During this week’s lesson, I felt that I had a better understanding of and related to contingency theory more as compared to path-goal theory. Because of this, I really wanted to use this week’s blog as an opportunity to explore and gain a better understanding of path-goal theory and examine its’ prevalence in leaders depicted in popular media. According to Northouse, path-goal theory focuses on changing leadership styles in order to adapt to the constraints presented by the followers. The main goal of this approach is “to enhance follower performance and follower satisfaction by focusing on follower motivation (Northouse, 2016, p. 115). In other words, the approach is very follower-focused. Whereas previous theories such as the trait and skill approaches have asked what behaviors make a leader effective, path-goal approach focuses on the question of what behaviors can leaders participate in to increase the effectiveness of the followers.
There are four main functions of leaders according to path-goal theory. These include defining goals for followers, clarifying the path to reaching these goals, removing obstacles that may prevent the accomplishment of these goals, and providing support to followers (Northouse, 2016, p.116). Furthermore, there are four main leadership styles defined by path-goal theory: directive, supportive, participative, and achievement-oriented (Northouse, 2016, p.117-118). While each leadership style is different, they are not mutually exclusive. In fact, it is important for effective leaders to incorporate all four leadership styles at some point in time in order to most effectively motivate followers (Northouse, 2016, p.118). Below is a table describing the characteristics of each type of leadership with information taken from the Northouse textbook (2016).
Finally, path goal theory is also influenced by follower and task characteristics. Follower characteristics refer to how satisfactory followers deem leaders behavior according to their needs, desires, and opinions (Northouse, 2016, p.119). The theory states that followers will find one leadership style more satisfactory/desirable than another in reference to their own needs (Northouse, 2016, p.119). For example, if a follower possesses a need for structure and a clearly defined set of tasks, they would most likely find the directive leadership style as most desirable. If a leader were to respond instead with a supportive approach, the follower may leave feeling unsatisfied, regardless of how positive the personal interaction was. Task characteristics include the follower’s task, the formal authority system, and the primary work group of followers (Northouse, 2016, p.119). When any of these three task characteristics are lacking, leadership is most effective. All of these factors (leadership style, follower characteristics, and task characteristics all interact to motivate follower behavior (hopefully) towards goal productivity (Northouse, 2016, p.117).
So let’s look at some effective (and not-so-effective) examples in popular media. One of the more popular television shows among the Netflix generation is The Office. This show documents the everyday shenanigans that occur at a paper-supply company that is run by the quirky and, often times, ineffective supervisor Michael. Often times, employees directly express to Michael what they need in terms of support and resources to effectively do their job. However, in a fun twist, Michael almost never listens to them. Instead he does what he perceives to be best in order to try and win over his employees – which hardly ever works. The employees and audience eventually grow to love Michael and all of his charms, however, he is an extremely ineffective leader according to path-goal theory. Michael hardly ever provides his employees with clear, definitive (work-related) goals, he almost never provides appropriate support and empowerment to his employees, he makes all of the decisions without any input unless it benefits him to have someone else make the decision for him, and he is only achievement-focused when it comes to accomplishing the tasks that he wants, such as being the christmas party Santa. Overall, he demonstrates poor leadership abilities that do not accomplish any of the four functions set forth by the path-goal theory of leadership.
A different example of a more effective leader in popular media is that of Aaron Hotchner from the television show Criminal Minds. Hotchner leads a team of FBI agents who use behavioral analysis to hunt criminals. The team is quite eclectic, and at times, requires different leadership behaviors. When the team is lacking clear goals or direction, Hotchner makes the hard and final decisions. He describes what each member should be doing to achieve some goal that will aid in the team’s ultimate goal of catching a criminal. When members are struggling emotionally with things as addiction, insecurities, and grief, Hotchner is able to provide support and a comforting, approachable presence to help his team. Hotchner is constantly adapting his leadership behaviors in order to best fit the constraints of his subordinates emotional and physical capabilities as well as the resources provided by the situation. In other words, he adopts appropriate leadership behaviors in response to specific follower and task characteristics in order to motivate his subordinates as effectively as possible to achieving their goal.
While we have discussed a few different leadership theories so far, the path-goal approach is the one that I initially related to the least. However, after further examination of the theory and gaining a better understanding of the definitions and mechanisms, it is easy to see how this theory can be applied to leaders in a variety of different situations. Ultimately, the most important take-away for this approach is that the most effective leaders tailor their behaviors to accommodate the needs of the followers.
Northouse, Peter G. (2016). Leadership: Theory and Practice (7th ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.