Situational Leadership for Improving Task Performance

Mike Pelfini — 05 September 2023

Situational leadership is a task-based management model designed to improve skills, confidence, and motivation for achieving short term goals.

At its core, situational leadership is a method for leaders to help their teams develop the skills, confidence, and motivation required for specific tasks. The goal is to create skilled, self-directed team members to whom tasks can be delegated with minimal oversight.

Leaders need to be flexible in adapting their approach to each individual and each task at hand. Being task focused, situational leadership may not be the best approach to achieve long-term goals, but it is an excellent way to develop critical skills. Well known practitioners of situational leadership include basketball coach Phil Jackson and Apple co-founder Steve Jobs.

Developed in the 1960s and 1970s by Paul Hersey and Ken Blanchard, who published Management and Organizational Behavior, situational leadership is a flexible, task-based management model. 

The Basics of Situational Leadership

In situational leadership, an effective leader adapts to each team member’s unique capabilities, such as:

  •    Skill at performing a particular task,
  •    Confidence is their ability to perform,
  •   Motivation to perform.

The less skill a team member has in performing a certain task, the more attention by the leader on directing the individual. This is called “task behavior.” As the individual’s skill level develops, the leader turns to developing the individual’s confidence and motivation. This is called “relationship behavior.” 

Situational leadership encompasses four levels (or styles) of leadership, beginning with simple “telling” (i.e., what, where, when, and how) and moving gradually to full delegation. 

Let’s look at each of the four levels.

Level 1 – Telling or Directing

At Level 1, the individual team member lacks both the skills and the confidence to perform the task required. Most of the leader’s effort is spent on “task behavior.” The leader makes the decisions and tells the individual what to do and how to do it. 

Little effort is spent on “relationship behavior” until the basics have been covered. Communication flows from the leader to the individual team member. Level 1 is meant to be a short-term approach to maximize the transfer of practical skills for the task at hand and requires close supervision by the leader.

Level 2 – Selling or Coaching

In Level 2, the individual has some skill in the required task but lacks the confidence or motivation to perform it on their own. Level 2 requires the leader to use high levels of both task behavior and relationship behavior. 

The leader still makes all the important decisions. The communication is still from the leader to the individual, but with an emphasis on why the task is important and how it fits into the bigger picture. The leader is attentive to signs of progress and reinforces them with acknowledgment and praise.

Level 2 is intended to develop understanding and buy-in from the follower. It still requires a high level of effort from the leader but is the steppingstone to autonomy and self-reliance.

Level 3 – Participating or Collaborating

Level 3 marks a break from the leader-centered approaches of Levels 1 and 2. At Level 3, the individual team member has the skills to perform the required task but either isn’t confident in their ability or lacks the motivation to do the task independently. 

The leader’s focus switches from “task behavior” to “relationship behavior.” Rather than teach practical skills, the leader must develop the individual’s confidence. If there are obstacles to be overcome, such as a lack of motivation, the leader helps the individual identify a path forward.

Communication is now two-way, with the leader asking open ended questions and actively seeking the individual’s input. The leader begins to let the individual make important decisions on their own. 

The leader strives to create an environment where the individual feels safe taking risks and learning new things. Level 3 marks the beginning of letting individuals become leaders on their own. 

Level 4 – Delegating or Monitoring

Level 4 is the point at which the leader can let go, and allow the individual to take on the task independently. 

The leader needs to provide little in the way of either “task behavior” or “relationship behavior.  Communication shifts to the individual, who reports to the leader on progress or seeks guidance when needed. 

Level 4 is the end point of situational leadership. Through training and encouragement, the individual has become an autonomous, self-directed leader of his or her own efforts. 

Final Thoughts

Situational leadership requires great flexibility on the part of the leader. The leader must identify and respond appropriately to the different needs of team members. An individual may be highly skilled, confident, and motivated in certain areas but not in others. Each task will dictate the approach used. 

Situational leadership focuses on immediate needs and specific skills. It provides an excellent way to develop critical skills in a workforce, but it may not be the best option when long term planning or uniform policies are needed.  Consider it one tool in a bigger toolbox.

If you would like to learn more about situational leadership, workforce development, or other issues facing your organization, please contact us.

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ForeMeta is a place where business leaders learn about self-leadership and about leading their teams and organizations.  We offer both individualized coaching or group coaching to help you, your teams, and your organization achieve greater success and fulfillment.  Please contact Mike@ForeMeta.com

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