In this article the Situational Leadership Model (SLM) is explained. Founders Paul Hershey and Kenneth Blanchard have developed a model that links leadership styles and situations. This article explains the styles, effectiveness and interaction in a practical and recognizable manner.
What is Situational Leadership?
Being a leader is not always easy and leadership can be executed in different ways. Paul Hersey and Ken Blanchard indicate that a number of factors are decisive for the style of leadership. It is not just the personal characteristics of the leader that are decisive; those of his employees are too. In addition, the situation is determinative and the leadership style depends on this. In the 1970s Paul Hersey and Ken Blanchard specified and further developed the concept of their Situational Leadership Model.
The level of independence of the employee depends on a number of factors. First or all, experience is an important indicator to find out whether an employee is able to independently do their job and take (full) responsibility for it. In addition, they have to have sufficient knowledge and skills to complete their tasks independently, and have enough motivation to lead themselves. Someone who has been in the same position for years, might be skilled and experienced, but could be struggling with motivation because of a lack of career opportunities. In that case, the employee will not score as high on Maturity as a colleague who is highly motivated. If an employee starts in a new position within the organisation, it will take some time for him to become Mature in there as well. Newly hired staff, recent graduates and interns will be at the low side of Maturity for longer. After all, it takes people a few months to as long as a year to be able to work fully.
Situational Leadership Model
Paul Hersey and Ken Blanchard designed these four styles of situational leadership on the basis of a parabola. The horizontal axis the level of maturity (independence of the employee) is indicated in the gradation high to low. In the opposite direction on the horizontal axis the directive behavior from low to high is indicated. By this is meant the level of direction provided to the employee. On the vertical axis, they indicate low to high supportive behavior; the degree of support to the employees.
In the 1970s Hershey and Blanchard specified and further developed the concept of situational leadership. In their situational leadership theory they indicated that the effectiveness of the leadership style is dependent on the situation. But what is determinative for the situation? Both the maturity of the employees and their attitudes are determinative. Therefore Paul Hersey and Ken Blanchard distinguish four levels of maturity that can be placed in their situational leadership model:
- S1. Directing: a lot of direction by the leader and little support; low competence and low motivation.
- S2. Coaching: a lot of direction by the leader and a lot of support; low competence and high motivation.
- S3. Supporting: little direction by the leader and a lot of support; high competence and low motivation.
- S4. Delegating: little direction by the leader and little support; high competence and high motivation.
According to Paul Hersey and Ken Blanchard a leader will have to adapt his style to level of maturity of the employee. As the maturity increases, the independence of the employee also increases accordingly. Consequently, four leadership styles are created within situational leadership.
S1: Telling (Directing)
At this level, the leader has to deal with employees that are not competent and (still) unmotivated. This may have different causes. New and/or inexperienced employees are not capable enough to carry out tasks independently. It may be experienced as threatening when an employee is not competent enough to perform a task. This might cause him to postpone the task or do this unwillingly. Good instruction and monitoring of the entire work process would be the best style of leadership in this situation. This is also sometimes referred to as task-oriented leadership with little or no concern for human relationships and support.
The employee will receive a lot of direction from the leader when it comes to the tasks they have to fulfil. Not just the final objective is made clear, but also the steps that have to be taken along the way. That is why he needs specific instructions in the form of composed tasks. The leader makes the final decisions. It helps to compliment the employee about progress he is making and not overburdening him with too much information at once. It is a good idea for a leader to have the employee repeat in his own words what he is supposed to do. That way, it becomes clear if the instructions have been correctly understood.
S2: Selling (Coaching)
At this level the employees have a desire to work independently but they are not capable of doing this yet. They are employees who have not reached full maturity and are hindered by circumstances for example a change or a reform of the organization. This employee wants to set to work enthusiastically but he cannot work independently because of his lack of skills and knowledge. A situation like this might make an employee insecure. By explaining his decision-making and by listening to the employee and giving him undivided attention, the leader is guiding him. This style can be compared to the consultative leadership style.
This leadership style is also called selling for a reason; the leader has to ‘sell’ the tasks to the employee and convince him that he is able to do them. Specific instructions are important here, as are communication at a level of equals. The leader makes the decisions, but it is good if the employee asks questions and wants to know the purpose of the task. When the employee shows progress, he should be complimented to make him feel confident about his skills.
S3: Participating (Supporting)
At this level, the employees are capable but (temporarily) unwilling. They are qualified workers but because of the number of tasks, they might get the idea that they are being inundated with work. This can make them insecure and reluctant. To take away this insecurity, it is important that the leader confers with the employees and supports them in their work. By having employees participate in the decision-making process, acceptance will increase and the employees will be able to work independently again. It is also possible that a mistake has been made for which the employee blames himself. This can make him stagnate and lose confidence. That is why support from the leader is important.
The employee needs to be stimulated and has to get back the confidence to make decisions independently again. It is a good idea for the leader to give that confidence to the employee and remind him of other tasks and projects that he did do well in the past. This type of employee can benefit from some calm, face-to-face brainstorming or sparring about a question or an issue. That increases his confidence and makes his superior someone he can talk to. The employee is allowed to take some risks and trust in his own abilities.
At this level the employees can and want to carry out their tasks independently, they have a high level of task maturity as a result of which they need less support. Employees inform the leader about their progress of their own accord and at the same time they indicate when problems present themselves or when the work is stagnating. They become motivated because of their independence and as a result a leader does not have to consult with them continuously.
Delegating may seem easy, but it rarely is in practice. It is a good idea for a leader to discuss the final goal with the employee, when the task has to be (deadline) and how he plans to carry it out. It is possible to plan evaluation moments in order to monitor progress and check if everything is going according to plan. The leader has to realise that delegating involves keeping distance; the employee is responsible for the decisions. If things go well, compliments are in order. Boosting confidence and letting go are the foundational techniques of delegating.
Adjustment of leadership behavior
Through situational leadership, leadership behaviour is immediately adjusted to the employee’s behaviour. According to Hershey and Blanchard the main factors are independence and suitability. Based on these two factors, they directly link four situational leadership styles. It should be noted that a leader must be willing to be very flexible with respect to his employees. In addition, employees will always develop themselves in the (positive) direction of delegating (S4).
Vice versa, the leader and his situational leadership style will directly influence the suitability of an employee. The employee will get more responsibility when he is more suitable for a certain task. This will increase his security which in turn will have a positive influence on his qualities. Despite this interaction, it is important that the leader is aware of the adoption of his leadership style in different situations. In an emergency he does well to apply the S1 Telling style, whereas S4 is more appropriate for an independently operating project group. In addition to the various situations, the leader will have to adapt his situational leadership styles to the suitability of his employees.
Comparison to transformational leadership
The comparison with Transformational Leadership is an easy one, although these are two distinct leadership methods. Where Transformational Leadership is mostly focused on a different way of leading an organisation going through a change, such as a merger, downsizing, or reorganisation, situational leadership looks at the situation, the employees’ independence and the complexity of the work. Transformational leadership supports employees during (significant) changes within the organisation, giving them trust and stimulating them to adjust to the change and contribute ideas.
Using Transformational Leadership, leaders are able to hold many discussions with their employees, openly informing them and engaging them in debate, increasing mutual trust. In that sense, it is similar to situational leadership. There, the support by the leader (relationship-oriented) in combination with direction by the leader (task-oriented) play an important role. Situational leadership can always be applied however. Transformational leadership is mostly relevant for changing organisations.
It’s Your Turn
What do you think? How do you apply situational leadership in your daily practice? Do you recognize the practical explanation or do you have more suggestions? What are your success factors for the good situational leadership?
Share your experience and knowledge in the comments box below.
- Hersey, P. (1985). The situational leader. Warner Books.
- Hersey, P. and Blanchard, K. H. (1977). Management of Organizational Behavior: Utilizing Human Resources. Prentice Hall.
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