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Contingency theory

  • Contingency theory focusses on adapting situational variables to better suit a leader's style.

Contingency theorists agree that leadership theories must take into account the situation in which leaders operate. The best known contingency theory, Fred Fiedler's ‘Contingency Model’, assumes a leader's preferred style is effectively set, and suggests adapting situational elements to achieve better outcomes.

Tested through a variety of field studies, the model's basic premise is that ‘the performance of interacting groups is contingent upon the interaction of leadership styles and the favourability of the situation for the leader’ (Mitchell, et al., 1970). The leader's style (defined as either task or relations oriented) is measured using a scale called the ‘Least Preferred Co-worker Scale’ (LPC) in which leaders rate the co-worker they have least enjoyed working with on a variety of factors. A high score indicates a relations-orientated leader, a low score indicates a leader more concerned with task performance (Mitchell, et al., 1970). The rationale behind this is that relations oriented leaders are more inclined to view individuals with whom they least enjoyed working in more positive terms than task oriented leaders (Bass & Bass, 2008). The second element of the model is the ‘situational favourableness dimension’, which takes into account three factors: the degree of support and cooperation offered by the followers; whether the task is structured or unstructured; and the leader's formal authority to direct or reward followers (Chemers, 2000). In combination, these factors result in eight types of situation which, according to the contingency model, differ in the degree to which a leader can influence and control group members (Mitchell, et al., 1970).

According to Fiedler's model a situation is favourable to the leader if the leader is esteemed by the group; if the task is structured; and if the leader has legitimacy and power by virtue of his or her position. The task oriented leader is most likely to be effective in situations that are most favourable or most unfavourable to him or her. The relations oriented leader is most likely to be effective in situations between the two extremes. Fiedler's research and theory suggests that instead of developing adaptable leaders, the leader ought to be placed situations best suited to them, and failing that, situations ought to be manipulated to suit a leader's orientation (Bass & Bass, 2008). Possible changes include varying the structure of the task or work to improve leader-member relations. Figure 2 provides a breakdown of the eight situations and the most effective leader for each.

Figure 2: Breakdown of situations and most effective leaders style for each
Situation Leader-Member Relations Task Structure Leader's Position Power Most Effective Leader
1 Good Structured Strong Task-oriented
2 Good Structured Weak Task-oriented
3 Good Unstructured Strong Task-oriented
4 Good Unstructured Weak Relations-oriented
5 Poor Structured Strong Relations-oriented
6 Poor Structured Weak Relations-oriented
7 Poor Unstructured Strong Relations-oriented
8 Poor Unstructured Weak Task-oriented

Criticisms and challenges

Fiedler's model has been criticised for assuming leadership style is fixed and for suggesting that situations be manipulated rather than leaders adapting their natural style. In terms of the model itself, Mitchell et al cite a number of studies querying the interpretation of high and low LPC scores correlating with people versus task orientation and note that even under the best circumstances, the LPC scale has only about a 50 per cent reliable variance (Mitchell, et al., 1970).

Further reading

Fred Fiedler (1967). A Theory of Leadership Effectiveness.