Contingency Theory – Leadership Theories Series

Use contingency theory to assess how favorable or unfavorable your situation is and identify which factors you need to address to improve the situation.

Fred Fiedler’s contingency theory tries to match leaders to posts in which they will be successful. It’s called contingency theory because it suggests that a leader’s effectiveness will be contingent upon how well their style of leadership fits the post they hold.

The favourableness of the post is assessed using three factors:

  1. The relationship between the leader and their followers. Is it good, bad or indifferent?
  2. The level of structure in the work undertaken by the followers. For example, work in any fast food chain is highly structured with written instructions on how to complete every process. Compare that to a marketing manager for an arts organization who is given wide discretion in how to do their job — low structure.
  3. The positional power of the leader. That is, to what extent the leader can punish or reward followers?

Taken together the above factors describe how favorable the situation is to the leader. Fiedler argues that situations are most favorable when there are good leader/follower relations, the task is well defined and there is strong leadership position power. Situations are unfavorable when leader/staff relationships are poor, the task is unstructured and the leader has weak positional power.

How to use the contingency theory

Use contingency theory to analyze your position and identify the source of any problems you face. Is it the staff, the nature of the work, your lack of power or a combination of all three that is the problem. Once you have identified the problem, devise a course of action to resolve the issue.

Often it’s just one person that is the problem. Usually, they see themselves as the unofficial leader of the team and are afraid of losing their power, Either win them over or, if that fails, use all your powers to bring them into line. But once you start such a struggle you have to win. Lose and you are finished.

If it’s the nature of the work that makes it difficult to control the actions of staff, establish procedures that require them to report to you regularly on their progress/performance. Also set clear limits to the discretion they can exercise.

Power is seldom given to you, you have to take it. So use the power/authority that comes with your position to sort the problem out. Few will dispute your right to use it.

Contingency theory suggests that when you find yourself in an unfavorable situation you should change the situation not your leadership approach. You may decide that in many situations it is quicker and easier to change your leadership approach.

Questions to ask

  1. Is there a single person or issue that is the source of the problems I face?
  2. Is the job for me? It may genuinely be the case that you are not suited to this particular post. If so, get out.
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