As a global business leader, I encounter numerous different situations involving radically different employees. My work has taught me that any leadership approach must take the situation into account, and not all leaders work well in all conditions.
Fiedler’s Contingency Model of Leadership was one of the first leadership theories that took situational parameters into account, resulting in a new approach in leadership studies.
What is Fiedler’s Contingency Model of Leadership?
Fiedler’s contingency model of leadership explains which type of leader leads to high performance in one of eight different situations. Each situation is defined by three dimensions: leader-member relations, task structure, and position power. Depending on these dimensions, a task-oriented or a relationship-oriented leader is most suitable for driving performance.
If you prefer video format, watch our Youtube video on Fiedler’s Contingency Model via the link or in the embedded version right here. The article continues further below. (Check out our overview article for additional Leadership Styles, Models, and Theories.)
(Want to learn more about leadership? Then check out the leadership books I recommend.)
Fiedler’s Contingency Model – Introduction
In the 1960s, some researchers realized that a focus on traits or leadership behaviors was not enough. Leadership studies and theories had to take the situation of the followers and the organization into account. The addition of situational elements increased complexity, and current leadership theories were not enough anymore. This new approach to leadership opened up for several Situational Leadership Theories.
Fiedler’s Contingency Theory emerged in the mid-sixties and was one of the first situational leadership models. Fred Fiedler was an American psychologist originating from Austria. He headed organizational research at the University of Washington for more than twenty years until he left in 1992. Fiedler combined several previous studies’ results and came up with a formula known as Fiedler’s Situation Leadership Model or Fiedler’s Contingency Model of Leadership.
According to this model, a leader’s contribution to performance depends on leadership behavior and the level of compliance with each situation’s circumstances. The novelty with this was that Fiedler stated that a leader could be effective in one situation and not in another. A good leader is not necessarily successful when heading all types of organizations in all situations. To cover this aspect, Fiedler included numerous leader-situation combinations that can guide leaders on how to act.
The model includes two different leadership behaviors and three situational dimensions. Depending on these dimensions’ strength level, one of eight different situations apply, and a certain type of leadership behavior will lead to high or low performance.
Fiedler concluded that a leader could not be effective all the time in all kinds of situations. Instead, the Fiedler model suggests that a leader with the right behavior should be leading and that each person only has one stable leadership style, regardless of experience and training. This implies that a leader that does not fit the situation should be switched out. Fiedler realized that this approach would be highly impractical, so he recommended that the situation should be changed to suit the leader’s behavior instead. I am not sure how it would be easier to change the situation than change the leader, so this article will dig deeper into this aspect.
Fiedler’s model involves a three-step assessment in establishing the proper combination of leader and situation:
- Assess the leader’s leadership style or leadership behavior by using the LPC scale
- Assess the situation by evaluating it along three different situational dimensions
- Match the situation and the leadership behavior to gauge the expected performance by using the Fiedler Contingency Model chart visible below
These different aspects and the process of assessment are described in more detail below.
Remember, Fiedler suggested that it would be easier to change the situation than the leader. We will show you how this can be done by providing a few examples further down in this article.
The Leadership Styles of Fiedler’s Contingency Model of Leadership
Fiedler’s Contingency Model of Leadership includes two types of leadership styles: task-oriented or relationship-oriented leadership behavior.
The lack of additional styles limits Fiedler’s theory compared to more modern leadership theories such as the six leadership styles by Daniel Goleman, which brings additional perspectives, behaviors, and approaches that the leader can use.
By using Fiedler’s least preferred coworker scale, or LPC, a leader comes out as either relationship-oriented or task-oriented. Which style a leader uses is established by answering a questionnaire with eighteen questions with opposite answers. The leader thinks of the least preferred team member and answers questions with a scale from 1 to 8, ranging from unpleasant to pleasant, unfriendly to friendly, or similar.
A high score on the LPC scale means that the leader is pleasant and lovely to work with and therefore assumed to be a relationship-oriented leader. A low score means that the leader is difficult and cares less about people, indicates that the leader uses a task-oriented leadership style.
A relationship-oriented leader develops bonds and relationships with team members and other stakeholders. Relationship-oriented behavior leads to trust, friendship, and a supporting team climate.
Relationship-orientation compares to transformational leadership from the Full Range Leadership Model or a mix of democratic, affiliative, visionary, and coaching leadership from the six leadership styles by Goleman.
A task-oriented leader cares about getting the job done, task execution, quality, output, and other non-human aspects. The task-oriented leader puts a second priority on relationships and people.
Task-oriented leadership has similarities with transactional leadership from the Full Range Leadership Model or a combination of directive and pacesetting leadership. In extreme cases, a task-oriented leader might even be using an autocratic leadership style.
As mentioned, a leader displays one of the two behaviors and cannot switch between styles according to Fiedler`s contingency model.
The Situational Variables of Fiedler’s Contingency Model of Leadership
Fiedler’s Contingency Model of Leadership defines three situational dimensions:
- Leader-member relations: Trust levels, respect, commitment between leader and follower
- Task structure: The level of clarity, rules, and job descriptions
- Position power: Reward and punishment opportunities available to the leader, essentially the leader’s authority and position.
Each of Fiedler’s three contingency variables will be explained in detail below.
The first dimension is called Leader-Member relations and describes how well the team and its leader work together, including trust levels, willingness to follow the leader, etc.
If the followers respect and trust their leader, they are more likely to follow willingly. This means that the leader has more power and a more substantial possibility to influence the team. The stronger the influence and the willingness to follow, the less official authority the leader will need to get the job done.
This makes a lot of sense: A good leader gets people to follow through inspiration, and a poor leader depends more on formal authority to get people to listen.
Some parts of the concept of the leader-member relation are similar to Max Weber’s classification of authority, where charismatic leadership builds on the leader’s persona, and rational-legal authority builds on bureaucratic leadership and formal power. Refer to our in-depth articles to learn more about these aspects by clicking the links in the previous sentence.
The leader-member dimension has two possible assessment outcomes: Good and Poor.
Task Structure describes the level of clarity, instructions, rules, policies, processes, etc.
In high task structure situations, the input, process, output, policies, job descriptions, and other defining rules are well known. This means that it is evident what needs to be done, when, how, and by whom.
Low task structure requires more judgment, improvisation, and frequent decisions since many of the parameters needed to execute the task are unknown.
The Task Structure of a situation can be assessed as low or high.
Position power describes the leader’s possibilities to reward and punish employees, combined with other aspects of the leader’s authority. If your manager has the right to change your salary or even fire you, but your supervisor doesn’t, you’re more likely to listen to the former; it is as simple as that. Generally, the higher up in the hierarchy, the higher authority and the stronger position-power the leader has.
Position Power is designated as either strong or weak.
Advantages and Disadvantages of Fiedler’s Contingency Model
Fiedler’s contingency model has its strengths and its limitations as most other leadership models. Although the introduction of situational factors was impressive, the limitation in the number of leadership behaviors is significant in comparison to the six leadership styles by Goleman.
Advantages of Fiedler’s Contingency Model of Leadership
The advantages of Fiedler’s Contingency Model of Leadership are:
- It takes situational aspects into account, unlike most other leadership models from the same time
- It is easy to understand and provides clear guidance
- It underlines the differences between situations and helps leaders to assess and understand the situation they act in
Disadvantages of Fiedler’s Contingency Model of Leadership
The disadvantages of Fiedler’s Contingency Model of Leadership are:
- The assumption that leadership behavior is static can limit leaders from even trying to change their ways
- The LPC scale is based on subjective judgment, and any error in assessment can result in the wrong guidance
- Only two different leadership behaviors can result in leaders being assessed as either-or, resulting in confusion and unclarity
- The assumption that leaders are relationship or task-oriented is incorrect. Modern leadership theory underlines that leaders can show both behaviors at the same time.
Fiedler’s Contingency Theory – Example Situations
This chapter includes two examples of assessing a leadership situation by using Fiedler’s contingency model of leadership. You can also read tips and suggestions on how to move from one value to another for each of the situational dimensions.
Fiedler’s Contingency Model: Advertising Agency Example
An Advertising Agency serves as our first example. Let us consider the three different dimensions to describe the situation.
The advertising agency’s creative process requires good guidance and close support from the leader since it is built on artistic work rather than pre-set processes and rules. Due to the work’s creative nature, the employees are asked of their opinions and shape the work together. The leader needs to know the employees well, including everyone’s strengths and weaknesses, to distribute the work to the right people depending on what needs to be done.
The above indicates that the leader-member relation is good.
Since the projects handled by the agency can be very different in size, shape, and message, there are relatively few guidelines and instructions on how to do the work. Each project has its requirements on how work is done and what kind of output is needed. This low level of clarity in tasks and a high degree of changing conditions indicate a low task structure.
This advertising agency creates different projects depending on the customer, scope, etc., and a project manager with the appropriate experience, contacts, and knowledge is appointed to lead each project. Each of the project members has their permanent line managers, who support them in the background.
Since the line managers are responsible for setting salaries, hiring, and firing, the project manager needs to lead the work without complete responsibility for the resources. If a project member does well or bad, it will be visible in the project manager’s assessment of the team member, delivered to the line manager. This rather loose control over the team members indicates a weak power position for the project manager in this case.
Good leader-member relation, low task structure, and weak power position correspond to situation four in the contingency theory chart.
Situation four states that a task-oriented leader will perform poorly, and a relationship-oriented leader will perform well. When setting this project up, the project owner should appoint a relationship-oriented project manager to reach higher performance.
However, Fiedler’s contingency model is also about changing the situation to fit the leader. What if you only have a task-oriented project manager available. What should you do then?
The Fiedler contingency model chart shows that a task-oriented leader works best in situations one, two, and eight. Situations three and six offer medium performance with task-oriented leadership behavior. The eighth situation is undesirable since all dimensions are weak, so let us leave that one out.
Which situational dimensions need alteration, and how?
To obtain situation one: task structure needs to go from low to high and position power need to go from weak to strong.
To obtain situation two: task structure need to go from low to high.
In this example, the project owner considers it impossible to change into a high task structure situation given the work’s nature, rendering both situations one and two unattainable.
One option remains: transition from situation four to situation three, which requires strong position power. Thanks to this guidance, the project owner investigated ways to improve the position power without changing reporting lines. These were the ways they moved forward with:
- The project manager’s assessment shall account for 50% of the salary increase evaluation coming up next year.
- A special bonus program stipulated that two project team members would get a monetary incentive at the end of the project. The selection of these team members was at the discretion of the project manager.
- The project manager started reporting to the company’s CEO, putting her at the same hierarchical level as the line managers.
By doing these changes, the position power strengthened quite a bit, increasing the chances of a successful project outcome when run by this specific project manager.
Fiedler’s Contingency Model: Fast Food Restaurant Example
You know the drill from the previous example, so this one will be shorter. Here are seven statements describing the situation at this fast-food franchise.
- High turnover since there are many similar jobs
- Little personal attachment since people are easily replaced due to the low skill requirements
- After a short training session, everybody knows what to do, giving little need for close support and guidance by the manager
- Division of labor is highly detailed: one person makes burgers, a second handles fries, a third handles sodas, and a fourth person takes the order
- Processes are highly standardized, meaning that each meal is prepared according to pre-set rules and instructions
- Meticulous instructions for all tasks have been prepared centrally for each franchise to maximize its efficiency and standardizations.
- The shift supervisor does not set the salaries or hire and fire people. The restaurant owner handles all these things. The supervisor can bring complaints to the owner, but that is pretty much it.
Statements one, two, and three indicate low leader-member relations. Task structure is high according to statements four, five, and six. Finally, seven indicates weak position power for the shift supervisor but strong position power for the restaurant owner.
According to Fiedler’s chart, this describes situation five in the case of the restaurant owner and situation six in the shift supervisor’s case.
For this to work, the owner needs to display task-oriented behavior. Given the nature of the work, this is probably not a surprise. Being close to your employees and providing support and guidance when the work is repetitive and easy might slow down the employees. An employee that cannot follow instructions and work at the expected quality and speed, might get fired.
Situation six is a bit more complicated. Fiedler’s chart shows that neither task-oriented nor relationship-oriented leadership will lead to high performance. As in the previous example of the advertising agency, the strengthening of position power will result in situation five. Suppose the supervisor improves the relationships with the team members, making sure they feel good at work, have fun, and smoothly get through their day. In that case, good leader-member relations might be the outcome, which turns situation six into situation two. Essentially, a well-liked and popular task-oriented leader can work as a supervisor.
Fiedler’s Contingency Model of Leadership – Summary
It is good to be aware of and understand Fiedler’s Contingency Model of Leadership. It can help you in your leadership role to see the different aspects of each situation and adjust the situational dimensions to create a more suitable situation.
However, the model limits the behavior of the leader a lot. Only two different behaviors are defined, and leaders are expected to use only one of those behaviors.
Although Fiedler’s Model brought an additional perspective to the field of leadership studies when it came, several frameworks with situational consideration have emerged since then. Many of those provide a wider view, more flexibility, and a higher degree of situational understanding. I suggest you look into and learn more about the Full Range Leadership Model, Resonant Leadership with the Six Leadership Styles by Goleman, and Situational Leadership model. Click the links to go to our articles on those topics.
I recommend you read our overview article explaining loads of Leadership Theories and Framework from the 1800s and onwards, you can find it right here: Leadership Theories and Frameworks.
“A Handbook of Leadership Styles”, Demirtas and Karaca, Cambridge Scholars Publishing.