It is an axiomatic fact that the way leaders make decisions, behave and lead in the workplace has a powerful impact on employee engagement, motivation and ultimately retention. Leadership, by common consent, also considerably exerts a tremendous influence on business performance. The style leaders adopt to manage their teams should be hence regarded as a business issue, rather than as an HR whim; an organizational subject which HR, as it occurs in every people-related matter, should take charge of.
Albeit countless definitions of leadership have been provided over the years, the number of approaches developed to effectively and consistently manage it has been considerably smaller to date. Based on the findings of a number of studies conducted between 1911 and 1966, and on the widely-held belief that each individual is different from others, Hersey and Blanchard developed, in the late 1960s, the Situational Leadership model, also known as “organized common sense” (Leadership Studies, 2017). A flexible framework whose main aim is enable leaders to influence individual behaviour and motivate their followers, adopting a different approach according to each individual level of “performance readiness.”
The underpinning tenet, at the basis of the development of this framework, is that it does not indeed exist a wrong leadership style in that the right style, or rather, the most suitable approach, actually depends on the circumstances. Also in leadership thus the one size does not fit all. The model intends to help leaders assess every occurrence so as to identify the specific, proper amount of guidance to give each of their followers and of communication to establish with each of them, according to their “performance readiness”, that is, the combination of capability, eagerness and keenness expressed by each individual, under the specific environmental circumstances. The approach a leader must adopt should be hence matched up with each individual development level (Table 1).
This simple framework, essentially based on common sense, may appear extremely straightforward to apply and implement, but it actually requires leaders’ constant, careful attention.
The first pitfall leaders should definitely avoid to fall into is thinking to well know each member of their team and regard their level of performance readiness as invariably the same, regardless of the specific assignment or task they intend to assign them.
One of the most crucial phases for the identification of the suitable leadership style is “diagnosing.” This step is concerned with the assessment of the competencies an individual has already gained and his/her likely commitment to achieve that specific objective. Leaders should not be hence influenced by the level of commitment shown by their followers under other circumstances or by their skills at large, but focus on the competencies and eagerness these may have to perform that specific activity. Diagnosing is hence not about an overall assessment; it aims at determining an individual fit for a specific task.
The adoption of this approach may lead leaders to believe that they can assign an individual a project only and only whether this has already successfully managed and gained previous experience with similar projects. In this way, nevertheless, leaders would jeopardize individual growth and development, and would not put themselves in a position to assess their followers learning agility.
Diagnosing should not be used to prevent individual growth but to favour and sustain it over time. Understanding what a team member needs to properly perform a task or effectually contribute to a project, is necessary to make decisions on the type of support, guidance and direction an individual needs so as to take appropriate action to bridge the identified gap.
The pace change occurs nowadays is increasingly quickening and more often than not organizations and their leaders are prompted to take action as swiftly as they can. The fact an individual has not gained yet the full set of competencies this needs to carry out a given task, regardless of his/her eagerness and motivation to perform it, may prompt a leader to assign the activity to a different individual, who already has what it takes to effectually perform the task. Yet by reason of the lack of time to direct, support or coach their followers and of the typically strict projects timeline, leaders may find it preferable to assigning challenging tasks to more experienced individuals. Such an arguably justified leader behaviour, under the circumstances, would nonetheless fetter rather than favour individual growth. Worse still, whether a leader should not timely plan for their followers to gain the skills and experience necessary to properly perform more challenging tasks, before these have the chance to use these skills in a project, individuals would never be put in a position to develop, and will thus inexorably leave the organization, not to mention that they may stay and underperform.
Serious problems may also arise when leaders consider to assign a follower a project or task based on their willingness to perform it. A leader can ill afford to assign a follower a task only and only whether this is keen and eager to perform it. Genuine leaders should be able to motivate their followers to carry out tasks these may not be completely happy to perform, but that are important for the organization success. Henry S. Truman (US President 1945 – 1953) defined leadership as the “ability to get others to do what they don’t want to do and like it.” Good leaders should be able to provide their followers a clear-sighted vision of their company’s and of their own future, but also enthusiasm and sense of belonging so as to self-motivation and self-fulfilment to build up. Whether individuals have the competencies and skills to perform a task, conceivably just because their employer has heavily invested in their development and banks on them, leaders cannot fail to influence and persuade their followers of the importance of their contribution. It is hardly thinkable the paradigm “no willingness, no task performed.”
There are indeed some additional risks associated with an inappropriate, rigid implementation of Situational Leadership. If leaders do not adopt it adding a further degree of flexibility, that is to say without adding flexibility to flexibility, these may hamper their followers learning agility and by showing a high degree of intolerance towards failure, prevent innovation to spread and flourish within the organization.
Whether leaders have no time to provide their followers the direction, support and coaching they need, and would be willing to assign individuals only the tasks these are confidently able to face, they will never be able to identify and sustain their learning agility level and development. In turn, individuals for fear of disappointing their leader by making mistakes, would invariably avert to innovate and change methods, processes and procedures, albeit this may be one of the objectives Situational Leadership would actually aim at achieving.
As Hamlet said (Act 5, Scene 2), referring to well different circumstances, “the readiness is all”, but readiness should be properly and consistently assessed. It is not only a matter of properly interpreting what should be meant by readiness from the leader point of view, but also to ascertain whether leader and follower agree on it. The risk being that rather than favouring people development and sustaining the pursuance of organizational strategy, Situational Leadership may cause some undesirable drawbacks and counter-effects.
Diagnosing is unquestionably a crucial stage of Situational Leadership implementation; leaders should invariably ensure to discuss openly and thoroughly with their followers their level of development and readiness to take a new challenge up.
Whether followers should disagree with their leaders on their readiness level, consequences can prove to be particularly detrimental. If followers, differently from their leaders, believe to be ready to perform a task, the circumstance their leader would not assign them that task would generate disappointment, distrust, dissatisfaction and a plunge in self-confidence. In the case of leaders overestimating their followers level of readiness, deeming their followers ready to face the new challenge, whereas these do not actually feel to be, the fact followers would not recognize to be unprepared so as not to disappoint their leader, is likely to produce negative effects upon both the successful completion of the project and the individual career.
The practical implementation of Situational Leadership should be hence preceded by the introduction of an objective, agreed “readiness” assessment method and some tailored tools. Both leaders and followers should be made aware of the procedure, variables and assessment methods used to identify each individual readiness level. A transparent, objectively supportable approach and a structured methodology would definitely ensure leaders avoid bias and enable them to properly assess their followers’ skills, based on specific values and competencies. A transparent method would also reassure followers that their level of readiness will be assessed objectively and consistently across the organization.
Despite the Situational Leadership model only refers to followers’ readiness, it may be argued that the difficult execution of this approach and the thorny issues it involves imply a high level of leaders’ readiness, too. Like their followers, leaders should indeed be eager and prepared to, and skilled at adopting this approach. The inconsistent, inappropriate implementation of Situational Leadership can in fact break rather than make employee engagement and performance, and hence organizational success. Employers aiming at introducing this approach should be aware of the drawbacks and threats it can potentially pose.
Situational Leadership can be regarded as an organization strategy to leadership, as such implementation may prove to be much more important than strategy itself. The distinctive features of Situational Leadership: flexibility, simplicity and the case-by-case consideration of individual development, account for this model to be relevant and useful. On the flip side, it does not appear to be far-sighted and neglects some significant factors which deserve more attention and consideration. It can be thus regarded as a basic, broad framework; to be implemented, nonetheless, the model should be complemented with several activities, tools and assessment methods, which may in some ways alter the model itself.
The conscious decision to adopt a specific leadership style, cannot be made disregarding the values and beliefs underpinning an organization culture.
Whether corporate culture should foster individual development, innovation and learning agility, for instance, situational leadership might be deemed by staff as inconsistent and unfit. Individual development would be only secured to those employees who have already gained a certain level of autonomy and expertise. Projects and significant tasks would be assigned to a limited number of individuals, whereas the others would be basically refused access to the opportunities enabling them to broaden their experience and reach higher level of competence. Not be put in a position to grow and develop, these individuals would consequently feel their job to essentially be a dead-end job and will either underperform or leave their employer. Ensure the cultural fit of a leadership approach is hence of paramount importance.
The concept of employee “readiness” is indeed very interesting, but more than a leadership style, it may show to better suit people development and succession planning practices. Whether employers identify the set of skills individuals should master, and the type of experience they must gain, to fill leadership and key roles within their organization, being able to assess individual readiness to fill those positions, would clearly enable them to confidently face the future organizational challenges.
Employee readiness should not represent the end itself, but the means to an end. Once employees have reached the professional and moral standards required by the organization to take up any given position, also by virtue of their learning agility, these should be able to confidently face all the challenges posed by these roles.
Individual readiness to fill leadership and key roles within an organization should clearly be professionally assessed adopting tried and tested, trusted methodologies and not exclusively relying on the leaders’ assessment of their followers.
Whereas it is broadly recognized that one of the distinctive characteristics of Situational Leadership is flexibility, its strict implementation may turn this approach into an extremely rigid one. The idea of “readiness” should be therefore interpreted with extreme care and regarded as a method to assess individual development in a much far-sighted, pragmatic fashion; not to make short-term decisions, but to make informed choices enabling employers to reap the benefits and attain tangible results both presently and in the future.
Longo, R., (2019), How Situational is Situational Leadership?; Milan: HR Professionals [online].