Path-Goal Theory is a contingency theory of leadership developed by Martin Evans and Robert House. The main idea behind Path-Goal Theory is that the leader takes responsibility for providing followers with everything the team needs to follow their path to their goal. As a CEO that leads by purpose and intent, I like that Path-Goal Theory is very concrete, and if you perform with intent, you will continue moving toward your goal. This article explains Path-Goal Theory with its advantages and disadvantages and some examples. But let us start with a few straightforward explanations to set the scene.
What is Path-Goal Theory?
Path-Goal Theory is a leadership approach where the leader clearly identifies goals and the path to reach them. The leader uses directive, supportive, participative, and achievement-oriented leadership behaviors to motivate, guide, and remove obstacles, depending on the employee and environmental factors.
Originally developed in 1971, Path-Goal Theory builds on the assumptions and path-goal hypothesis by Georgopolous as well as the expectancy theory by Vroom from 1964. Path-Goal Theory has been further refreshed and updated as late as 1996. As the name Path-Goal implies, the leader must guide the team members along the path they need to complete to reach the goal set by the leader. This path can be different for different teams or individuals but should somehow lead to overall goal fulfillment. This means that the leader must also align individual goals with organizational goals to ensure performance and motivation. The leader and the team also need to forecast potential problems and obstacles expected to block their path. Along this journey, the leader is there to incentivize the team by properly rewarding and punishing performance, preferably in a transparent manner that can be foreseen and expected by the team. (Much along the lines with transactional leadership of the Full Range Leadership Model.) A Path-Goal leader will not simply set and explain the path and leave the team but will remain connected to the daily work, ensure progress, and provide support as required. (Tip: Here is an excellent way for leaders to stay involved in the day-to-day operations of an organization: Management by Walking Around (MBWA).
When explaining and illuminating the path toward the goal, the leader is also responsible for explaining how the team should act in various situations, which is vital in goal achievement. So the leader is both screenwriter and director, essentially.  The leader has four different leadership behaviors in the Path-Goal toolbox and needs to assess the situation before deciding which behavior to use and how to deploy it. Let us start by explaining a few situational factors before we define the theory’s four leadership behaviors, or leadership styles, in more detail.
Path-Goal Theory: Situational Characteristics
There are two groups of characteristics that a Path-Goal leader should consider when assessing a situation, namely Environmental and Task characteristics in one group and Employee characteristics in the second group.
Path-Goal Theory: Employee Factors
To provide the best leadership possible, every leader should consider the needs of the person in front of them. The old saying “treat others as you want to be treated yourself” is not sufficient, and the leader should consider how others want and need to be treated to perform to an optimum level. Here are a few employee characteristics that can be used to gauge what kind of leadership behavior a specific employee needs:
- Skill and ability (self-perceived as well as real)
- Experience level
- Need for structure and control
- Need for affiliation
- How to be incentivized
- Level of empowerment vs. control
These characteristics should shape how the leader approaches and works with the individual, and they also affect how the employee perceives and judges the leader’s behaviors. Some people need to bond with their team members, and others are more lone wolves. Low-skilled and inexperienced individuals need more instructions, structure, and guidance. High-skilled and experienced individuals might actually feel insulted if they are micromanaged.
In most leadership situations, employee characteristics need to be assessed, not just in Path-Goal theory. Team members should have faith in what they can do and focus on the tasks assigned to them, and those tasks can be vague, complex, simple, or come with detailed instructions. It is very difficult to change someone’s personal characteristics and in many cases, it is impossible or undesirable to switch people out. Often, leaders need to work with what they have and shape their approaches to leading and managing by understanding the people they lead.
When I was a Senior Vice President, I kept getting detailed instructions from my new boss, essentially saying do this, then that, which I found deeply annoying. I honestly questioned why he had me in that job if he, for some reason, felt I needed such detailed instructions. To make things more strange, I could receive very complex goals at other times without any guidance or instructions. As you probably guess, this rubbed me the wrong way completely.
I have worked with employees who prefer a directive leadership style, people who need to become close with their peers, and others who want to stay somewhat anonymous and be left entirely on their own when figuring out how to fulfill their mission. There are all kinds of people in the world, and as leaders, we need to consider who we are working with and not treat everyone the same.
Some research even goes as far as stating a correlation between a leader’s gender and a subordinate’s behavior. Still, this factor is not well-researched enough to rely completely on at the moment .
For inspiration, read about the Consideration behavior of the Ohio State Leadership Studies.
Path-Goal Theory: Environmental Factors
When discussing environmental characteristics, we should consider two factors: task structure and workgroup. Here are some environmental factors to consider:
- Task complexity and structure
- Organizational structure and ways of working
- Team dynamics
Each employee’s situation needs to be considered by the leader. A new person might be struggling to get inside the group, wanting to prove themselves, and need to grow their confidence. Sometimes there are internal conflicts in the team; let us face it, some people do not get along as well as others. If you need to put two team members on a task, you would prefer to pick two that get along and work well together, right? When it comes to tasks, a leader needs to act differently depending on the task at hand. Is the task clear from the beginning, or will parts of it be discovered along the way? Can instructions be given, or perhaps some weaker guidelines in case of more creative work? Consider some similarities with Initiating Structure in the Ohio State Leadership studies and job-oriented leadership in the Michigan University leadership studies. For extreme examples of how tasks can be considered, read about Scientific Management.
Path-Goal Theory Leadership Styles
Path-Goal Theory involves four different leadership styles, intended to be used in different situations, making Path-Goal Theory part of the contingency theory of leadership family. The leader needs to consider the employee factors and environmental factors, as well as the goal, when considering which leadership behavior or style to use in every situation.
Which are the four leadership styles of Path-Goal Theory?
Path-Goal Theory consists of four leadership styles:
- Directive Leadership Style
- Supportive Leadership Style
- Participative Leadership Style
- Achievement-Oriented Leadership Style
Path-Goal Theory describes these as leadership behaviors, rather than styles, bridging behavioral leadership theory to become situationally dependent, i.e., a contingency theory of leadership. Using four behaviors is quite a change compared to earlier theories, such as Blake and Mouton’s managerial grid, the Ohio State Leadership Studies, and the Michigan University Leadership Studies, which all depend on two behaviors: task-oriented behaviors and people-oriented behaviors. (Each of the theories uses different names, but they are very much alike, so I took the liberty to divide them into task/people here.)
The directive leadership style allows the leader to show the subordinates clearly what expectations they need to meet, including instructions, guidance, scheduling, etc. Directive Leadership is part of additional leadership frameworks, but sometimes under different names, such as the commanding leadership style from the Goleman framework, and the telling leadership style from the Situational Leadership Model, to name two examples.
They all have some common key characteristics, which are:
- providing instructions and setting rules
- clarifying an employee’s roles and responsibilities
- removing any obstacles that prevent the completion of tasks
- giving awards or punishment when appropriate
You can read more about this type of leadership in our article about commanding leadership.
A leader who uses the supportive leadership style is friendly, coaching, and approachable while focusing on the emotional well-being of each and every team member. The supportive leader is always there for the team, takes care of them, mitigates stress, and treats them as equals. Supportive leadership is particularly useful in psychologically demanding situations and when new teams are formed. The emotional support that a supportive leader gives is similar to affiliative leadership, which is also part of the Goleman leadership styles.
Leaders who use participative leadership consult with their team members, consider suggestions and involve them in decision-making. However, the participative leader has the final say. Not all followers might be experienced or skilled enough to provide the right level of participation, so it has less chance to work in the most junior teams. Participative leadership is also called democratic leadership, which you can read more about here: democratic leadership. Participative/democratic leadership is part of the Lewin leadership styles, the situational leadership model, and the Goleman leadership styles, to name a few theories. It is a very strong approach to leadership and builds commitment and engagement, bolstering creativity and cooperation in a team.
Participative leadership has four effects:
- clarifying the connection between the path, the goal, and extrinsic rewards
- establishing harmony between the goals of the individuals and the organization
- building abilities and autonomy among team members
- increase participation and commitment
If you desire to become an expert on participative leadership, consider my course in democratic leadership, it will teach you exactly how to obtain these effects, which will surely drive team performance.
Achievement Oriented Leadership
Leaders use Achievement-Oriented leadership to set challenging goals and build the team’s confidence. To reach higher-set goals, the team must perform at more extraordinary levels, which requires a lot of employee engagement. Hence, achievement-oriented leaders must focus on providing a vision and communicating sufficiently to make the team members feel part of this vision. Besides setting challenging goals, the Achievement-Oriented leader also focuses on improvement and performance excellence. Achievement-Oriented leadership is also found in other leadership theories, such as visionary leadership in the Goleman framework, and transformational leadership, which is part of the Full Range Leadership Model. Achievement-Oriented leadership is difficult but can be very beneficial once properly implemented.
Path-Goal Theory Example
To understand the Path-Goal Theory in practice, let us consider the following example.
Imagine that you are the leader of a company of some sort and that the director of marketing of your company fails to hit lead-generation targets. You are dissatisfied with the director’s efforts and need to find new and additional ways to reestablish motivation. Overall, you need to establish if the goal and the path are clear enough, and what is preventing the employee from succeeding.
You might want to consider what the obstacles are in this case. What is preventing this person from succeeding? Consider the employee characteristics:
- Is the employee skilled and experienced enough?
- Is the employee properly motivated?
Also, consider a few environmental characteristics:
- Are there other things at play preventing success? Team dynamics, for instance?
- Is the task clear enough? Is the level of instruction the right one?
- Does the employee know what consequences success and failure will have?
- Is there a downturn in the market?
Depending on your findings, you need to clear roadblocks and work with the individual to get things back to where they should be. Depending on your assessment, you can use the four styles, with examples given:
- Lack of clarity, instructions, skill, experience: consider using directive leadership and instructing the employee on what to do to succeed
- Is the employee feeling bad, concerned, stressed, worried, or burned out? Consider using the supportive leadership style to resolve these issues.
- Is the overall picture unclear? Perhaps you should use Achievement-Oriented leadership to establish a better understanding of the overall vision and build confidence to deliver substantial change?
- Is the employee highly skilled and experienced, and are the problems difficult to judge? Perhaps you should use participative leadership, include a wider team and solve the situation together?
Path-Goal Theory: Advantages and Disadvantages
Like all other leadership theories, Path-Goal Theory has certain pros and cons. The fact that it factors in the situation makes it more advanced and better than most behavioral leadership theories, for starters. Let us begin with the upsides.
Advantages of Path-Goal Theory
- It is a contingency theory since it takes situational aspects into account
- It provides four different leadership behaviors for leaders to choose from
- It takes environmental and employee factors into account
- There is a strong focus on goals and how to find the path to realize them
Disadvantages of Path-Goal Theory
- Too strong focus on rewards and punishment rather than purpose
- Some situations might need several leadership styles
- The accountability is very strong for the leader, and there is less focus on sharing accountability and empowering employees 
- Strongly focused on how the leader interacts with a follower, rather than the interaction among team members and with the leader
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Here are some related articles that you might find helpful:
- Behavioral leadership theory
- Contingency leadership theory
- Leadership Styles Portal
- Fiedler’s Contingency Theory
Demirtas and Karaca, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, “A Handbook of Leadership Styles, Cambridge Scholars Publishing”
- Northouse, P. G. (2016). Leadership theory and practice (7th ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications. (https://journalhosting.ucalgary.ca/index.php/cjeap/article/view/42995)
- House, Robert J.; Mitchell, T.R. (1974). “Path-goal theory of leadership”. Journal of Contemporary Business
- Isabel Cuadrado Guirado, Marisol Navas, Fernando Molero, Gender Differences in Leadership Styles as a Function of Leader and Subordinates’ Sex and Type of Organization, Journal of Applied Social Psychology, December 2012