Manager practicing situational leadership in a group meeting in conference room.
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Situational Leadership: A Customizable Approach to Leading Teams and Nurturing Employee Growth

As the pace of change in the workplace accelerates and employees expect more from their employers, the role of managers is evolving as well.

Take, for example, what happened when major tech giant, Google, transitioned to a flat organization—to see if employees’ performance improved without managers. Though “Project Oxygen”—as it was called—was disastrous and short-lived, it proved an essential point: managers matter. And as team leaders returned to Google’s organizational structure, Project Oxygen shifted focus to identify the characteristics that define a successful and inspiring manager in today’s workplace.

Some of their most important research findings came straight from the source—their employees. Through polling, the team received valuable input that ultimately helped Google hone in on a list of sought-after managerial traits that included equal parts leader, coach, decision-maker, advocate, communicator, advisor, and someone who knows when and how to adapt to different employees’ needs depending on the situation—aka a situational leader.

Although Google did not invent the “situational leadership” theory, Project Oxygen’s outcome mimicked its constructs. The concept, in fact, originally emerged more than a half-century before as the “Life Cycle Theory of Leadership” in Paul Hersey and Ken Blanchard’s 1969 book, Management of Organizational Behavior. At the time, the two management experts theorized that no singular leadership style is appropriate for every situation and that managers’ and subordinates’ attributes and actions contribute to determining what type of leadership is best at any given moment in time.

Interestingly, Google’s research showed that even though the American workplace has changed in many ways since the late 1960s—one thing has stayed constant: a cookie-cutter management approach is ineffective with employees when it comes to improving productivity or morale.

The good news for small and mid-sized businesses?

Situational leadership is not just for tech giants. By adopting this management style, any company can build a culture that nurtures growth by meeting employees where they are and developing their unique knowledge, skills, and abilities. In addition, this approach can help you build effective and creative teams that propel your business forward in today’s often frenetic and rapidly changing marketplace.

Man and woman in window office having a conversation. Manger utilizing situational leadership techniques with employee.

Situational Leadership in Theory and Practice

Hersey and Blanchard's "Life Cycle Theory of Leadership" was renamed the “Situational Leadership Theory” during the mid-1970s. Though they wrote separate books detailing their respective views, Blanchard's “The One-Minute Manager” (1982) and Hersey's “The Situational Leader” (1985) similarly proposed four leadership styles within the overarching theory.These four styles employ different measures of directive and supportive behaviors. According to an Asana article titled, "Situational leadership: 4 styles and qualities,” directive behavior is the extent to which you tell a team member what, how, where, and when something needs to be done, while supportive behavior is the extent to which you communicate with the team member, coach them, actively listen, and provide recognition for task-related progress. The levels of supportive behavior and directive behavior vary depending on who you're managing and in what setting.

The Four Situational Leadership Styles

  1. Directing/Telling: A primarily directive behavior, this style is most effectively used when an employee needs close managerial supervision because they're inexperienced or have a low commitment to the task at hand.
  2. Coaching/Selling: Employs high levels of directive and supportive behaviors and typically involves a manager assigning a new task to an enthusiastic team member and observing and coaching them as they carry it out. Performance feedback is vital when using this method.
  3. Supporting/Participating: High on supportive behavior and low on directive behavior, this style is best used with an employee who has the skills and ability to complete a task but lacks the confidence or motivation to do it successfully.
  4. Delegating: Involving low levels of directive and supportive behaviors, this leadership style is often used with employees who are self-reliant achievers and perform best with little to no supervision. This approach promotes freedom and fosters trust.

"The situational leadership model focuses on team members," the Asana article states. "Using one leadership style for all team members is like trying to fit everyone into one box. Situational leadership has a high commitment to each team member and gives them their own space to grow."

Pros and Cons of the Situational Leadership Style

Before implementing situational leadership, it helps to take a thorough look at the benefits and drawbacks experienced by companies that have adopted—and experts who have studied—this management approach.

Situational leadership can:

  • Improve your employees' productivity and output
  • Provide your managers with adaptive problem-solving techniques
  • Help your managers identify each team member's level of skill, motivation, and confidence and apply leadership techniques to optimize performance and outcomes
  • Nurture each employee's career-development efforts
  • Advance your managers' problem-solving skills
  • Boost your team's communication skills
  • Encourage collaboration, transparency, and creativity in your organization
  • Enable leaders to exert more control over business outcomes

If not kept in check, situational leadership can:

  • Cause confusion due to a lack of uniformity in leadership style; some team members may have trouble shifting from a directed task one week to a delegated task the next
  • Focus primarily on the task at hand rather than long-term goals
  • Place immense responsibility on your managers to assess employees' needs quickly and often, which can be stressful
  • Be ineffective in strictly task- or deadline-driven environments
  • Place an undue burden on managers who are not adequately trained to lead intuitively or equipped with the skills needed to respond to complicated situations

How to Develop Situational Leadership Skills and Become a Leader Employees Want to Follow

Situational leadership is a customizable approach to management in which team leaders continually assess each employee's skill level and unique needs. This leadership style adapts as employees learn and grow or as their needs change, so flexibility is key.

"Today's fast-changing business environment requires managers to take a nimble and responsive approach to whatever is arising in their team, work environment, and organization,” writes Judy Wolf, MS, PCC, in a “BetterUp” blog titled, "Situational leadership: Learn to develop it through examples."

Tailoring your management style to employees' needs motivates them to:

  • Learn new skills
  • Accomplish goals
  • Further their careers and your company's mission

Situational leadership provides a managerial platform from which to do this, but it requires knowledge, flexibility, and empathy to lead with this approach day in and day out.

"Promotions don't automatically make people great leaders," says Steve Moore, Director of Employee Development for G&A Partners. “There's finesse involved, authenticity, and no small amount of innovation, risk-taking, and disruption." (Get more insights from Moore in G&A's "How to Become a Leader Employees Will Want to Follow" webinar.)

Five Ways Managers Can Develop and Implement Situational Leadership Skills in Your Workplace

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Get to know each employee as an individual.

Dedicate time to getting to know each of your employees as a person and a coworker. Review their experience and examine past performance reviews. Analyze their work results and how well they handle current responsibilities. Find out their preferred communication styles and ask about family, values, and hobbies. As you become more familiar with their strengths, weaknesses, skills, dreams, and fears, you can develop a 360-degree view of them and will be better prepared to successfully coach and lead them in specific situations.

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Schedule regular coaching sessions with each employee.

The goal of regular coaching sessions is to strengthen your relationship with each employee, help them grow and develop, and review their work performance. Make a firm commitment to schedule, attend, and prepare for each session.

Actions you can take to demonstrate the importance of these sessions:

  • Create an agenda for each meeting and send it to them in advance.
  • Minimize all distractions by turning off email and message notifications and ignoring incoming phone calls until after the meeting.
  • Ask open-ended questions to get the conversation going. Practice active listening.
  • When your employee encounters a problem, encourage them to find solutions and commit to action. Then, follow up with them to offer support, review progress, and provide feedback.
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Build trust and rapport with your team.

The 2021 Gartner Hybrid Work Employee Survey of 4,000 employees revealed the importance of building trust between managers and employees—particularly within a hybrid work environment.

Gartner’s survey recommended these proactive trust-building tips:

  • Be honest and share information but use good judgment about what to share, when to share it, and when not to share it.
  • Be consistent. Show up every day, on time, and do what you say you will do.
  • Demonstrate your loyalty to your team by having your employees' backs—in their presence and their absence.
  • Pay attention to your nonverbal cues when communicating with team members. For example, look others in the eye, practice active listening, and demonstrate openness through body language.
  • Ask your employees for their ideas and feedback. Then, listen and consider the information with an open mind.
  • Focus on core principles and employee loyalty over short-term success or profits.
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Implement a robust performance-management process.

A performance-management process is much more than conducting a year-end employee review. A robust process involves measuring, reporting, and managing your employees' progress so they develop and improve as contributors to your organization.

A top-tier performance management system can lead to lower absenteeism, higher productivity, fewer safety incidents and can help to facilitate ongoing communication between managers and employees. It also helps managers identify and prepare the next generation of leaders.

"As employees understand how their role impacts their organization's objectives, they become more confident and dedicated to improving their performance," Moore says. "They are motivated to expand their knowledge and skills and begin to see where they can go and what they can do."

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Learn from people who know more than you.

Many employees are promoted to management positions based on their technical expertise and are unfamiliar with situational management. In addition to developing soft skills—self-awareness, empathy, and active listening—managers can participate in training opportunities that help develop their leadership, coaching, and conflict-resolution competencies.

"Seek out mentors and coaches of your own and ask them to provide constructive feedback in areas that need improvement," says Michelle Beck-Howard, one of G&A Partners’ expert Client Advocates. "And practice, practice, practice!"

Two women sitting at conference table. Manager utilizing situational leadership with employee one on one.

The 2020 Perspective: How the Pandemic has Impacted Situational Leadership

The COVID-19 pandemic forced many managers to make significant adjustments in the workplace, including managing remotely and adapting to increasingly stressful conditions that impacted many employees' mental health and well-being.

Because situational leadership is a hands-on, intuitive management approach, managers who employ this strategy have relied on the flexible options it offers and adapted its constructs to accommodate flexible work schedules and a hybrid workforce. However, there is still work to be done.

In “The Importance of Situational Leadership,” Joy Birmingham, Duke University's Assistant Director of Professional Development for Learning & Organization Development writes, "At a time when managers have employees working from home, they can't use visual and auditory cues about how employees are doing. The employee may be able to 'figure out' how to do something, but it is much easier for the manager to increase or decrease their direction and support to each employee. Too much and you are micromanaging, but too little direction and support can make employees feel they are on their own."

Gartner's "How the Best Managers Improve Employee Performance and Health" by Sari Wilde states that it's vital for managers to recognize three seismic changes that have impacted how we’ve worked in the past two years and how to respond to each. These include:

  • How, where, and when we work is changing
  • Job requirements—and requisite skills—continue to evolve
  • Employees want their employers to recognize them as people, not just workers

Communication is key, says Anu Mannathikuzhiyil, an HR expert and Client Advocate for G&A Partners.

"Pay attention to what's going on and check in as often as possible with employees so you continue to build a solid relationship with them based on mutual trust," she says. "If you have remote workers and aren't able to see them regularly face to face, you need to find a way to organize what projects they're working on, what their needs are, what your expectations for them are, and really focus on building that communication with them."

Managers should continue to focus on making employee, team, and organizational connections but will also need to adapt how they create these connections to meet the needs of the new work environment.

Gartner recommends that managers:

  • Lead with empathy, ask questions, and diagnose employees' strengths, development areas, motivations, and interests so they can recommend concrete actions that help employees move forward.
  • Regularly assess their team's health and work to build a foundation of psychological safety that fosters trust so that employees are invested in one another's well-being and success, not just their own.
  • Advocate for their employees' professional and personal growth and help them achieve their full potential.

How G&A Can Help

For your company to perform at its peak, you need your employees to do the same. An effective performance review process provides your team with the feedback and direction they need to align their efforts with company goals. G&A will work with you to build a customized process designed to fit your company and its culture.