What’s the Situation on Situational Leadership?

Dwayne V.

Dwayne V.

I am an Award-Winning Customer Experience Designer, who has spent over a dozen years working with various companies that span from start-ups to Fortune 100...Read more

We have all been in the situation, either as an employee or leader, where there is a challenge at work, and we are not making any improvement. It could be a poor hire for the role, inadequate tools for the assigned task, or it could be that the wrong leadership style is being implemented. 

It is funny how as people, we would never approach different problems the exact same way. How could we? Not having enough money to pay your bills, is a very different issue than not having the self-confidence to ask for a well-deserved raise. These 2 situations, although dealing with money, would be solved very differently. Yet, in the work world, many leaders fall into the trap of trying to approach every coaching session, with every employee, the same way every time. This is not only ineffective, but could also be detrimental to the company. Even causing you to let go of some amazing talent, because of poor performance (Yikes)!

The issue of poor management technique has plagued many, otherwise good businesses, for decades. That is why, in the 1970’s, Paul Hersey and Ken Blanchard, set out to teach leaders how to adjust their leadership style, depending on the situation. 

The issue of poor management technique has plagued many, otherwise good businesses,

Situational Leadership suggests that no single leadership style is best all of the time. Instead, the situation dictates what type of leadership technique should be utilized, generating the best chance of the desired outcome. This would mean that the most effective leaders are the ones who have the ability to recognize the difference in a situation and adjust their style accordingly. There are various cues that these effective leaders would look for, including; type of task, abilities and personality of people working on the task, experience of the department, and other contributing factors.

To break this down into bite sized pieces, so it was easy for others to understand (and for them to sell) Mr. Hersey and Mr. Blanchard suggested that there are 4 primary Leadership styles, listed as S1, S2, S3, S4 and 4 Maturity levels ( levels of knowledge or competence) of the individuals or group, listed as M1, M2, M3, M4. Depending on the maturity level (M-Level) of the group or individual, you deploy the corresponding Leadership style (S-Level) to help them gain more maturity, with the ultimate goal of getting them to be completely self-sufficient at the task (M4). 

Later, Ken Blanchard expanded on, and revised, the original theory, developing what is called Situational Leadership II (or SLII model). Which identifies that the developmental level (Similar to Maturity from the original theory) is determined by the individual’s level of commitment and competence. These levels are labeled as D1-D4. This is the model we will discuss further.

Situational Leadership Workflow

Deciphering the Different Letters

In both Situational Leadership and SLII, the letter “S” is used to identify which leadership style you should employ, given the competency of the Individual you are coaching. 

  • S1-Directing : High on directing behaviors, low on supporting behaviors.
  • S2-Coaching : High on both directing and supporting behaviors.
  • S3-Supporting : Low on directing behavior and high on supporting behaviors.
  • S4-Delegating : Low on both directing and supporting behaviors.

In  SLII, the letter “D” is used to identify what level of competence and commitment the individual has towards the given task.

  • D1-Enthusiastic beginner : High commitment, low competence.
  • D2-Disillusioned learner : Some competence, but setbacks have led to low commitment.
  • D3-Capable but cautious performer : Competence is growing, but the level of commitment varies.
  • D4-Self-reliant achiever : High competence and commitment.

Putting It All Together

To put this all together, there are a few more things that need to be understood. Effective leadership involves 2 items called Supporting behaviors and Directing behaviors. Supporting behaviors include actions like; encouragement, listening, feedback, and recognition. Directing behaviors include giving direction, instructions, task lists, and small-incremental steps. 

Also, leaders need to consider a few factors about themselves, like their relationship with the individual or group. Some leaders have power that comes simply because of their title, or abilities within the organization, for such things as hiring, firing, offer rewards, and ability to acquire tools desired by team. Other leaders gain respect from their subordinates through relationship building, gaining their respect. Finally, the leader needs to consider the task itself, the complexity of the task, and what determines if the tasks has been completed successfully. These factors will influence the motivation of the individual or group (D-Level), thus effecting the Leadership style needed. 

When a leader is dealing with employees that are not competent, but motivated to accomplish a task, they need to be Directing (S1). This involves giving clear and concise direction, as well as monitoring of progress. This is not monitoring to micro-manage (that is never a good idea) but monitoring, to ensure that proper steps are being taken in the proper order, and that the employees are moving towards self-sufficiency. In this stage, there is not much need for Supportive behaviors, because the team is motivated to accomplish the task and/or learn a new skill.

The next quadrant is when your team has lost (or never had) the motivation  and they (still) do not yet have the skills to accomplish the task. This is where an effective leader will begin Coaching (S2). Coaching, in my opinion, is the most hands on form of leadership, because it involves the same level of direction as the Directing quadrant, but now has the added need of Supportive behaviors like praise, undivided attention, recognition, and encouragement. Nailing this step of the process is crucial to the success of your team. You team may feel insecure at this moment, and this is where you can step in and strengthen the relationship between you and your team.

Highly Employees

The third quadrant is when your team has aquired the abilities to perform the task, but still may be unwilling, or unmotivated, to accomplish the task. This can happen for a few different reasons. Maybe this team has had this task through the first 2 quadrants, and now feel that the work is redundant. It is also possible, that you has assembled a team of highly skilled individuals, but they feel burdened with too much work (because of their ability) and therefore are not motivated. What ever the case, if your team is (now) skilled at this task, but unmotivated, you need to lead as a Supporter (S3). As a supporter, you no longer need to give much direction (or possibly none), because that would undermine the ability and knowledge of the employee(s), lowering their motivation even further. This leadership style is all about getting the employee to “buy in”. You can do this in a number of ways, like having the employee(s) participate in the decision-making process, or rewarding their progress. This will motivate them to be able to work independently.

When your team has the skills and motivation to complete the task, now your role as a leader is to Delegate (S4). These employees need less direction and less support, they will be more proactive in informing the leader or progress, and when they are in need. Their independence is motivation enough, and the leader can move away from this task, and on to other tasks that are not at this level of functionality (yet).

Final Thoughts

As you can imagine, having a team that is fully self-sufficient with a given task is the ideal situation to be in as a leader. When leaders have teams who are D4 in most (or all) of their tasks, the job of the leader is now to delegate and reap the benefits of such a high-powered team. One thing to keep in mind, as a leader, is that, just because a team is in the D4 quadrant now, doesn’t mean they will always be there. Sometimes teams lose their motivation, and therefore need Support behaviors from their leader (D3). An effective leader will be able to quickly  identify when this happens, and adjust accordingly. This can be referred to as a “eyes on, hands off approach”. Of course, achieving D4 from your teams will take a lot of hard work, persistence, and patience, but the rewards are amazing.