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Task-Oriented Leadership

Updated November 28, 2022 by Carl Lindberg

I have met many task-oriented leaders during my CEO career, and the more senior they were, the more disadvantageous their task-oriented leadership was. Task-oriented leadership always has a place, but it must be balanced carefully with other behaviors, as I will explain in this article. Let us start with a short and precise explanation of task-oriented leadership.

Task-oriented leadership focuses on output, task execution, quality, production, and other non-relational aspects, which get second priority for a task-oriented leader. Task-oriented leadership needs to be balanced since overusing it harms employee engagement, long-term output, and employee retention.

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What is task-oriented leadership?

Multiple leadership theories commonly mention task-oriented leadership behavior to explain and define managers’ and leaders’ focus on concrete output. Two groundbreaking behavioral leadership studies in the 1940s, the Ohio State leadership studies and the Michigan University leadership studies, focused on understanding and defining leadership behaviors in an attempt to see how the most successful leaders behave. The concept of task-oriented leadership has survived ever since, but under many names, and it also comes back in contingency leadership theories.

Task-oriented leadership is the opposite of relationship-oriented leadership, and although earlier leadership theories saw them as mutually exclusive, modern science has clearly established that both behaviors are needed but to varying proportions in different situations.

Task-oriented leadership in larger doses works best in transactional and repetitive environments such as assembly work, warehouse operations, fast food establishments, and similar. Task orientation needs to be much more limited when activities and output are more abstract and difficult to break down into actual tasks. Hence, task-oriented leadership needs to be limited (but not zero) in creative and relationship-heavy industries such as design and health care, where a stronger focus is also needed on relationship-oriented leadership. (You can learn to excel at relationship-oriented leadership in my democratic leadership course if you are interested. It is bound to boost your career as well.)

Here are some leadership theories that include task-oriented leadership:

All these and more are explained in depth in our e-book Leadership Origins, click here to learn more.

Why is task-oriented leadership important?

Most organizations and businesses survive by producing output, and task-oriented leadership ensures they continue to produce. Although organizations that lose their production focus can seem like nice and easy places to work, due to the low demands, they will eventually succumb and go under since the lack of output leads to financial problems. A complete lack of task-oriented leadership means that it is all about the employees and keeping them as happy as possible, which is actually called country-club leadership. After all, getting paid without having to work and just having fun among friends at work with a boss who never requires anything of you can be a rather restful place, i.e., a country club. So, in order to survive as an organization, some task orientation is simply a must, and different types of industries require different doses of task-oriented leadership.

The characteristics of task-oriented leadership

Task-oriented leadership involves the following characteristics:

1. Clear structure

Strong task orientation requires a clearly defined organization, where different teams have clear assignments and output expectations. People and teams know their responsibilities and how they interconnect with others within the same organization. Essentially, this details job descriptions and provides a clear division of labor similar to bureaucratic leadership.

2. Detailed instructions

Task-oriented leadership requires that all the employees know what to do and when. This essentially means that activities, jobs, and tasks need to be clearly defined and transformed into instructions to the extent possible. The task is more important than anything else and is broken down into minute steps determining what actions should be performed, how long time is required, what tools are needed, and what the input and output should be. This focus on instructions bears plenty of resemblance to Scientific Management, also known as Taylorism.

3. Directive behaviors

Task-oriented leaders spend more time giving instructions and orders, as in commanding leadership, rather than engaging the team in discussions like democratic leadership. After all, the focus is on the actual production, and fast decisions, detailed instructions, avoidance of doubts, etc., ensure high production capacity and speed.

4. Setting clear expectations and performance targets

In order to measure, monitor, and control the output, task-oriented leadership also includes setting performance targets and defining what output is expected from different activities. This includes clearly defining milestones, targets, and of course, an emphasis on meeting those targets.

5. Monitoring and Controlling work

The strong production focus in task-oriented leadership means little time is spent on vision, building rapport, and engagement, and all time is focused on running tasks, activities, and production. In order to maximize output, task-oriented leaders often rely on either active management by exception or passive management by exception, ultimately meaning that the leader only steps in when something goes wrong, and that poor performance and mistakes are punished. Little or no time is spent on positive feedback, and there is an almost complete lack of coaching leadership, although active management by exception actually involves constructive criticism enabling some improvement.

6. Management rather than leadership

Task-oriented leadership in its purer form is management, i.e., controlling work and dividing workload appropriately among production units and other available resources while handling restrictions in staffing, tooling, materials, and other required input. Leadership, which typically involves providing purpose, engagement, vision, and other people-oriented concepts, is rarely seen in fully task-oriented leaders.

The above characteristics bear plenty of resemblance with transactional leadership and its three components of active and passive management by exception and contingent reward. Transactional leadership is a modern evolvement of bureaucratic leadership and is part of the Full Range Leadership Model together with laissez-faire leadership and the popular transformational leadership (which has very limited task orientation, by the way).

Examples of task-oriented leadership styles

Here are some examples of task-oriented leadership styles:

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Examples of task-oriented leadership

In order to give you a better understanding of task-oriented leadership, I put together this list of typical task-oriented leadership situations:

  • Operations at a fast food franchise
  • The assembly line of a vehicle manufacturer
  • High volume metal components fabrication
  • Quality control activities in production organizations
  • Facility inspection services
  • Cleaning and waste collection

Do note that using purely task-oriented leadership is a terrible idea, as you will see in the disadvantages section further down in this article. If you have problems with focusing too much on output and performance, resulting in stressing your peers and your team, I strongly urge you to check out my Pacesetting Blueprint, which teaches how to obtain strong results in the right way without jeopardizing the health and future of your team.

Advantages and disadvantages of task-oriented leadership

Please note that studies as far back as the 1940s concluded that the best leadership is a combination of relationship-oriented leadership and task-oriented leadership (Ohio leadership studies and Michigan leadership studies). Hence, despite the industry, good leaders will use both, regardless of the advantages of task-oriented leadership below. On top of that, you should really read and take in the disadvantages, which are substantial.

Advantages of task-oriented leadership

The advantages of task-oriented leadership are:

  • Instructions, division of labor, and well-defined organizations provide strong clarity
  • There is a strong adherence to rules, regulations, and laws
  • Production can be maximized, even if only temporarily
  • Low-skilled and unexperienced employees can quickly become productive
  • Decisions can be taken very fast

Disadvantages of task-oriented leadership

There are many bad weaknesses of focusing too much on task-oriented leadership, and I really caution you to balance it with relationship-oriented leadership.

The disadvantages of task-oriented leadership are:

  • Relationships get little focus, leading to less empathy, team bonding, and loyalty. Ultimately this results in very little cooperation between employees and teams
  • The focus on rules, negative feedback, and punishment hampers creativity and kills the appetite for risk-taking
  • Employee engagement is low due to the strong task focus, and employee turnover is a risk
  • Employees are not utilized to their full extent since there is no focus on development and coaching
  • The strong production emphasis can lead to short-term focus where long-term organizational development, purpose, vision, and technological development are lacking

Other names for task-oriented leadership

Task-oriented leadership occurs in several different leadership theories but often under different names. One leadership theory that specifically uses the actual name of task-oriented leadership is Fiedler’s contingency model. However, I have seen the concept in other theories and scientific work as well. The basic concept is the same: focus on production, activities, and output.

Task-oriented leadership is also referred to as:

Summary of Task-oriented leadership

Although an element of task-orientated leadership is a necessity for all managers and leaders, there also needs to be a focus on people, i.e., relationship-oriented leadership. Over and over again, it has been proven that purely focusing on task-oriented leadership hampers or even destroys organizations. Although there might be short-term productivity increases, long-term focus on task orientation will lead to lower production since employees lack purpose, stop caring, and do only what they are told, nothing more.

We mentioned the findings pointing at the best leaders being relationship-oriented and task-oriented, but let us also take a more modern example. In the early 2000s, Daniel Goleman found in his research which established his Six Leadership Styles, that the strong task-oriented leadership elements of commanding and pacesetting leadership affected organizational climate negatively. Goleman had also proven that the organizational climate correlates to the success of an organization, both in terms of profits and survivability over time.

You should use some task-oriented leadership, but do it in limited doses, and any overuse should be very limited in time.

Further reading

Check out our e-book, Leadership Origins, to learn more about Great Man Theory, Trait Theory, Behavioral Theories (Lewin, Ohio, Michigan, Blake & Mouton), and Contingency Theories (Fiedler, Path-Goal, Situational Leadership). Click here to learn more about the Leadership Origins e-book.

Besides looking for additional material in our leadership theories category, I suggest you take a look at relationship-oriented leadership, the Full Range Leadership Model, and the Six Leadership Styles by Goleman to learn about more modern approaches to leadership and leadership styles.

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