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It depends. Understanding the contingency theory of leadership

September 6, 2022 - 29 min read

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What is the contingency theory of leadership?

What does the contingency theory of leadership focus on?

Why is contingency theory important in leadership?

2 examples of contingency leadership theory in action

Looking at the models of the contingency theory at work

How to apply the contingency theory of leadership at work

When asked what it means to be a "good leader," what comes to mind? Do you think of certain skills or traits, or do you picture a specific person or a leader from your own life?

The truth is, the answer varies. Good leadership can’t be defined in a single person or a laundry list of personality traits. But we can, however, identify key skills and traits that great leaders share. We know that people simply aren’t born leaders. After all, skills, behaviors, and mindsets can grow and develop with the right support. 

At BetterUp, we’ve studied leadership. We've studied how people have invested in developing much-needed leadership skills. Leadership skills are critical whether employees are in a managerial position or not. A person's ability to understand their own strengths, weaknesses, and style of leadership is critical to being a good leader.

We know that the contingency theory of leadership follows this school of thought. The contingency theory of leadership tells us that effective leadership depends on the situation. In simple terms, a leader could be highly effective in one situation and ineffective in another.  

It might be true that leaders respond differently in certain situations. But this theory minimizes people’s ability to develop new skills and behaviors. People are capable of building new skills to adapt to new situations with the right support and resources. It might take some muscle in certain areas more than others. But human growth and transformation are more than possible. 

Good leadership isn’t just about a leader’s skills. It’s about a leader’s awareness and adaptability in a specific situation. It’s more fruitful to understand our different leadership styles and build self-awareness. In other words, it’s critical that we build mental fitness to be able to recognize where we can improve. 

And science tells us that when we invest in developing our leadership skills, our teams benefit, too. Our research shows that leaders who balance optimistic action with thoughtful pragmatism have higher-performing teams. The results? Teams show increased agility, team engagement, innovation, performance, and resilience. 

If you’re looking for new ways to connect with your team members and grow in your career, keep reading. You'll learn more about the contingency theory of leadership and how it can help you approach leadership in a whole new light. 

What is the contingency theory of leadership?

The contingency theory of leadership states that effective leadership is contingent upon the situation at hand. Essentially, it depends on whether an individual's leadership style befits the situation. According to this theory, someone can be an effective leader in one circumstance and an ineffective leader in another. 

This theory ignores the false dichotomy that someone is either a "good" or "bad" leader. Instead, it focuses on matching the right leadership traits to the situation.

This theory of leadership accommodates the reality that success in an undertaking is often a combination of the attributes of the leader and the attributes of the challenge. "Good leadership" is contingent upon how one responds to the situation.

The very first contingency theory was developed by Austrian psychologist Fred E. Fiedler in the 1960s. Fiedler's model continues to be one of the leading contingency leadership theories.

From Fiedler's research, more modes of thinking were born: 

All four models present different ways to approach and apply the contingency theory of leadership. We'll dig deeper into each later in this guide. First, let's unpack the approach as a whole. 

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What does the contingency theory of leadership focus on?

Firstly, the contingency theory of leadership focuses on leadership styles. To apply this theory or any of its models, leaders must be aware of their own leadership style as well as their strengths and weaknesses. This requires honesty, self-reflection, and vulnerability for a person to identify how they’re showing up as a leader. 

Acknowledging these things can be uncomfortable but can make someone a better leader in the long run. 

We’ll get into leadership styles — and how they align to each of the four models — later in this article. But some of the leadership styles include: 

  • Delegating style. Leaders who easily delegate goals, projects, and tasks to team members
  • Participating style. Leaders who share ideas to motivate their team members, gain buy-in, and help them build confidence and autonomy
  • Selling style. Leaders who "sell" their instructions and tasks to team members who may need extra motivation
  • Telling style. Leaders who delegate and supervise their team members who may lack experience or confidence in their roles
  • Supportive style. Leaders who consider their team members' personal preferences and treat well-being as important as productivity
  • Participative style. Leaders who work alongside their team and ask for input or feedback before making decisions 
  • Directive-clarifying style. Leaders who give explicit tasks and instructions
  • Achievement-oriented style. Leaders who set high expectations and goals for their team and encourage autonomy and independence
  • Autocratic style. Leaders who make decisions independently 
  • Consultative style. Leaders who consult their team members but ultimately make decisions independently 
  • Collaborative style. Leaders who make decisions democratically 

This theory focuses on the circumstances surrounding a situation or a challenge. Different models use different factors to predict what kind of leadership style would be most effective. 

contingency-theory-of-leadership-manager-coaching-employee-over-project

If anything, this approach to leadership surfaces how many variables are at play in any given situation in the workplace. Only by being aware of and understanding these factors can someone be an effective leader.

Those include (but aren't limited to):

  • Work schedules
  • Work styles and paces
  • Task structures
  • Team structures
  • Professional and personal goals
  • Feedback preferences (for both giving and receiving)
  • Leaders' and employees' maturity levels and personality types
  • Relationships between and among employees and leaders
  • Company hierarchy and power levels
  • Company performance
  • Company policies and behavioral standards

(Note that you'll see some of these factors pop up in the models we discuss below.)

Consider how a football quarterback 'reads the field' before he calls a route for his offensive line. He likely has to change the play from down to down, especially as the opposing team changes their defensive line. 

So, too, do factors vary within and between every employee and their employers. With so many moving parts within an organization, it's clear why a "one size fits all" approach to leadership simply can't work.

Let’s say you manage a team of four people. You’ve tasked your project management expert to take the lead on an upcoming cross-functional campaign. However, as the campaign progresses, you realize the work requires a different skill set. Many of the deliverables are focused on creating copy, design, and other sorts of creative work.

Your project management person has been going back to the content marketing manager for certain asks. Yet the content marketing manager wasn’t originally a part of the project. You decide that your content marketing manager would be better equipped to help the team reach success. So, you swap out your project management expert with your content marketing lead. 

Why is contingency theory important in leadership?

Contingency theory isn't one that we at BetterUp necessarily believe in. We know that people are capable of learning, growing, and developing leadership skills.

So, it's important to understand that this theory is one that some leaders may believe in. But in reality, it's even more important to understand that people can grow and change. 

Essentially, it’s critical that your leaders understand they can build skills to succeed in situations where they might feel especially challenged. We all have a sense of our strengths and weaknesses.

The contingency theory of leadership can help bring awareness to those areas of opportunity for your leaders. However, it’s important your leaders understand that just because they’re not seeing the desired outcome in certain situations doesn’t mean they can’t build the skills to succeed. 

Approaching leadership with this lens allows more individuals to explore leadership in their careers and better understand themselves as well as in what situations they may be effective leaders.

Most believe that leadership exists on a spectrum, with poor leaders and great leaders. Contingency theory debunks this thought process and instead presents the idea that for every situation or challenge, there is a best-fit leadership style.

For those employees and individuals who desire to improve their leadership skills, the contingency leadership theory argues that they must look within, work to understand themselves and develop their strengths, and then approach challenges objectively to determine what (and who) can lead.

At BetterUp, we use the practice of Inner Work®. And according to our research, looking inward makes you a better leader. When leaders practice Inner Work®, teams are more engaged, more productive, and gain more clarity. We also see better work-life balance and reduced burnout, which helps support overall employee well-being. 

contingency-theory-of-leadership-a-new-way-to-think-about-leadership-development

2 examples of contingency leadership theory in action

Let's review a couple of examples that illustrate the contingency theory of leadership and its models.

Example #1: Adapting to feedback preferences

Jason manages a team of writers for his company's publication. Every Friday, he holds a meeting for his writers to share their current assignments and receive feedback from their colleagues. Jason has found that this helps his team hone their writing, editing, and feedback-giving skills. He also employs the Supportive Leader style of the Path-Goal model.

A new writer joins Jason's team and immediately expresses discomfort about these Friday feedback sessions. They don't enjoy public speaking and dislike the public nature of the feedback. They prefer to receive edits via Google Docs.

Does this make Jason a bad manager? No. Yet, the contingency theory of leadership states that to remain a good and effective leader, he must adapt to his new employee's preferred feedback method. Jason can still ask his new team member to join the meeting but not feel pressured to share their work.

Example #2: Delegating a leadership responsibility to another

Four years ago, Abby founded her software company alongside two former colleagues, both of whom enjoy sales, networking, and attending and speaking at events.

In other words, her two partners are the "face of the company," while Abby enjoys staying out of the spotlight and working with her team of developers to build and improve the company's product. Abby has a Delegating Style of leadership according to the situational leadership model.

One day, Abby's cofounder surfaces an opportunity to lead a keynote presentation at a top conference for their company's industry. Unfortunately, even thinking about presenting in front of many people gives Abby anxiety.

Does Abby become a lousy leader if she turns down the speaking opportunity? No. Leaders aren't required to be natural extroverts or enjoy public speaking to lead.

Because she's cultivated a culture of delegation and trust among her team, Abby could work with one of her lead developers—someone who is also experienced in the topic but more comfortable with public speaking—to present the keynote speech instead.

Looking at the models of the contingency theory at work

There are many ways to put the contingency leadership theory into action. This section covers four distinct perspectives on contingent leadership. Each model has its defined leadership styles, but there's plenty of overlap between the styles.

Note: These models aren't designed to "diagnose" leadership styles; they're intended to identify where leaders should work with their coaches to identify how (and where) to work on certain capabilities.

Using these leadership styles as references, leaders can identify and be aware of the behaviors and mindsets they're using with their teams and where they can improve.

1. Fiedler’s contingency model

The first of the contingency leadership models were developed in the 1960s by Austrian psychologist and professor Fred Fiedler. Through years of research into the personalities and characteristics of leaders, Fiedler’s theory was that life experiences shape leadership styles.

As a result, according to this model, leadership styles tend to be fixed and near-impossible to change.

Fiedler’s contingency theory is quite simple: By comparing their natural (and fixed) leadership style to three situational factors, leaders can determine if they can be effective leaders.

First, to determine their leadership style, individuals can use the Least Preferred Coworker (LPC) scale to describe a coworker with whom they least enjoy working.

Individuals with high scores (typically ~70 or higher) are considered high LPC leaders and tend to be relationship-oriented leaders. Those with lower scores (typically ~50 or below) are considered low LPC leaders and are more likely to be task-oriented leaders.

If leaders score between 50 and 70, they can be considered both relationship- and task-oriented and need to approach situations with more subjectivity and self-reflection. (The other three models can help with this.)

As you can imagine, high LPC leaders can combat interpersonal conflict, boost team synergy and morale, and build relationships among their teams. Low LPC leaders excel at project management, organizational skills, and logistical team management.

This isn't to say that high LPC and low LPC leaders don't share some skills, but Fiedler's LPC score presents a helpful baseline for individuals wanting to better understand their different leadership styles and combat unfavorable situations.

To implement Fiedler’s model, leaders must then evaluate the situation at hand to determine how well their leadership style befits the challenge:

  • Leader-member relations refer to the strength of a leader’s relationship with their team and employees. Relationship strength can be determined by the level of trust and respect shared between a team and its leader. The stronger the leader-member relations, the more favorable the situation
  • Task structure refers to how clearly defined and organized a project's tasks are. Well-structured tasks have high task structure and vice versa. The higher the task structure, the more favorable the situation
  • Leader position power refers to the level of authority a leader has over their team. The higher up on a company's hierarchy or organizational structure, the more power a leader has. The higher the position of power, the more favorable the situation

The following chart developed by CEO Carl Lindberg helps compare leadership styles with these three situational variables:

 

 

Source

 

"The novelty with [this model] was that Fiedler stated that a leader could be effective in one situation and not in another," Lindberg shared. "A good leader is not necessarily successful when heading all types of organizations in all situations."

Who does Fiedler's model of contingency leadership theory benefit most?

While the Fiedler model is the flagship model of the contingency theory of leadership, it isn't a fit for every leader. Let's look at a few pros and cons of the theory:

Advantages

Disadvantages

It encourages self-awareness and self-reflection when evaluating leadership styles

Since the LPC scale is a perceived score, it can result in biased results and can thus be unreliable

It provides a straightforward way to check one's leadership style and determine when and how one's skills suit a situation

Its application is pretty black-and-white. Depending on their leadership style and the situational favorableness, leaders can either address a situation or replace themselves

It focuses on the situations at hand and not the leaders themselves

It's not as clear how moderate LPC leaders (with scores between 50 and 70) should handle situations

2. Situational Leadership® model

Also called the "Hersey-Blanchard model," the Situational Leadership model states that individuals should adapt their leadership style to the situation at hand and the employees involved.

The model focuses on one workplace factor: the maturity level of leaders and their employees.

Experienced, autonomous employees who can make decisions independently are high maturity. Capable employees that struggle with confidence or following through are moderate maturity. Enthusiastic, receptive employees that lack basic leadership or experience are low maturity.

The Situational Leadership model presents four different leadership types for all maturity levels:

  • The Delegating Style of leadership is best suited for leaders who delegate goals, projects, and tasks to high-maturity employees. This leadership style also requires a healthy amount of trust between leaders and their teams. (Consider the low LPC leader in the Fiedler model.)
  • The Participating Style of leadership involves a give-and-take between leaders and their teams. Leaders share ideas to motivate their moderate-maturity team members and help them build the confidence to move into a high-maturity mindset.
  • The Selling Style of leadership refers to when leaders must "sell" their instructions to moderate-maturity employees. This type of leader often surfaces when employees lack motivation or aren't self-starters.
  • The Telling Style of leadership works best for teams of low-maturity employees who lack experience or foresight to determine their projects and tasks. Leaders in this style must delegate and supervise their team members, at least until they move up in maturity level.

contingency-theory-of-leadership-leader-at-team-meeting-smiling

3. Path-Goal model

The Path-Goal model says that effective leaders help their employees reach their goals. Simple enough, right?

By working with employees to determine their daily, weekly, or career goals, leaders can map the path to completing those goals and adapt their coaching leadership style to coach each employee to achieve them.

The contingency leadership theory comes into play as individuals' leadership styles will vary based on each goal path. This requires flexibility and self-awareness on the part of the leader. In other words, the leader must be aware of their employees’ goals. They must also be aware of the skills employees have — and what they must coach their employees on to reach their goals. 

The Path-Goal theory emphasizes employee morale, employee engagement, satisfaction, and productivity as factors to help leaders determine what style is best for their team. This model has four primary leadership styles:

  • The Supportive Leader takes into account their employees' personal preferences and treats their well-being as important as their productivity. Leaders in stressful work environments may implement this approach.
  • The Participative Leader works alongside their team and often asks for input or feedback before making decisions. Leaders at startups, in small teams, or whose team members are personally invested in the outcome may implement this approach.
  • The Directive Clarifying Leader gives explicit tasks and explains how tasks should be done. Leaders of teams with ambiguous roles or unstructured tasks may implement this approach.
  • The Achievement-Oriented Leader sets high expectations and goals for their team and often encourages autonomy and independence at work. Leaders who manage distributed leaders or high-achieving teams may implement this approach.

4. Decision-Making model

Also known as the "Vroom-Yetton contingency model," the Decision-Making model uses decision-making and leader-member relations to determine effective leadership.

This model presents five leadership styles:

  • The Autocratic (A1) leader makes decisions independently and doesn't consult others before doing so.
  • The Autocratic (A2) leader makes decisions independently but passively consults with team members to gather information before doing so.
  • The Consultative (C1) leader makes decisions independently but consults with team members individually to understand everyone’s opinions before doing so.
  • The Consultative (C2) leader makes decisions independently but consults with team members often, perhaps through a group discussion to gather suggestions, before doing so. 
  • The Collaborative (G2) leader makes decisions through a democratic leadership process, often organizing a group discussion to discuss suggestions before voting for the final decision.

How to apply the contingency theory of leadership at work

The contingency theory of leadership can help bring levels of awareness and education to how leadership styles manifest in the workplace. However, it's not necessarily a model that will unlock the full potential of your workforce. 

At BetterUp, we've studied how leaders can grow and develop their skills (especially after they've reflected on their own areas of opportunity). Here are five ways you can help develop inclusive leaders and future-minded leaders who will have an impact. 

1. Identify where you see the contingency theory of leadership showing up in your own behaviors and mindset 

Pay attention to how you react to specific challenges or situations at work. Take stock of your reactions—internally and externally—and how you adapt based on whom you're working with, what you're working on, and other variables in the situation.

2. Figure out what leadership style you're leveraging for specific situations 

Using the models above, determine your leadership style—or styles, as different situations may surface different responses. 

Consider doing this early in your leadership role instead of waiting until a situation or challenge arises, and reevaluate your style regularly as you gain more experience, change your team or employer, or even invest in coaching.

3. Identify your ideal outcome. What skills do you need to achieve that outcome? 

What kind of leader do you aspire to be? What outcomes do you hope to achieve or even expect from your team? If your team is struggling to achieve those outcomes, it may be a reflection of how effective you are as a leader.

Thankfully, leadership is all about adapting and growing into the skills you may be lacking to lead effectively. A coach can help you do this. 

4. Work with your coach to develop and grow

Learning the skills needed to adapt and improve your leadership style can be tough, and you don't have to do it alone. Coaching is a surefire way to shape your leadership skills and work towards the ideal outcomes you identified above.

A leadership coach can help you become more self-aware and acknowledge the inherent complexity of leadership. 

5. Commit to growing and learning

As we've discussed in this article, there's no single right approach or right set of leadership characteristics for every workplace circumstance. Instead, adopt a growth mindset and allow yourself to learn from and thrive in difficult situations. 

Commit to developing skills that make you an adaptable, open-minded leader—the best kind of leader there is.

Start to develop great leaders in your organization 

So, what does it mean to be a good leader? 

In today's fast-paced world, being flexible and open to change is a prerequisite for success—especially for those in leadership positions. Good leadership isn't a one-size-fits-all approach—it's about taking the time to understand yourself, your team, and your workplace to determine how to be the best leader.

With BetterUp, you can invest in developing leaders that will help unlock your workforce's full potential. Help your people build the skills they need to become the leaders they can be. 

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Published September 6, 2022

Madeline Miles

Madeline is a writer, communicator, and storyteller who is passionate about using words to help drive positive change. She holds a bachelor's in English Creative Writing and Communication Studies and lives in Denver, Colorado. In her spare time, she's usually somewhere outside (preferably in the mountains) — and enjoys poetry and fiction.

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