Situational Theory – Leadership Theories Series

Use situational theory with staff every time you give them a new task to perform.

If you’ve ever been on a middle managers’ leadership course there is a good chance that you are familiar with Ken Blanchard’s and Paul Hersey’s situational leadership theory. It’s widely used by trainers and popular with managers because it provides clear advice on how to lead staff.

The basis of the situational theory suggests that, as a leader, you need to provide a combination of direction and support when dealing with a member of staff. Direction involves giving the person detailed instructions on how to complete the task/job, i.e. telling them how to do the job. Support requires you to provide the encouragement and personal support that they need to complete the task/job.

The four approaches that you can adopt are:

  1. Coaching: where you provide high levels of both direction and support.
  2. Directing: where you provide high levels of direction but low levels of support.
  3. Supporting: where you provide high levels of support but low levels of direction.
  4. Delegating: where you provide low levels of support and low levels of direction.

It is important to note that followers do not progress through the model from directing to delegating in a linear fashion. As each new task is delegated the role of the leader is to identify what type of support, if any, the member of staff requires.

How to use situational theory

To use situational theory effectively you need to know and understand the people who work for you. Start collecting that information now!

Identify the task that you want completed.

Use your knowledge of the staff, their experience, existing workload and priorities to select a person to do the job. Let’s call that person Charlie.

Make an initial judgement as to which of the four approaches you will use with Charlie.

Discuss with Charlie what needs to be done. Encourage them to ask questions and identify what information or support is needed from you to do the job.

Use open and closed questions to assess how well Charlie understands the task and how confident they feel about completing the job.

Based on the answers decide if your initial judgement about Charlie’s suitability for the task was correct. If in doubt err on the side of caution and select an approach which allows for additional support to be provided if required.

Delegate the task and provide a deadline for completion. Monitor progress. If required, schedule regular meetings to discuss progress. Where a delegating approach has been used such meetings may only last a couple of minutes. But where a directing approach has been used they may last much longer.

Regardless of which approach is used make it clear to Charlie that if any problems arises you are available to help.

On successful completion thank Charlie for the work and use the two most motivational words available to any leader: ‘Well done’.

This approach can also be used when dealing with an entire team.

Questions to ask

  1. How good am I at delegating? Do I only delegate to one or two trusted people?
  2. Have I the courage/confidence to trust my staff?
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