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Adapt Leadership Style To Different Situations

Many successful team leaders find it helpful to vary their styles by reference to the situation that they find themselves in. Hersey and Blanchard (1993) have developed a useful framework. The idea is for leaders to vary the amount of personal encouragement, support and recognition ( relationship behaviour) and the amount of direction and structure (task behaviour) according to the nature of the work that people do and their ability and willingness to undertake their tasks. Ability is a function of knowledge, skills and experience, and willingness is a combination of motivation to achieve and personal confidence. An adaptation of Hersey and Blanchard’s framework is illustrated in Leadership styles.

The leader using the structuring style decides how the task should be carried out and then tells the team member what to do, how to do it and with whom, when and where. Frequent and regular monitoring of performance occurs and there is prompt reinforcement of good work. The style is most effective when there is a clear desire to help the person concerned to do a good job. This is a very hands-on leadership style and is likely to be necessary only rarely in a professional service context. If someone is undertaking a task for the first time and lacks confidence or feels insecure then there is a case for using it in a very sensitive, warm and friendly manner.

The leader using the guiding style explains why and how the task needs to be undertaken and agrees appropriate targets and performance standards. Some help with the development of knowledge and skills is usual. Discussions are held regularly and frequently. Performance feedback is given and further assistance with the development of abilities is provided. There is an emphasis on learning whilst doing. The guiding style is very useful in a professional service environment when someone is motivated and confident and brings to the task some relevant knowledge and skill but still needs to learn more in order to do a first-class job. It is particularly appropriate with trainees.

The leader using the encouraging style does so to help the team member to increase self-confidence and ability to perform the task outstandingly well and independently. The encouraging style involves lots of discussion about the task and a sharing of views on how it should be tackled. The person performing the task is encouraged to specify his or her own performance standards or targets. Progress is reviewed jointly with emphasis placed on building self-confidence so that the task can be undertaken independently in the future. The encouraging style is particularly useful with able young professionals who are not yet fully experienced and who are not yet quite ready to work alone.

The last of the four styles involves delegating the decision making and the planning that relate to the task, as well as the implementation. The leader, using the delegation style, allows the team member to operate independently. There is no, or only occasional, monitoring of performance. The team leader provides support and help if it is requested. The initiative to seek help is left primarily to the person doing the work. The delegating style is ideal when the person has the knowledge, skill and experience to do an outstanding job and is self-confident and highly motivated. It is leading with a light touch. Generally speaking, those professionals who are technically very competent, self-assured and highly motivated react very well. It is important, however, for team leaders to beware of using it when people are not ready. The risks for the firm and for the individual are clearly considerable.

Most of us can see the logic of adapting our styles to meet the needs of the situations in which we find ourselves. In practice, however, we often lead in a way that suits us or in a way that we find comfortable. Some of us find it difficult, for instance, to ‘let go’ or relinquish control and may fail to use the delegating style when it should be used. Others find it awkward to be warm and give support. Thus the encouraging style becomes difficult to use. Some people resent the time that the guiding style involves and so fail to use it when it is needed. Some of us shrink from the structuring style, especially in a professional environment, because we fear that we may be seen as patronizing.

There are two final points. First, it is helpful for leaders to discuss, with their team members, the need to use one style rather than another. It is often the case that different styles are needed for different tasks or assignments. Easy, open communications about these matters are helpful. It is all part of the process of fostering trust. It is a good thing for team leaders to talk freely with their colleagues about the best style to use in particular circumstances. The second point is to bear in mind the old adage, ‘We judge ourselves by our intentions and others judge us by our actions’. We may believe that we are using the right style for the right situation but others may regard our leadership behaviour as different from what we intend. Again, frank communications are important. The likelihood of misperception is reduced if we talk openly about the appropriateness of using one style rather than another with particular individuals for specific tasks.