly outlined what was required to complete tasks and if I had any questions or concerns he would make himself available.
As weeks passed, Bob’s approach changed as my needs and tasks changed. Now that I developed an understanding of how to operate within their engineering software and I had proven my ability to understand the company’s standards of modeling and drafting, I was given more challenging assignments. My characteristics as a follower had shifted to self-perceived levels of task ability, but I was still figuring out my place within the group. My task characteristics were now unstructured and ambiguous, developing a new bracket is a task that can be completed successfully with multiple results, although there may be only one or two designs that are optimized. Bob’s leadership style was now participative, bordering on supportive; I understood what was required to complete my task, but it wasn’t clear what the end result would look like and I could now work independently with little guidance.
Path-goal theory provides leaders with a practical yet theoretical foundation for discerning which leadership style to select. It also builds on a motivational theory as its foundation. However, the path-goal theory is difficult to apply to organizations because it utilizes so many interconnected assumptions (Northouse, 2016).
Northouse, P.G. (2016). Leadership theory and practice (7th ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.
Pennsylvania State University World Campus. (2019). Lesson 6: Contingency & path-goal theories. PSYCH485: Leadership in Work Settings. Retrieved from https://courses.worldcampus.psu.edu/canvas/su19/2195min-5376/content/06_lesson/printlesson.html