Situational Leadership

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Whether you are new to a leadership position, or been around the ring many times, (and have the battle scars to prove it!), having the situational leadership model in your tool bag of skills will be useful.

It would be wonderful if we could treat each person in the team exactly the same ... using the leadership style that you feel most comfortable with. Unfortunately, as you've probably experienced, one glove doesn't fit all hands.

You will be more effective, at successfully bringing out the best in others, when you have the ability to flex your leadership style to suit the particular person and situation.

The Situational Leadership (SL) model, developed by Ken Blanchard and Paul Hersey in the late 1960s, has been used by millions of leaders around the globe. It describes four primary styles of leadership - Directing, Coaching, Joining and Delegating.

Like all models it has its limitations, for example I firmly believe that the relationship is important, no matter the individual's technical competence and/or attitude. However, the concept of changing and flexing your style, according to the needs of the individual in front of you, is an important part of your competence as a high performance leader.

Decide The Development Level Of The Team Member

The first step, when deciding which style of leadership you need to use with someone, is to think about these two factors:

  • Commitment (confidence & motivation)
  • Competence (knowledge of the task at hand)

As you have probably experienced, these two factors can vary from situation to situation with each employee - for example you might have someone who is an absolute gem at making sales calls: highly competent and highly committed to it ... but getting them to submit their paperwork - well that's a different story. So, a key point here is that you may need to use one or more styles of leadership with an individual on an given day.

In Situational Leadership, the four development levels used to describe individuals are:

Situational Leadership Development Levels

D1: The "Enthusiastic Beginner" (Low Competence/High Commitment)

This person may be new to the team/organization and is excited about their new role. At the same time, s/he doesn't yet know the ropes, so doesn't have the skills required for the job in hand.

Words That Describe:  Enthusiastic, Curious, Inexperienced, Hopeful, Untested Performer

D2: The "Disillusioned Learner" (Low Competence/Low Commitment)

This person may have been around for a while and may have some relevant skills. Motivation and enthusiasm have dropped. The person may be thinking of leaving. Inconsistent in their performance and unsure of the difference they make.

Words That Describe:  Frustrated, Disillusioned, Demotivated, Overwhelmed, Inconsistent/Adequate Performer

D3: The "Reluctant Contributor" (High Competence/Variable Commitment)

This person has probably been around for a while and is quite experienced and capable. At times though, lacks the confidence to do things alone and/or the motivation to do it well. Might be bored and looking for new challenges.

Words That Describe:  Capable, Apathetic, Insecure, Dissatisfied, Middling/Tolerable Performer

D4: The "Peak Performer" (High Competence/High Commitment)

This person enjoys what they are doing, is highly competent and probably even teaching others the ropes.

Words That Describe:  Competent, Self-directed, Confident, Role Model, Independent, High Performer, Inspiring

Decide The Leadership Style That Is Appropriate

Once you have figured out the individual's level of competence and commitment, you then need to decide which style of leadership is needed for the task at hand. According to the SL model, there are two key factors in your leadership style -

  1. How directive you are or
  2. How supportive you are

The model combines these two key factors into four styles of leadership you can use.



Situational Leadership

 Match up the development level of the individual with the appropriate leadership style   D4 → S4       D3 → S3                  D2 → S2         D1 → S1

S1: Directing (High Direction/Low Support)

This quadrant is useful for people who are keen but lack competence (D1). There is a more focus given to helping the person feel they are achieving, by getting the task done, and less on building the relationship - (the assumption is that the relationship is still in the 100 day honeymoon period!).

The leader is very task focused. Showing and Telling the person what to do, how to do it and when they need to be finished by. The leader provides as many explanations as are needed, but there is no discussion/debate on what must be done. Problem-solving and decision-making are initiated by the leader. The team member needs this type of direction to get them started.

In the S1 quadrant you are primarily Directing, so you would say things like:

Directing = "I want you to do x, y and z, in this way ..... , by 4 pm"

Sometimes, you may toss in a little 'selling', especially if the person is moving toward one of the other quadrants and you want to help them to improve their competence levels.

The leader should be closely monitoring the team member's performance, making sure they are on the right track.

How Best To Coach/Lead This Person

  • Let them know you appreciate their enthusiasm
  • Reinforce that the skills they bring with them are valued
  • Provide the tools and structure to get the job done
  • Make sure the team member is taught how to do the task to standards
  • Organize the workflow
  • Set clear goals
  • Define clearly what they can and can't do
  • Provide action plans, priorities and set time lines/milestones to be achieved
  • Provide here's what to do and here's how to do it type instructions
  • Make sure you have regularly scheduled 'milestones' meetings to keep up-to-date with their progress
  • Provide plenty of quick, timely reinforcing feedback

S2: Coaching (High Direction/High Support)

This quadrant is used who for team members who have some competence but lack commitment/motivation (D2).

In this quadrant the leader still gives a high degree of direction and is still the center of the universe for the team, and the individual.  They lead with their own ideas, however they are also explaining why things need to be done the way requested and seeking much more input from the team members. In order to build commitment and self-esteem, the leader considers more fully the feelings, ideas, and suggestions of team members.

Two-way communication and support is increased, but control over decision-making remains with the leader. The leader must be up front - we'll discuss, but ultimately I'll decide. Do not pretend that you are going to utilize their input, if you have already decided what/how the task is going to be done. That will only land you in hot water.

In the S2 quadrant you can either  Sell, Test or Consult. For example:

Selling = "I am faced with this challenging situation, what I'd like you to do is x, y and z, the reasons I want you to do it are ..."

Testing = "We are challenged with this situation .... I have given it some thought and think we can overcome it by taking any of these three paths .... Before I make the final decision I'd like you to provide me with your thoughts, and any other information I may have missed."

Consulting = "We are challenged with this situation ... Please come up with some ideas on how we could resolve it and I'll make the decision which of the ideas we should implement."

As a High Performance Leader, you make it very clear to your team members that you will try to reach agreements in all the Quadrants. The message you send to the team is:

"While I make the decision in Q1 and Q2, I'll do all I can to help you understand the reasons for my choice. I'll spend time explaining to you why I believe my decision is the best course of action, but ultimately I decide what we do. Hopefully, in most cases, you will agree with the direction we are taking, as strongly as if you had made the decision yourself."

How Best To Coach/Lead This Person

  • Involve the team member by getting ideas and input
  • Make sure you explain 'why' something needs to be done (or done in a particular way)
  • Listen and be prepared to change your course when better ideas are provided
  • Get people focused on identifying and attempting to solve problems
  • Ask questions to get them thinking about why things went well and then why things didn't go so well - focus them on the difference between a success and flop
  • Involve them in setting goals and creating action plans
  • Be supportive while people are learning and applying their knowledge
  • Be encouraging and reinforce progress (not just success)
  • Ask open questions and encourage them to share their concerns
  • Have regular milestones meetings, but do give them some 'rope' to learn from their mistakes

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