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Situational leadership

  • The Hersey-Blanchard situational leadership theory matches leadership style with employee experience.
  • The Vroom-Yetton contingency model recommends decision-making styles based on situational variables.

The relationship between leaders and followers was central to the situational leadership theories which emerged as trait theory fell into disfavour. The most prominent of these are the Hersey-Blanchard situational leadership theory and the Vroom-Yetton contingency model of decision making.

Hersey and Blanchard's 1969 life cycle theory of leadership (later renamed situational leadership theory) was based on an interpretation of existing empirical research. They propose that different leadership styles be employed depending on the situation, as defined by both the orientation of the manager (either task or relations focussed) and the maturity (or experience) of the employee. In this model the most effective leadership matches the leader's orientation with the subordinate's maturity, beginning with ‘telling’ or directing newly appointed or less experienced employees in their tasks, to ‘selling’ or coaching employees with more experience, through to ‘participating’ or supporting, where managers engage employees' maturity and knowledge to complete tasks. The final style, ‘delegating’, recognises that ‘fully mature subordinates work best when leaders delegate what needs to be done’ (Bass & Bass, 2008, p. 517).

In the mid-1970s Vroom and Yetton used rigorous deduction and support from controlled empirical studies and experiments to develop a model to assist leaders to determine the most effective approach to decision making. Their model suggests the leadership decision style most conducive to effectiveness depends on the characteristics of the situation, and on whether a high-quality decision or subordinate acceptance of the decision is the leader's primary goal. Leaders work through a series of questions resulting in a recommended decision-making style ranging from directive to consultative, and on to participative decision making. A final style, delegative, was added later. Later revisions also encouraged reflection on past decisions as part of the process (Bass & Bass, 2008).

Criticisms and challenges

The dominant situational leadership models have been challenged on a variety of fronts. The Hersey-Blanchard model is criticized because of the lack of internal consistency of its measures, its conceptual contradictions, and its ambiguities. Graeff argues that the model appears to have no theoretical or logical justification, while Blake and Mouton maintain that Hersey and Blanchard misinterpreted the initial empirical evidence (Bass & Bass, 2008).

Studies have found that in certain situations the leadership behaviour prescribed by both the Hersey-Blanchard and Vroom-Yetton models can be detrimental to a group's efficiency and subordinates' satisfaction (Bass & Bass, 2008). In a practical sense, the Vroom-Yetton model is less a cohesive leadership theory than a potentially useful tool for weighing up situational factors to find an appropriate decision making approach, while the Hersey-Blanchard model assumes a direct and individual relationship between a leader and a follower, a rare situation in modern organisations.

Further reading

Paul Hersey, Kenneth H Blanchard & Dewey E Johnson (2012 [1977]). Management of Organizational Behaviour.

Victor H Vroom and Philip W Yetton (1973). Leadership and Decision-Making.

Last reviewed: 
29 March 2018