Contingency in Leadership Styles


In the late 1950s, Austrian psychologist Fred Fiedler theorized that there are two types of leadership -- skills that enable leaders to accomplish tasks and skills that focus on developing people and relationships. Leadership effectiveness tends to be contingent upon a leader’s personality and the details of the current situation. Effective leadership skills enable business professionals to respond to unexpected events by using an autocratic style to make quick, decisive decisions in an emergency or participative style if input from followers helps make a sound choice.

Assessing Leadership Style

By assessing their leadership style, using tools such as the Mind Tools survey on leadership skills, business professionals can rate their leadership abilities, including assigning tasks, managing team work, planning for the future and overcoming obstacles. Depending on stress levels in the environment, the type of work, the skills of team members and the use of technology, effective business professionals use their skills to meet business needs. If they lack competency in critical areas, using free Internet resources, such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s OpenCourseWare website, they can gain access to case study materials, lab exercises and other resources.

Choosing the Correct Leadership Style

Experts measure leadership effectiveness by how well a leader chooses a style to solve a problem. By analyzing internal and external factors, business professionals determine the aptitude of subordinates, relationships and the degree of consensus among the team members on the scope of the work tasks. According to contingency theory, no single correct solution exists to a problem.

Hierarchical Aspects

Fiedler’s contingency theory describes the hierarchical aspects of an organization, including atmosphere, ambiguity and authority that impact a leader’s role and effectiveness. If a leader’s subordinates behave in a loyal manner, the atmosphere becomes one of trust, confidence and safety. If the leader clearly defines the steps required to complete the task, ambiguity is low. If the leader’s authority or power is questioned, the group may not be compelled to follow his direction. In leadership development workshops, leaders use the normative decision-making approach to practice making business decisions based on practice scenarios by working cooperatively with others to gather information, study alternatives and make a sound choice.

Least-Preferred Co-Worker Scale

To apply Fiedler’s contingency model to complex leadership situations, leaders determine their primary leadership style. Fielder developed a scale to measure leadership style called the Least-Preferred Co-Worker Scale. By rating the attributes of a person that the leader least enjoyed working with, the leader can rate factors and determine if they tend to focus on relationships or tasks. Once they know their leadership style, leaders assess the current situation to determine if the atmosphere is good or bad, if the task is structured or unstructured and if they have strong power over the team. For example, if the team members distrust the leader, the task is poorly defined and the leader has a high degree of authority, the leadership should focus on establishing personal relationships and avoiding unnecessary conflict.

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