The development of management science has brought about a wide range of assumptions concerning leaders by defining their scope, performance and role in a business. However, this is the kind of question that we will never be able to answer unequivocally – too many factors come into play (from the needs of the team to the personalities of the leaders, to the very situation everyone faces).

However, it is wise to recognize these assumptions and draw from them what’s best. Many leadership theories emerged this way and one of them is the so-called contingency leadership theory. Today, we’ll focus on this theory by defining it, showing how to put it into practice, as well as pointing out its pros and cons.

What is contingency leadership theory?

The contingency leadership theory was developed by Austrian psychologist Fred Fiedler in the 1960s. This professor, who studied the personalities of leaders (especially military leaders), concluded that every leader has a unique management style dependent on individual life experiences, which is extremely difficult to change or influence.

However, Fiedler recognized that the natural way of playing the role of a leader will not always fit the situation. Thus, he recognized that there is no one-size-fits-all management style that will work in every case and that a person in such a role in an organization should know exactly what style it is and decide whether it is appropriate (“beneficial”) for the situation.

How to apply contingency leadership theory?

The model created by Fiedler requires comparing two elements – one’s leadership style with the situation at hand. Below we explain how to do this.

  1. Natural management style – 1 key aspect
  2. Fiedler has developed a special scale to help leaders examine what kind of management style characterizes them. Its use involves rating the employee with whom one least likes to work (indicating on a scale of 1 to 8 how much the indicated characteristics – such as friendly, cold, dull, insincere, among others – describe him).

    The researcher found that if a leader positively assesses the least preferred co-worker based on the indicated criteria, the judgment concerns the relationships (giving support, good at conflict management, showing empathy, etc.). When, on the other hand, the leader assesses the least preferred co-worker negatively, the judgment is based on performance (focusing on assigned duties that should be carried out more efficiently and effectively to achieve the expected results). Thus, Fiedler concluded that a leader can be either relationship-oriented or task-oriented.

  3. Favorability of the situation – 2 key aspects
  4. After determining what style one has, it is necessary to evaluate the situation. Fielder pointed out that three key factors affect the effectiveness of management concerning a particular situation (affecting whether the situation is favorable to a particular style):

    • Leader-employee relations – the better they are, the more influence the leader has over his team,
    • The structure of the task – how much individual team members understand the goals and requirements,
    • Positional power – denoting the influence the leader has by the means of a formal position in the hierarchy or assigned authority to exert on his colleagues.
  5. Comparing the style with the situation – to make a decision
  6. By knowing what natural management style one has and what the situation is, one should consider whether he or she will be a “good leader” within that particular issue. Fiedler pointed out that the “task-oriented” style works perfectly in extreme situations – that is, highly favorable and highly unfavorable – while the “relationship-oriented” style fits all cases that are more favorable, or average.

    The bottom line, however, is that according to the contingency leadership theory, if your style as a leader is not suitable for a given situation, you should hand over the management of a given project or team to someone with different characteristics.

Contingent versus situational – Where is the difference?

Contingency leadership theory is very often confused with situational – but it is worth emphasizing the difference between the two. Both styles emphasize the importance of the situation for managing individuals or the entire team.

Still, the situational leadership theory assumes that the leader should adapt their style to the situation and the needs of the employees, taking into account such variable factors as the experience and skill level of the employees, the complexity of the task or the support of the team, among others. The contingency leadership theory, on the other hand, assumes that a leader’s effectiveness depends on how his or her style fits the situation at hand.

 contingency leadership theory

Contingency leadership theory – summary

Applying Fiedler’s contingency leadership theory requires determining one’s style and assessing the favorability of situations, then comparing them with each other and deciding whether to be a leader or delegate this role to someone with a different style. We should notice that this approach strongly encourages managers to practice self-awareness, which is essential when making important decisions that affect the entire organization or team.

It also has the advantage of taking the situation into account, which distinguishes it from many assumptions that concentrate exclusively on the leader. On the other hand, it presupposes rigidity (the immutability of a person), relies on self-assessment, and can discourage people who perform their role adequately (because they feel they are not appropriate for the situation). All in all, the contingency leadership theory is a management lesson for all leaders, yet they shouldn’t take it as an ideal way of doing things.

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Author: Nicole Mankin

HR manager with an excellent ability to build a positive atmosphere and create a valuable environment for employees. She loves to see the potential of talented people and mobilize them to develop.