Situational leadership made a major advance in leadership theory: it helped us move from “one size fits all” to four major leadership approaches, each suited to a different situation.
The basic idea is simple and compelling: different situations call for different leadership styles. For example, a beginner needs more coaching support than an expert. This seems completely obvious to us now.
Situational leadership continues to be extremely valuable for supervision, coaching, empowering, and delegating. This blog should give you a few good ideas even if you are not using situational leadership.
Classic situational leadership, however, reduces all leadership situations to four artificial, pre-set, neat & tidy boxes, thus repeating the mistake it was designed to correct. By forcing the round pegs of human experience into four square holes, this oversimplification greatly limits the potential applications and benefits of situational leadership.
After offering a brief review of how situational leadership works, I am going to show you how to move beyond its major shortcoming. A few tiny adjustments can make situational leadership even more flexible and useful.
How it works:
The basic principle of situational leadership is quite simple: give employees the direction and support they need, based on the level of their skill and motivation, with respect to the task at hand.
- “Direction” refers to technical coaching support (what to do and how to do it).
- “Support” refers to building confidence and motivation (encouragement).
Leaders need to be flexible and adaptive because different situations require different leadership styles.
“To a hammer, every problem looks like a nail” (Abraham Maslow). Don’t be a hammer. Expand your range and flexibility as a leader, and deploy your skills appropriately for the situation at hand.
In classic situational leadership, there are four basic situations (four quadrants), each requiring a different leadership approach. The overarching goal is to move employees through the four quadrants, from micro-managing (hand-holding) to delegation (empowerment).
Two key objectives:
Most people focus only on the supervisory aspect of situational leadership. You will generate far better results as a leader if you also keep a second objective in mind. Here are the two key objectives:
- Appropriate supervision: give the direction & support the employee needs relative to their skills, motivation, and the situation at hand.
- Appropriate development: use each level to prepare the employee for the next level. If the employee is already at level 4 (full delegation), then you can be preparing the employee for more complex challenges and responsibility.
In other words, we not only choose the appropriate level of direction and support based on what the employee is ready for now. We also continually challenge ourselves (as leaders) to up the level of responsibility and delegation.
People learn from doing, so bigger challenges lead to greater learning—as long as you are giving them the coaching support they need along the way.
Without this second objective (development), it is very easy to get stuck, become complacent, and typecast your employees. We need this second objective to keep the model dynamic; to continually drive progress and employee development.
Theory versus the real world:
In many versions of Situational Leadership, it is assumed that employees are “unwilling” (not motivated) and/or “insecure” (not confident) in the first and third quadrants. This is the point at which the classic model becomes rigid and dogmatic.
It is unrealistic to assume that there are only four situations (four quadrants). This assumption greatly limits the power and range of situational leadership.
Some people are motivated and confident all the way through; some suffer a crisis of confidence when you first delegate to them; and others are recklessly overconfident. And external situations (e.g., new competitors, new colleagues, customer feedback, etc.) can throw even experienced employees into a tail spin.
In other words, someone with low competence is not always highly motivated—they might be motivated or unmotivated, excited or discouraged, confident or nervous…or recklessly over-confident. As competence improves, confidence usually icreases as well—but not necessarily.
Even skill development is not perfectly linear. While it is true that skills tend to move upward (we develop more expertise over time—especially with respect to specific tasks), learning is lumpy/bumpy, and many tasks are complicated, i.e., we can be experts at one aspect but still beginners at another.
Outside the boxes:
Its time to break out of the situational leadership boxes.
My advice here is very simple: separate skills from motivation. That is, consider skills and motivation separately (as two separate issues) when diagnosing what kind of leadership is requried in any particular situation.
This will enable you to use your direction and support tactics (your leadership practices) independently of each other. You can now use them when you need them—rather than having to rely on some dogmatic, pre-set, 4×4 quadrant.
What you end up with is more flexibility and a far more common sense guide to action.
If someone is discouraged, offer encouragement—regardless of their level of competence. If someone is unmotivated (or loses their motivation), motivate them, etc. But still offer the technical direction they need relative to their skills with respect to the task at hand.
Here are a few great examples. It’s amazing how obvious they seem once we start thinking outside the situational leadership boxes.
- If an employee is unskilled: train and coach them; build their skills.
- If an employee is highly skilled: raise the bar, give them new challenges; delegate.
- If an employee lacks confidence: bolster their confidence.
- If an employee is overconfident: review the plan of action, risks, and stakes.
- If an employee is new to the team or task: keep an eye on progress; build trust.
- If the situation is highly strategic or sensitive: use close supervision (from planning and coaching support to follow up); offer additional resources as needed.
There are times, of course, when the situation is so sensitive, that a supervisor has to take over the task. This happens. But if you run your shop like that every day, no one is going to learn how to do anything for themselves.
You have to continually challenge yourself to stretch employees, teach them new things, expose them to more difficult challenges…and proactively help them learn from their experiences, successes, and mistakes.
In any case (any quadrant or variation thereof), it is always important for leaders to lead well, e.g.,
- Have a clear plan of action with clear roles, goals, metrics, and timelines.
- Monitor success, i.e., pay attention to the effectiveness of your leadership style.
- Debrief to help people stay on track and learn from experience.
- Enhance participation to enhance engagement and build skills.
Advanture’s Unique Program:
Advanture’s Situational Leadership 2.0 takes leaders beyond the classic model. We detach employee needs and leadership practices from the classic four-box model. This opens the door to a far more flexible and nuanced approached to leadership, without adding complexity. In fact, we make it even easier for leaders to apply the most powerful lessons of situational leadership. And we do this in a way that makes the practice of situational leadership more effective and flexible; more responsive to the reality of each situation.
In addition to teaching managers how to recognize different leadership situations, we also teach them how to lead in those various situations: how to guide, direct, support, facilitate, coach, engage, and delegate. We offer a comprehensive and robust set of leadership practices and tools that help leaders do a better job of both supervising and developing employees.
Situational leadership is a core leadership practice—but only practice. Advanture offers world class leadership development programs in five master leadership practices: (i) employee engagement and retention; (ii) coaching and managing talent; (iii) leading change; (iv) team leadership, facilitative leadership, collaborative practice; and (v) aligning culture with strategy—managing culture for competitive advantage.
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