Hersey and Blanchard Situational Leadership Model: Adapting the Leadership Style to the Follower

As reaction to behavioural leadership approaches such as Blake and Mouton’s Managerial Grid, Hersey and Blanchard developed a theory (Hersey and Blanchard Situational Leadership Theory) that suggests that the most effective leadership style is affected by the circumstances leaders find themselves in. They argue that a leader’s ability to lead depends upon certain situational factors. By understanding, recognizing and adapting to these factors, leaders will be able to influence their surroundings and followers much more successfully than if these factors are ignored. More specifically, Hersey and Blanchard focused a great part of their research on the characteristics of followers in determining appropriate leadership behaviours. They found that leaders would have to modify their leadership style as their followers changed in terms of their ability (Task Readiness) and willingness (Psychological Readiness) to perform the required task. A leader’s relationship with followers is therefore likely to go through different stages as these abilities and willingness can change over time. This article will go into the four leadership styles (Telling, Selling, Participating and Delegating) Hersey and Blanchard came up with in order to better deal with these different stages of followers.

An important note about Hersey and Blanchard to start with!

Even though Hersey and Blanchard worked together for years to support the notion that leadership styles should be situational, they decided to go separate ways in 1977 to focus on their own agendas. Hence, the Hersey and Blanchard Situational Leadership Model (Figure 1), which was originally labelled The Life Cycle Theory of Leadership, has developed into two slightly divergent models. Blanchard decided to call his version of the model The Situational Leadership II Model (or SLII Model). Figure 2 shows the two different version next to each other. The major differences are related to semantics: where Hersey used the word ‘Readiness (R)’, Blanchard preferred to use ‘Development (D)’. And where Hersey used ‘Telling’, ‘Selling’ and ‘Participating’, Blanchard used the words ‘Directing‘, ‘Coaching‘ and ‘Supporting‘ respectively.

Hersey and Blanchard Situational Leadership Model

Figure 1: Hersey and Blanchard Situational Leadership Styles

Follower’s Task Readiness (Task Development)

A follower’s or subordinate’s Task Readiness covers their ability to deliver what has been asked of them. Their skills, knowledge, and ability will affect their delivery of a task independently of a leader’s guidance. Blanchard preferred to use the word Development instead of Readiness as followers are likely to ‘grow’ in their abilities throughout time. Moreover, Blanchard used the term Competence (meaning: skills, knowledge and abilities) instead of Hersey’s term Ability.

Follower’s Psychological Readiness (Psychological Development)

A follower’s or subordinate’s Psychological Readiness is the degree to which they are willing to take on responsibility for their actions. This includes aspects such as their motivation, drive, energy and confidence in their own ability. For this, Blanchard used the term Commitment (meaning: confidence and motivation) instead of Hersey’s term Willingness.

R1 (D2): Unable and Unwilling (Low Competence and Low Commitment)

A follower with a R1-status is unable to complete the required task, because they do not possess the necessary set of skills to perform well. Moreover, they are either unwilling to deliver the required task or lack self-confidence. Note that Blanchard labelled this follower style with D2 instead of D1. The reason behind this choice is that Blanchard views this follower style as the second stage in a follower’s evolutionary development.

R2 (D1): Unable and Willing (Low Competence and High Commitment)

A R2 follower is just like a R1 follower unable to perform a certain task, but in contrast to a R1 follower, willing to try anyway. In other words: they are motivated to attempt the task even though they lack the skills, knowledge and/or ability to do so. This follower style is often seen with new employees who are keen to impress their supervisor, but still lack the work experience to be productive right from the start. Because of this, Blanchard decided to label this follower style with D1, as it is likely to be the first stage of a follower’s development. As followers gain experience they reach development level 2 (D2) and gain some competence, but their commitment drops because the task may be more complex than the follower had originally perceived at the start of the task.

R3 (D3): Able and Unwilling (High Competence and Low Commitment)

R3 followers are likely to be able to perform well on their task, since they have developed the necessary skill set. The problem, however, is that they are unwilling to do so. The reason for this behaviour are twofold: followers could be unmotived to comply with the leader’s request or could (still) be nervous about performing the task without enough support and encouragement from the leader. In Blanchard’s vocabulary of the D3 follower style, commitment is variable as it starts off as low, but gradually grows bigger due to more self-esteem and confidence untill a follower reaches D4.

R4 (D4): Able and Willing (High Competence and High Commitment)

Lastly, we have the R4 followers: they are ready, able and willing to perform. This means that followers are experienced at the required task and comfortable with their own ability to do it well and independently. They are able and willing to not only do the task, but to take responsibility for it. In this stage, both competence and commitment are considered to be high in terms of Blanchard’s version of the Situational Leadership Model.

Hersey versus Blanchard Situational Leadership Model

Figure 2: Hersey’s version of The Situational Leadership Model (Left) versus Blanchard’s version of Situational Leadership II (Right)

Leader’s Directive Behaviour

Based on these different follower styles, leaders should adapt their leadership style in such a way that it meets the needs of their subordinates. They can do so by finding the right balance between Directive and Supportive behaviour. A leader’s directive behaviour will fall somewhere on a spectrum from high to low and reflects the ‘concern for production‘-dimension of Blake and Mouton’s Managerial Grid. This implies to what extent a leader puts emphasis on the concern to get the job done by being task-focused. The appropriate level of directive behaviour that leaders will have to choose depends on the readiness or development level of followers.

Leader’s Supportive Behaviour

A leader’s supportive behaviour reflects the ‘concern for people‘ dimension of Blake and Mouton’s Managerial Grid. This means to what extent a leader puts emphasis on building and maintaining a good relationship with subordinates by paying attention to the security, well-being and personal needs of the employees. The appropriate level of this relationship-focused approach is just like the directive behaviour determined by the readiness or development level of followers.

S1: Telling (Directing)

The S1 leadership style in the Hersey and Blanchard Situational Leadership Model puts a high emphasis on directive behaviour and a low emphasis on supportive behaviour. A leader’s primary concern lays with the task delivery and less with the personal needs of the subordinates. Typical behaviour for a S1 leadership style, according to Hersey, is offering step-by-step instructions, clear explanation of the consequences of non-performance and close supervision. In such a situation, it is important that the task is clearly defined and the stages of the process are easy to follow. This is important because the leader believes that the follower (R1) either does not know what to do or is unwilling and requires therefore a certain degree of coercive power. Blanchard, on the other hand, believes that this style should be used for D1 followers who are highly ‘Enthousiastic Beginners‘. They already have the motivation to do the tasks required, which lowers the need for supportive behaviour. But they still lack the competence, which increases their need for directive behaviour.

S2: Selling (Coaching)

The next leadership style is the high directive and high supportive S2 leadership style. Hersey argued that this style is needed for R2 followers who are willing, but not able to perform a task. The leader’s style should therefore be concerned with increasing the confidence and skills of followers so that they can ultimately take on more responsibility for their actions. Blanchard, however, believes this style is necessary for D2 followers, who used to be highly enthousiastic in the beginning but who lost confidence because their competences are failing them. These ‘Disillusioned Learners‘ therefore need a leader with a higher concern for supportive behaviour that helps them gain confidence and become motivated again.

S3: Participating (Supporting)

The S3 leadership style applies to both R3 and D3 followers. This style (still) shows high supportive behaviours, but low directive behaviours. This may involve listening, praise and a high level of interaction between leader and follower. In addition, the leader puts a high level of trust in the follower to achieve the day-to-day tasks as the follower’s competence has also grown over time. The leader will therefore only encourage and offer feedback when needed to motivate and develop the subordinate, but not as a comment on the task performance. This is because the leader believes that the follower is capable enough of achieving the required tasks largely independently.

S4: Delegating

The final leadership style assumes a low supportive and a low directive behaviour and applies to R4 and D4 followers. This is very much a ‘hands-off approach’ as the subordinate is perfectly able and willing to perform the tasks independently and with great responsibility. The leader can further encourage autonomy, while keeping an eye on not overloading the follower with responsibility and not withdrawing completely from the follower’s proximity. For these type of followers it is thus important as a leader to keep observing and monitoring them (albeit to a far lesser degree), in order to provide the necessary support if needed.

Hersey and Blanchard Situational Leadership In Sum

Hersey and Blanchard disagreed with academics like Blake and Mouton on the notion that there would be a single best ‘one-size-fits-all’ leadership approach that could be used within organizations. On the contrary, leadership styles should be adapted to the context. The model can therefore be considered as part of the larger Situational and Contingency Theories of Leadership of which Fiedler’s Contingency Model of Leader-Situation Matches is also part.

Further Reading:

One thought on “Hersey and Blanchard Situational Leadership Model: Adapting the Leadership Style to the Follower

  • September 8, 2023 at 17:20

    Definitely appreciate that we need to apply different styles of management to different settings and people.


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