Let’s explain the fundamentals behind the contingency theory: every team, no matter how big or small, needs a leader to guide it and to make the tough decisions. However, being the kind of leader who inspires others, brings the best out of them, and instills a strong sense of loyalty in them is a difficult task. Conversely, sometimes an organization needs a leader who gets the job done regardless of how everybody else involved feels. Consequently, it is argued that there is no single optimum leadership style; the best leadership style is what best suits a given situation.
This line of thought has spawned several leadership theories, including situational theory and contingency theory. Whereas situational theory discusses the sort of behaviors a leader should exhibit given specific external factors, contingency theory attempts to adopt a wider perspective by taking into account the leader’s capabilities as well as the relationship between the leader and his followers.
What Is the Contingency Theory?
Contingency theory postulates that leadership style should be contingent (dependent) upon several variables both internal and external. It is worth noting that there is more than one form of the contingency theory:
- Strategic contingency theory.
- Otley’s contingency theory.
- Fiedler’s contingency theory.
Although all these theories agree on the basic premise that there is no universally best leadership style, the theories differ when it comes to the external and internal variables they consider relevant. Throughout this article, we will focus mostly on Fiedler’s contingency theory, since it is the most extensively researched.
What Does Fiedler’s Contingency Theory Say?
Fiedler’s contingency theory is quite simple: when it comes to leadership style, the theory assumes that there a leader can either be task oriented or relationship oriented. It also assumes that a leader’s style is fixed and doesn’t change. As for the situational factors that affect the leadership style, Fiedler’s contingency theory asserts that the three main factors are the leader- member relations, the leader’s position power, and the task structure. Subsequently, the theory prescribes a certain leadership style for every unique combination of situational factor. Let’s dive more into the theory.
Scrutinizing the leadership style, Fiedler’s contingency theory posits that a relationship-oriented leader spends time fostering personal connections with his team members. This aptitude for developing a healthy social environment in the workplace usually means that the leader is adept at managing conflicts and tackling complex problems.
On the other hand, a task-oriented leader cares more about completing his objectives as efficiently as possible. Task-oriented leaders aren’t too crazy about cultivating work place relationships; they just want to get the job done.
Relations Between a Leader and a Member
As for the situational factors, let’s start with the leader member relations: the leader-members relation is an analysis of the degree of confidence and trust the team members have in their leader. Needless to say, the more trust a leader enjoys the more leverage he has with his workforce. Furthermore, trust and confidence are sources of unofficial power: having faith in someone is enough for hordes of people to follow him, even if that individual isn’t an official authority figure.
While the leader-members relation describes the unofficial power an individual yields, the leader’s position power addresses the official power the same leader has. Official power is the amount of influence an individual has over others to enforce his will, which can be done through a series of rewards or punishments. Official power is mostly ascribed to authority figures, such as policemen and judges.
Assigning Tasks and Sub-tasks
Finally, task structure deals with the job at hand: is it clear or is there a sense of ambiguity involved? Can the task be broken down into smaller subtasks easily? Or is the task more complex? A lot of things go into deciding the complexity, or lack thereof, of the task structure, among which is the location of the information in relation to the team. The location of the information in relation to the team can be either internal or external: when a team operates in an uncertain environment using novel technologies, the team’s own efforts become its best reference for the future.
This is another way of saying that when a team is working in untested waters, the only way through these waters is for the team to perform all the necessary experimentation on its own. In contrast to uncertain environments, certain environments and standardized technologies offer the benefit of an abundance of information based on the experience of others.
Fiedler’s Contingency Theory Table
Having surveyed all the variables related to Fiedler’s contingency theory, let’s take a look at how they all interact together. We will now look at a table in which Fiedler will nominate a type of leader according to the situation. The table assigns a state to each situational factor, after which it suggests the most effective leader in said situation.
|Leader-Member Relations||Task Structure||Leader’s Position Power||Most Effective Leader|
Who Uses the Fiedler Contingency Theory?
The Fiedler contingency theory lends itself to any organization or anyone responsible for leading a group of individuals towards finishing a specific task. An organization must judge the effectiveness of its leaders in relation to the situations they face. An individual leader must also analyze the current situation and judge whether he is suited for the job as well as whether he can adjust his leadership style accordingly.
What Do critics of the Fiedler Contingency Theory Have to Say?
All of this is not to say that the Fiedler contingency theory is flawless: some critics have been keen to point out a few issues. To start with, assuming that each individual has a leadership style that’s set in stone might be a bit too harsh. After all, human beings have the capability to adapt according to the circumstances they face. Furthermore, identifying an individual’s leadership style is never a clear-cut process and is never so black and white. Moreover, there are other situational factors that play a role in the effectiveness of the leader and aren’t accounted for in the Fiedler contingency theory, such as the size of the organization, the organizational culture, and the national culture.
There are countless theories of leadership within the literature, and new ones are sprouting up every day. Nevertheless, the beauty of the Fiedler contingence theory lies in its simplicity as well as its intuitiveness. However, the reader will do well to note that, as all theories, the Fiedler contingency theory should be taken more as a guideline rather than gospel. When it comes to practical application, you are the best judge.
Should you be interested to learn more, I encourage you to explore other contingency theories along with other leadership theories in general.
Images from depositphotos.com.