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The Contingency Approach to Management

Flexibility is key in the fast‑paced business world. Learn how the contingency approach to management ensures you’re ready to meet new challenges.

In the business world, things don’t always go as planned. What worked well last month may suddenly stop working. Employees who were previously very motivated may start to lose steam. Current priorities may shift as new opportunities or roadblocks emerge. 

If you stick to one management style, you might find it hard to lead through the changes. Instead, it’s often better to follow the contingency theory of management. This means being flexible and changing your leadership style to fit different situations.

Your readiness to adapt can make you a much more proactive manager, always prepared to change tactics to meet new demands. This ensures you can achieve your goals no matter what challenges come your way. Ready to begin? This guide was written to help you use the contingency leadership theory effectively.

What’s the contingency theory of management?  

The contingency theory of management is the idea that there’s not just one right way to lead a team. Instead, what works best can change depending on the situation. You must consider things like the task, your team, and external factors to find the right approach.

To see this in action, imagine you’re leading a team on a project with a tight deadline. In the beginning, you might allow flexible hours and remote work to boost creativity. But as the deadline nears, you might switch to more structured schedules and daily check-ins to ensure each team member finishes their tasks on time.  

Ultimately, you want to be ready for anything and able to adapt as needed to keep your team working toward their goals. You need to be able to see what’s going on, understand what it means for your team, and decide how to respond. This could mean trying fresh problem-solving methods or completely reshaping your plans to overcome challenges.  

The link between leadership style and organizational success

The way you lead can boost your organization’s success. As a good leader, you build confidence, foster innovation, and help your team reach goals faster. If you use the contingency theory, your company’s chances of growing increase even more.

By adapting your leadership style to the situation, you can better embrace change as a catalyst for growth. And according to a McKinsey survey, companies open to change have a much better chance at success.

As a leader, you are instrumental in paving the path toward successful transformations. You can wholeheartedly embrace change, plan how to make it happen, and guide your team through every stage. You can also involve employees early on in planning. When your team feels involved and leads change, transformation success rates can reach up to 79% (as cited in the above survey).

The 4 leadership contingency theories

When challenges come up, there’s no single leadership solution for every situation. Each one needs its own approach, especially when things get complicated or change. That’s why several contingency theory models were developed.

Fiedler’s Contingency Theory

In the 1960s, Fred Fiedler introduced a groundbreaking idea: A leader’s effectiveness depends on how well their management style matches the situation. Known as Fiedler’s Contingency Model, this framework classifies leaders as either task oriented or relationship oriented.

If you’re a task-oriented leader, you’re all about getting things done efficiently. You prioritize tasks, set deadlines, and ensure your team meets their goals. On the other hand, if you’re a relationship-oriented leader, you prioritize building strong connections with your team. This ensures everyone feels valued and motivated to contribute.

Depending on the circumstances, you may need to switch between these styles to be a more effective leader. To do that, you’ll weigh your leader-member relations, task structure, and leader position power to find the best approach for the situation. Then, you can decide if your team would benefit most from task-oriented leaders or relationship-oriented leaders at that moment.

Decision-making model

Victor Vroom and Philip Yetton created a decision-making model in the 1970s. Like Fiedler’s model, this contingency theory stresses the importance of adapting your leadership style to suit the situation.

However, it’s primarily used to guide decision-making by offering 3 styles to choose from:  

  • Autocratic: In this style, the leader makes decisions independently, without seeking input from the team.
  • Consultative: Here, the leader gathers input and suggestions from team members but ultimately makes the final decision.
  • Collaborative: This style involves actively bringing the team into the decision-making process, with the leader seeking consensus or majority agreement.

To choose the right decision-making style, start by assessing your situation. Look at factors like time limits, available expertise, and team commitment. Then, decide which approach works best for your circumstances. This helps make better decisions and gets your team working together.  

Situational Leadership Model

Paul Hersey and Kenneth Blanchard crafted the Situational Leadership Model in 1969 to offer leaders a flexible approach to guiding their teams. With this framework, you can tailor your management style to match your team’s capabilities and confidence levels.

You must first understand how prepared your team members are for different tasks. Then, you can choose from these 4 different leadership styles:

  • Telling is when you provide clear instructions and closely supervise team members while making decisions independently.
  • Selling involves providing guidance and direction to team members while also explaining why you made each decision.  
  • Participating means including team members in decisions by seeking their input and incorporating their ideas into the final decisions.
  • Delegating empowers team members to take ownership of tasks by assigning responsibilities and trusting them to make decisions.

To help your team succeed and grow, match your management style to the situation. Assess your team’s readiness and the task at hand. For urgent tasks or inexperienced team members, think about using the telling or selling methods. However, participating or delegating might work better when working with highly motivated employees.

Path-goal theory

In the early 1970s, Martin Evans produced the path-goal theory, and Robert House improved it soon after. This management theory centers on the idea that you can lead better by clarifying goals, removing obstacles, and supporting your team.

In this framework, you can help your team reach their goals using any of these 4 leadership behaviors:

  • Directive: You tell your team exactly what to do and how to do it. This works well when tasks are complex or new to them.
  • Supportive: You focus on being there for your team, showing empathy and care. This is great for boosting morale and making the work environment more comfortable.
  • Participative: You involve your team members in decision-making. This helps them feel valued and can lead to better ideas and solutions.
  • Achievement oriented: You set high goals and encourage your team to achieve excellence. This is effective for motivating your team to push their limits.

Choosing between these behaviors involves assessing the specific task structure and your team’s characteristics. Consider the level of challenge the task presents and how familiar your team is with it. Also, think about your team’s current morale, their need for autonomy, and their ambition level.

How to adapt your leadership style with the contingency approach

Adapting your leadership style involves understanding your team and the situation. You must be flexible yet consistent to get the desired results. Here’s how to do this.  

Recognize how internal and external factors influence leadership needs

Shifting your leadership approach starts with clearly understanding the internal and external factors affecting the situation. Internally, key considerations include team dynamics, organizational structure, and company culture. These factors shape how your team operates and how they respond to leadership.

Externally, factors like market trends, competition, and industry regulations also impact leadership needs. These external factors can shift quickly, so it’s essential to check in regularly. By acknowledging both internal and external factors, you can adapt your approach on the fly as the situation evolves.  

Understand your team members’ unique strengths and weaknesses 

Each team member brings diverse skills, experiences, and perspectives to the table. By recognizing these strengths, you can assign tasks that suit them best and encourage collaboration. Similarly, knowing their weaknesses helps you provide support and training where needed. This understanding enables you to build a strong team ready to tackle challenges and succeed together.

To learn about your team’s strengths and weaknesses, get to know each team member on a personal level. Pay close attention to what motivates them and where they’d like to improve professionally. Also, encourage open communication and provide opportunities for feedback to foster a supportive and growth-oriented environment.

Develop a flexible mindset to ditch the one-size-fits-all approach

If you want to shift from a strict management style, adopt a flexible mindset. With your new outlook, adapting to diverse situations can become second nature, allowing you to lead more effectively.

Some ways to develop a flexible mindset include:

  • Stay open to new ideas, perspectives, and experiences. Embrace learning opportunities and actively seek out different viewpoints.
  • Challenge yourself to adapt to change. Be willing to step outside your comfort zone and adjust your approach based on the specific needs of each situation.
  • Build resilience by viewing setbacks as opportunities for growth and learning. Embrace failure as a natural part of the journey toward improvement.
  • Foster creativity within yourself and your team. Encourage innovative thinking and problem-solving to find unique solutions to challenges.

Remember, practice makes progress. As you challenge yourself to change your mindset, celebrate each step forward. Over time, you’ll undoubtedly notice positive changes in your switch to the contingency approach to leadership.

Plan for multiple scenarios to respond faster and more effectively

While you cannot predict every outcome, considering the possibilities allows you to better prepare yourself and your team for whatever lies ahead. Begin by brainstorming all the potential risks and opportunities you might come across. Then, assess their likelihood and impact on your goals.

After that, develop response plans for each scenario. This involves creating step-by-step actions for various situations. For instance, if a machine breaks down in a manufacturing company, the plan might include calling Maintenance, assigning repair tasks, and rearranging work. Another plan might address a sudden increase in product demand, assigning roles to manage the surge and communicate changes.

Through this process, you’ll create a framework for action, enabling quick and effective decision-making. You might also improve your ability to adjust your leadership style in real time as situations arise.  

Reflect on previous situations and how you handled them

Reflecting on prior situations is a powerful tool for personal and professional growth. It lets you gain valuable insights into your actions, decisions, and behaviors as a leader.

For optimal results, set aside dedicated time to reflect without distractions. Use this time to analyze both triumphs and hurdles you’ve encountered. Identify your strengths and acknowledge how they helped you achieve successful outcomes. Then, pinpoint areas where you can improve your approach.

Don’t skip the chance to celebrate your achievements. Positive self-reflection can improve your leadership skills, confidence, and motivation for future growth.

Encourage open communication to gain valuable perspectives

Regular self-reflection cannot tell you everything you want to know about your performance as an adaptable leader. Like most people, you may have gaps in your understanding. So, it’s important to get input from others to see the full picture.

Encouraging open sharing with your team is key. When team members feel free to share their thoughts, you can get new insights you might miss otherwise.

Start by creating an atmosphere where everyone’s opinions matter. Let team members speak up in meetings, chats, or feedback sessions. Listen carefully to what they say without judging and genuinely thank them for their input, good or bad.

Aim to balance flexibility with consistency to build more trust and stability

Being flexible is just one piece of the puzzle. You also need to be consistent to build trust and stability within your team. This means finding the right mix of adjusting to new situations while staying true to your core company values and goals.  

To balance flexibility with consistency, set clear values and expectations. Also, provide adaptability training to your team so they can better understand the contingency approach. Beyond that, always lead by example by adjusting to change when needed.

and the contingency approach. Beyond that, always lead by example by adjusting to change when needed.  

Use the contingency approach to improve your leadership effectiveness

The contingency approach helps you adjust your leadership style to fit your team’s needs at any given time. This means sometimes you guide them closely, and other times you let them take the lead. By being flexible, you can become a more effective leader and help your team excel. So, why wait? Make the shift, adapt to your team’s needs, and steer your organization toward unparalleled success.

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