Fiedler’s Contingency Theory: Why leadership isn’t uniform

Team Asana contributor imageTeam AsanaNovember 19th, 202110 min read
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Summary

Fiedler’s Contingency Theory states that, for a leader to be effective, their leadership style must fit the situation. Using this model, you’ll identify your own leadership style, assess the situation that requires leadership, and determine whether you’re the right leader. In this piece, we further break down the theory, teach you how to apply it to become a better leader, and provide examples of the theory in action.

When you imagine the qualities of a leader, what comes to mind? Perhaps you think of a strong, determined individual with a blazer and a checklist. Maybe you think of a master of interpersonal relationships who empowers a team to collaborate well. According to Fiedler’s Contingency Theory, both of these people can be great leaders, because a leader’s effectiveness depends on the harmony between their leadership style and the situation at hand.

Fiedler argues that it’s difficult to change how you lead, so understanding your leadership style is essential for serving your team. To help you better comprehend your style of leadership and make the best decisions for your company, we break down Fiedler’s model.

What is Fiedler’s Contingency Theory?

Fiedler’s Contingency Theory, also known as Fiedler’s Contingency Model or Fiedler’s Theory of Leadership, states that there is not one best style of leadership. Rather, the most effective leadership style for any given situation is one that aligns with the situation at hand.

The theory was developed in the 1960s by Austrian psychologist, Professor Fred Fiedler. He studied leaders’ personalities and characteristics and came to the conclusion that leadership style, since it is formed through one’s life experiences, is incredibly difficult, if not impossible, to change.

For this reason, Fiedler believed the right leader must be chosen for each job based on their skill set and the requirements of the situation. In order to best match leaders with situations, each leader must first understand their natural leadership style. Then, they need to evaluate whether their leadership style is right for the situation. To put it simply, Fiedler determined that a leaders’ ability to succeed rests on two factors:

  • Natural leadership style

  • Situational favorableness

What are the elements of Fiedler’s Contingency Model?

As you’ve probably realized, Fiedler’s Contingency Theory is pretty simple. All it requires is a comparison of one’s leadership style with the demands of the situation. Let’s take a closer look at how the model breaks down these factors.

Leadership style

To help you determine your leadership style, Fiedler developed the Least Preferred Coworker (LPC) scale. The scale asks you to describe the coworker you least prefer to work with. 

The more positively you rate your least preferred coworker on a variety of different criteria, the more relationship-oriented you are. The less favorably you rate them on the same criteria, the more task-oriented you are.

Essentially:

  • If you’re a high LPC leader, you’re a relationship-oriented leader.

  • If you’re a low LPC leader, you’re a task-oriented leader.

Relationship-oriented leaders are great at building relationships, facilitating team synergy, and managing interpersonal conflict. Task-oriented leaders tend to be skilled at organizing projects and teams to accomplish tasks efficiently and effectively.

Leadership syles according to Fiedler's Contingency Theory

The rationale behind these two leadership styles is pretty straightforward:

  • Rating your least preferred coworker favorably means that you see the best in people—even those who you wouldn’t necessarily choose to work with.

  • Rating your least preferred coworker unfavorably suggests that you struggle to see their contributions, since you value efficiency and effectiveness over other attributes.

There isn’t one “right” way to lead. While task-orientation may be preferable to the organization at large, teammates themselves tend to prefer relationship-orientation. In fact, 79% of people who quit their jobs cite lack of appreciation as a primary reason for leaving.

Situational favorableness

Next, Fiedler’s model requires you to assess the situation at hand. Situational contingency theory, also known as situational leadership, states that every situation that requires leadership is different and requires a specific type of leader. The favorability of a situation depends on how much influence and power you have as a leader.

Situational favorableness is determined by three variables:

  • Leader-member relations

  • Task structure

  • Position power

Leader-member relations are all about trust. Does your team trust you as a leader? The more they do, the higher your degree of leader-member relations and the more favorable the situation is.

Task structure refers to the clarity of the tasks required to complete a project. Higher task structure results in a more favorable situation. The more clear-cut and precise tasks are, the higher the situation’s task structure—whereas the vaguer they are, the lower the situation’s task structure.

Organize tasks with Asana

Finally, position power refers to the authority you have over your team as a leader. If you can reward them, punish them, or tell them what to do, your position power is high. As you can imagine, higher position power makes the situation more favorable.

How to apply Fiedler’s Contingency Model to be a better leader

Now that we’ve established a basic understanding of Fiedler’s Contingency Theory, you can determine what type of leader you are and start applying the model.

The following section will walk you through how to determine your natural leadership style and understand the situation at hand. According to Fiedler, only then can you be an effective leader and make the best decision in each situation—lead or delegate.

Step 1: Understand your leadership style

In order to identify your natural leadership style, we return to the LPC scale. It’s time to bring to mind the person you least prefer working with. Copy the chart below into a separate document and use it to mark the score that best fits how you’d describe your least preferred coworker.

Remember, understanding your leadership style is highly beneficial to you and your team. While you may want to be generous with your answers, it’s important to respond honestly for the most accurate understanding of your leadership style.

Least preferred coworker (LPC) scale

Negative                          Score                    Positive

Unpleasant            1   2   3   4   5   6   7   8       Pleasant

Rejecting                1   2   3   4   5   6   7   8       Accepting

Tense                       1   2   3   4   5   6   7   8       Relaxed

Cold                         1   2   3   4   5   6   7   8       Warm

Boring                     1   2   3   4   5   6   7   8       Interesting

Backbiting             1   2   3   4   5   6   7   8       Loyal

Uncooperative      1   2   3   4   5   6   7   8       Cooperative

Hostile                     1   2   3   4   5   6   7   8       Supportive

Guarded                 1   2   3   4   5   6   7   8       Open

Insincere                 1   2   3   4   5   6   7   8       Sincere

Unkind                    1   2   3   4   5   6   7   8       Kind

Inconsiderate        1   2   3   4   5   6   7   8       Considerate

Untrustworthy      1   2   3   4   5   6   7   8       Trustworthy

Gloomy                   1   2   3   4   5   6   7   8       Cheerful

Quarrelsome         1   2   3   4   5   6   7   8       Harmonious

Determining your LPC score

Now that you’ve filled out the test, add up every number you marked to calculate your LPC score. Interpret your score as follows:

  • If you scored 73 and above (a high LPC score), you are a relationship-oriented leader.

  • If you scored 54 and below (a low LPC score), you are a task-oriented leader.

  • If you scored between 55 and 72, you have the qualities of both a relationship-oriented and a task-oriented leader. Deciding which style fits you better will take further exploration through other leadership theories.

Step 2: Assess the situation

In order to assess situational favorableness to determine leadership effectiveness in a specific environment, Fiedler poses three questions.

On a scale of one to 10, with 10 representing the highest value…

  • Are leader-member relations good and trustworthy (10) or poor and untrustworthy (1)? 

  • Are the tasks at hand clear and structured (10) or confusing and unstructured (1)?

  • Is your authority and influence over your team strong (10) or weak (1)?

Don’t solely rely on your own judgment of the situation. Ask group members to anonymously answer these same questions and calculate the average of all answers to best understand the situation’s favorableness. Seeking your team’s insight is a great way to empower them and improve team morale.

Step 3: Decide whether you’re the leader for the job

Now that you have a grasp on your leadership style and the favorableness of the situation, you can determine whether you’re the right leader for the situation. 

  • If you’re a task-oriented leader, you’re the best fit to tackle highly favorable and highly unfavorable situations. The extremes are where you’ll serve your team best.

  • If you’re a relationship-oriented leader, your style is best suited to lead in situations with moderate favorability.

The table below breaks down all of the different instances when each leadership style is the best fit.

Fiedler's Contingency Theory of Leadership

Now for the trickier situations. If you’re a task-oriented leader in a moderately favorable situation or a relationship-oriented leader in a highly favorable or unfavorable situation, your leadership style likely isn’t the right fit for the situation. If this is the case, don’t panic—there are ways to make sure that your team is still set up for success.

Step 4: Consider delegating to the right leader

According to Fiedler, leadership style is fixed and cannot be changed. This means that if a leader’s style isn’t right for a situation, that leader may need to delegate leadership to the right person.

While it can be challenging to admit that your skillset isn’t right for a situation, there’s no shame in delegating leadership to someone else. In fact, delegation is necessary for effective leadership. If you’re a manager, consider promoting someone on your team with the opposite leadership style to supervise the team wherever needed. Alternatively, if you’re overseeing a cross-functional project, see if one of the cross-functional team members is a better fit for the situation.

Read: How to delegate effectively: 10 tips for managers

Step 5: Try changing the situation

Another way to ensure that your team is set up for success if your leadership style doesn’t fit the situation at hand is to try to change the situation. Here are a few ways to align situational favorableness with your skillset:

  • Improve leader-member relations. If it would help the situation to improve leader-member relations, try focusing on your transparency with the team or entrusting team members with new responsibilities. 60% of leaders worry about how their team perceives transparency. By improving it wherever possible, leaders can feel confident that their team members will trust them, which in turn improves leader-member relations.

  • Level up task clarity. Are tasks unclear simply because that’s the nature of the job, or are there processes that can be cleaned up a bit? Try outlining tasks to make them easier for your team to accomplish.

  • Increase your authority. If more power and influence could help you lead better, try formulating an argument to present to upper management. You may come out of it with a promotion to a more senior role.

Examples of Fiedler’s theory in action

We’ve mostly been discussing Fiedler’s model in theory. Let’s take a look at some real-world scenarios that will help clarify what it might look like in an organizational setting.

Scenario 1: Newly hired co-manager at a startup

Imagine you’ve just been hired as a co-manager of a startup tech company. The team of 12 has been working together for a little over a year. You were brought on by the existing manager to help improve the company’s strategy.

  • Leader-member relations are poor. As a new manager brought into an already tight-knit team, there’s bound to be some friction and distrust.

  • Task structure is low. The company is still considered a startup, and you were hired to help establish some structure. At this point, everyone helps out with everything.

  • Leader position power is weak. There’s another manager with more authority who could veto your decisions, especially as they pertain to the team.

According to Fiedler’s Contingency Theory, this scenario calls for a task-oriented leader. The situation is highly unfavorable and a relationship-oriented leader would have a very hard time getting anything done.

Scenario 2: Promoted to head of graphic design

Say you’ve recently been promoted to the new role of Head of Graphic Design at your design agency. You’ve been working here for five years and your promotion was largely due to your team’s praise.

  • Leader-member relations are good. You’ve built a solid relationship with your team over the years—so solid, in fact, that they wanted you to take on a more senior role.

  • Task structure is decently high. While your team has a decent amount of creative control over their product, the agency has been operating for a while, so tasks and processes are outlined pretty clearly.

  • Leader position power is weak. You’ve been promoted to a more senior role where you can better assist your team with your expertise, but you aren’t in a management role that can hire or fire.

According to Fiedler’s Contingency Theory, this scenario calls for a relationship-oriented leader. The situation is moderately favorable but you don’t quite have the power to enact significant change.

Does it hold up under pressure?

There is plenty of valuable insight that can be taken from Fiedler’s Contingency Theory, but it’s important to remember that it’s just one theory. It shouldn’t be given supreme authority to determine leadership fit and should be supplemented with additional resources.

Pros and cons of Fiedler's Contingency Model

Advantages

Advantages of Fiedler’s Contingency Theory include:

  • It provides a simple way to determine when a leader’s skills are most and least impactful.

  • It encourages leaders to practice self-awareness, an essential quality for making decisions for a team.

  • It takes the situation into account, branching beyond many leadership theories that solely focus on the leader themself.

  • It’s straightforward—LPC and situational favorableness are both relatively easy to calculate.

Disadvantages

Criticisms of Fiedler’s Contingency Theory include:

  • It’s far too rigid. If you can’t change the situation at hand, the theory states that the only option you have is to give up leadership.

  • It’s unclear what leaders who fall in the middle range of the LPC test should do. The theory essentially just says to “figure it out.”

  • Self-assessment isn’t always reliable. Even when we try to be self-aware when completing the LPC test, our egos and biases have a way of interfering, even subconsciously.

  • The theory may discourage leaders who are doing a fine job, especially if they perceive their leadership style and situation to be at odds when they actually aren’t.

Put your team’s success first with Fiedler’s Contingency Theory

Fiedler’s Contingency Theory of Leadership serves as a great reminder that leadership isn’t uniform. If your team isn’t performing as well as it should be, it might not mean that you aren’t a good leader. Rather, your natural leadership style might  not be what’s best for your team’s needs at the moment.

Regardless of a leader’s style and the favorableness of a situation, every team needs the right tools to communicate well and accomplish organizational goals. When your team knows who’s doing what by when, they’re empowered to get their best work done and develop collaborative relationships. The best way to do this is with work management software. Work management software will help keep your team on track, saving you time and energy as you hone your leadership skills.

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