Situational leadership: 4 styles and qualities

Team Asana contributor imageTeam AsanaSeptember 10th, 20216 min read
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Summary

Situational leadership encourages leaders to consider the team members they serve and the uniqueness of every situation when choosing a leadership method. In this guide, we discuss the four situational leadership styles and how you can use them to better serve your team members.

As you lead your team, you may notice that the various situations you encounter require different responses. For example, if your marketing team takes on a project with a lot of technical work, you may need to coach your team through uncharted territory instead of delegating tasks. However, if your team takes on a project similar to others they’ve done before, you can take more of a backseat in your leadership role.

Being a situational leader involves adjusting your leadership style to the situation at hand. In this guide, we’ll discuss the four situational leadership styles and how you can use them to create a flexible and adaptive work environment. 

What is situational leadership?

Situational leadership is a style of leadership where leaders consider the readiness level of the team members they serve and the uniqueness of every situation. Paul Hersey and Ken Blanchard developed the situational leadership model in 1969 while working on Management of Organizational Behavior

The situational leader brings out the best in their team by creating a democratic work environment and promoting adaptability and flexibility.

How does situational leadership work?

The situational leadership approach can help you develop relationships with your team members because you’ll customize your style of leadership to their development level. Each team member requires a unique level of hands-on and communication-based leadership. It’s up to you to assess your team members’ skills, confidence, and motivation, and determine what type of leadership style to use.

All team members differ in their abilities, confidence levels, and levels of motivation at work. If you use the same leadership style for everyone, some team members will enjoy your leadership while others will feel underserved. The situational leadership method is flexible and allows you to customize your leadership style to meet everyone’s needs.

4 situational leadership styles

There are four leadership styles you may employ depending on who you’re managing and when. You can place these different leadership styles along a graph showing your level of directive behavior in relation to your level of supportive behavior. 

types of situational leadership styles

Directive behavior is the extent to which you tell a team member what to do, how to do it, where it needs to be done, and when it needs to be completed. Supportive behavior is the extent to which you communicate with the team member, actively listen to them, and provide recognition for task-related progress. 

Matching your level of supportive behavior with the same level of directive behavior determines what type of situational leadership style you’re using. 

1. Directing

Style 1 is the directing situational leadership style, also known as guiding or telling. When directing, the level of directive behavior is high, while the level of supportive behavior is low. This leadership style is most effective when the team member requires close supervision by you as the leader, either because they’re inexperienced or because they have low commitment to the task at hand. 

Scenario: A new team member joins the group and has little experience with sending outreach emails to potential clients. They don’t seem confident about handling the project on their own because this is their first outreach project, so you use the directing situational leadership style to guide them through each step and ensure they make no mistakes.

2. Coaching

Style 2 is the coaching situational leadership style, also known as selling or explaining. When coaching, the level of directive behavior is high and so is the level of supportive behavior. This situational leadership style is most effective for the enthusiastic beginner, because you can observe and support them without close supervision.

Scenario: A team member is eager to gain experience in social media marketing even though they have never worked in this field before. Although they have limited experience, you allow them to work on a social media project while observing them so they can gain task-related experience. You then give them performance feedback after the project is complete.

Read: Your 6 step guide to creating and managing a social media content calendar

3. Supporting

Style 3 is the supporting situational leadership style, also known as participating or facilitating. This style differs from Styles 1 and 2, because it is high on supportive behavior and low on directive behavior, making it team member driven. Use this leadership style if your team member has the skills necessary to complete the task at hand but lacks the confidence or motivation to do it successfully. As the leader, you can ask open-ended questions to determine the issue and help find a solution. 

Scenario: One of your most skilled team members suddenly begins underperforming on tasks at work. You become concerned because you know they’re capable of much more than they’re currently putting out. You enact the supporting situational leadership style and set up a 1:1 meeting with this team member. When you find out the issue is personal, you offer the employee a listening ear and a mental health day off before coming back to work full speed. 

Read: The manager’s guide to preventing burnout on your team

4. Delegating

Style 4 is the delegating situational leadership style, also known as empowering or monitoring. This style involves low directive behavior and low supportive behavior because it’s a team member driven leadership style. When team members are self-reliant achievers, they may need you to take a back seat in your leadership role. This style promotes freedom for team members and fosters trust among teams. 

Scenario: A team member you’ve worked with for a few years voices to you that they feel confident in completing an upcoming project on their own. From past experience, you also know they have the skills necessary to complete it. You decide to give them the freedom to work without supervision, knowing they’ll come to you for questions and final review.

Situational leadership qualities

It takes a flexible individual to succeed as a situational leader. Leaders who prefer sticking to one leadership style don’t tailor their approach for their team members. As a situational leader, you must adapt your situational approach to serve each team member and work hard to lead by example.

Situational leadership qualities

Insightful

Situational leaders are insightful and understand the needs of their team members in any situation. When you’re insightful, you can assess whether your team members are feeling confident or insecure, motivated or unwilling, and whether they can handle a task on their own or if they need additional support. 

Flexible

Situational leaders must also be flexible. Once you know what your team members need from you, you can quickly adjust your management style to meet those needs. Flexibility is key because you may have multiple team members that need different situational leadership styles. It’s up to you to adapt yourself for each individual. 

Trustworthy

Trustworthiness is one of the best situational leadership qualities you can possess. When your team members trust you, they’re more likely to succeed at work. You can gain your team members’ trust by fostering communication and promoting positive connections. 

Problem solver

Situational leaders excel at problem-solving and decision-making above all else. Being a thoughtful, big-picture thinker who can solve an array of problems when they arise is an invaluable skill. By thinking on your feet and using various leadership styles, you can lead your team to success. 

Mentor and coach

Coaching is the second situational leadership style, but a good situational leader should act as a coach to their team at all times. You should be able to encourage and nurture your team as you give direction to them in their daily work. 

When you have these leadership skills, you can feel confident knowing you’re an effective leader and that you’re supporting your team to the best of your ability.  

Read: How to lead by example, according to one Asana leader

Pros and cons of situational leadership

Every leadership style has benefits and drawbacks. Being aware of the drawbacks associated with your leadership role can help you become a great leader and prevent any challenges you may face before they occur.

Pros and cons of situational leadership

Pros: 

  • Improves productivity: One benefit of situational leadership is that it improves overall productivity among team members. Because every team member has a different level of skill and motivation, using an adaptive form of leadership allows you to evaluate everyone separately and maximize their output. 

  • Focuses on team members: The situational leadership model focuses on team members. Using one leadership style for all team members is like trying to fit everyone into one box. Situational leadership has a high commitment to each team member and gives them their own space to grow.

  • Promotes flexibility: Situational leadership promotes flexibility because it molds leadership to each team members’ level of skill, motivation, and confidence. Less flexible leadership models may not take into consideration each team members’ motivation level, but situational leadership must be flexible to lead to improved productivity.

Cons:

  • May lead to confusion: One drawback of situational leadership is that it can create confusion. The lack of uniformity in leadership style can cause team members to question what they’re supposed to do and when. For example, some team members may have trouble shifting from a fully hands-on task one week to an entirely delegated task the next. You can prevent confusion by asking team members what situational leadership style they prefer. 

  • Focuses on short-term goals: Team members that prefer to focus on long-term goals may not enjoy situational leadership because it focuses on short-term goals. When shifting leadership styles, you must focus on the task at hand, instead of tasks or goals planned months in advance. Team members may feel uneasy if they don’t know what leadership style they’ll encounter next week or next month. If your team members need long-term planning, you can find a middle ground by planning tasks in advance and discussing what leadership style they prefer for each upcoming task. Letting your team know that you have the freedom to change leadership styles when necessary may ease their mind. 

  • Leader takes responsibility: Situational leadership puts a lot of responsibility on you as a leader to decide what type of style to enact and when. This model can become stressful because you must be flexible and adaptable at all times. You’ll also need to judge other peoples’ emotions, work skills, and social skills to determine their leadership needs. 

To ease the burden on yourself, try to get to know your team members as individuals. Once you know them well, you may realize that their leadership styles remain consistent. While each team member may require an occasional change in style, most team members have a preferred communication style

Use situational leadership to meet the needs of your team

Situational leadership is flexible and adaptive. You can motivate your team to perform better at work by adjusting your leadership style to meet them where they are. 

Using project management software can be a great way to monitor team member progress and get more insight into each person’s capabilities. You can also use project management tools to provide feedback and nurture a communicative environment.

Try project management software for teams

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