Fiedler’s Contingency Model of Leadership: Matching the Leader to the Situation

Fiedler’s Contingency Model of Leadership is just like Hersey and Blanchard’s Situational Leadership Model part of Contingency or Situational Approaches to Leadership. The model states that there is no one best style of leadership (as suggested by Behavioural Approaches to Leadership like Blake and Mouton’s Managerial Grid). Instead, a leader’s effectiveness is dependent on (or contingent on, hence: Contingency Theory) the situation. However, whereas Hersey and Blanchard focused on the characteristics of followers, Fiedler looked at more situational elements in order to determine the appropriate leadership style. Moreover, Fiedler believed that people’s natural leadership styles are fixed and cannot be changed (easily). The most effective way to handle the situation is to change the leader itself based on certain situational factors or to change the situation to suit the leader.

Situational variables

Fiedler came up with three situational variables. Combined these three variables produce either a favourable, moderate or unfavourable situation for leaders to be in. These variables are:

  • Leader-Member Relations: This is the level of trust and confidence that a team has in a leader. A leader who is more trusted and has more influence within the group is in a more favourable situation than a leader who is not trusted. Fiedler identifies leader-member relations as either good or poor.
  • Task Structure: This refers to the type of task followers are supposed to be doing. Tasks can for example be clear and structured or vague and unstructured. There is an unfavorouble situation if tasks are unstructured or if the team and the leader have little knowledge of how to achieve a certain task. Fiedler identifies task structure as either high or low.
  • Leader’s Position Power: This is the amount of power a leader has to direct the group and provide reward or punishment. The more power a leader has, the more favourable the situation. There are several sources of power such as coercive, expert or referent power according to French and Raven’s bases of Power. Fiedler identifies a leader’s position power as either strong or weak.

Fiedler Contingency Model of Leadership

Figure 1: Fiedler’s Contingency Model of Leadership

Matching the Leader Style to the Situation

By combining the aforementioned situational variables, you can create a variety of leadership situations ranging from highly favourable to highly unfavourable (Figure 1). A favourable situation would typically be one where the leader-member relations are good, the tasks are clear and well-structured, and the leader has a strong power position. While examining the relationship between different situations and leadership styles, Fiedler found a certain pattern. The two leadership styles that Fiedler looked at are similar to those used by Blake and Mouton and are:

  • Task-oriented leadership style: These leaders direct followers towards goals, give instructions, spend time planning, emphasize deadlines and provide explicit schedules of work acitivities. They simply want to get the job done.
  • Relationship-oriented leadership style: These leaders are mindful of followers, respect their ideas and feelings, establish mutual trust, are friendly, provide open communication, develop teamwork, and are oriented toward their followers’ welfare.

Task-oriented: Highly favourable or highly unfavourable situation 

Fiedler found that the task-oriented leader performs best in a favourable situation. This is because everyone in the team gets along, the task is clear and structured, and the leader has sufficient power over followers. In such a situation, the team simply needs a leader that can provide direction. Similarly, if the situation is highly unfavourable, the same leadership style is considered more effective than a relationship-oriented leader. This is because an unfavourable situation requires a leader that can offer a great deal of structure and direction due to the low presence of task structure. In addition, since leader-members relations are poor anyway, a friendly relationship-oriented leader will make no difference in the leader’s popularity.

Relationship-oriented: Moderate favourable situation

The relationship-oriented leader, however, is found to perform better in situations of moderate favourability. In these situations, the leader may be moderately liked by the group, has some position power, and has to supervize tasks that are somewhat structured. Here, people skills are important in order to achieve group performance. According to Fiedler, a leader with good interpersonal skills can create a positive group atmosphere that will improve leader-member relations, clarify tasks and create more structure, and establish a stronger position power.

Fiedler’s Contingency Model In Sum

Fiedler argues that leaders should take a number of environmental or situational factors into account before deciding on the appropriate leadership style: task-oriented or relationship-oriented. Leaders would be very unlikely to be successful if they cannot ‘match’ their personal leadership style to the demands of the situation. As a result, the most effective way to handle the situation is to change the leader itself based on the situational factors (leader-member relations, task structure, and the leader’s position power) or to change the situation to suit the leader. Fiedler’s Contingency Model can help assessing the appropriate leadership style. Other leadership frameworks that are useful for this are Blake and Mouton’s Managerial Grid and Hersey and Blanchard’s Situational Leadership Model.

Further Reading

  • Fiedler, F.E. (1967). A Theory of Leadership Effectiveness. New York: McGraw-Hill.
  • Fiedler, F.E. and Garcia, J.E. (1987). New Approaches to Effective Leadership: Cognitive Resources and Organisational Performance. New York: J. Wiley & Sons.

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