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Situational leadership: How flexible leaders benefit teams 9 min read
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Imagine you’re in charge of an important project and need to motivate your team to meet a tight deadline. Would you use the same motivational techniques on everyone? Of course not. Every team member has unique qualities that make them respond — or not respond — to certain leadership strategies. So, why would you use the same leadership style for every situation?

The good news is you don’t have to.

In this article, you’ll learn more about situational leadership and why it’s useful for project management. Although we can’t give you a bigger budget or more time to finish your current project, we can promise that you’ll have a better understanding of situational leadership when you finish reading.

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What is situational leadership?

Situational leadership is a leadership theory that emphasizes flexibility rather than rigid adherence to a single leadership approach. In other words, situational leaders choose a leadership style based on the situation and the characteristics of the follower rather than using the same leadership style at all times.

To use situational leadership appropriately, a leader must be able to assess each team member’s readiness level, which is based on follower ability and follower confidence.

Followers may be classified as follows:

  • Low confidence/ability (R1)
  • Confident/lacking skills (R2)
  • Higher skills/lack of confidence (R3)
  • High skills/high confidence and commitment (R4)

Now that you understand what situational leadership is, let’s take a closer look at some of the different types.

Types of situational leadership

Under the situational leadership model, a leader is supposed to assess a situation and respond with one of four types of leadership. Each type of leadership has different levels of task/directive behavior and relationship/supportive behavior.

Task/directive behavior refers to the extent to which a leader needs to tell the follower what to do, how to do it, when to do it, and where to do it. Relationship/supportive behavior refers to the extent to which the leader must provide recognition, engage in active listening, offer reinforcement, or engage in open dialog with the follower.

Skilled leaders use these four types of situational leadership to achieve desired outcomes:

  • Telling (S1): Leaders must provide close supervision and give team members explicit instructions about what to do and how to do it. Style 1 is ideal when working with team members who are unwilling or unmotivated and lack the knowledge and/or skills needed to perform the task.
  • Selling (S2): The leader explains their decisions and gives team members the opportunity to ask questions. Style 2 is well-suited to followers who are motivated to complete the task even though they may lack some of the required knowledge or skills.
  • Participating (S3): Team members are invited to share their ideas and participate in the decision-making process. Style 3 is appropriate for followers who have the knowledge and skills needed to complete a task but not the willingness or motivation to follow through.
  • Delegating (S4): The leader gives team members more responsibilities, letting them take ownership of the task. Style 4 is appropriate when working with high-commitment team members who are highly competent and motivated, as they have the knowledge, skills, and drive needed to complete the task without much input from the leader.

While knowing the types of situational leadership is important, how it’s implemented can impact how effective a leader appears to be to their team. Let’s examine its impact on team loyalty and identify the qualities of capable situational leaders.

Gaining team loyalty through situational leadership

Situational leadership creates a positive work environment, making team members feel more comfortable expressing themselves and being honest about their shortcomings. Writing for Harvard Business Review, Frederick F. Reichheld explains that leaders who are committed to treating people well are the most likely to build loyal teams. Situational leadership lets you treat people well by providing just the right amount of support and supervision.

The qualities of situational leaders

For best results, a situational type of leader must display the following qualities:

  • Flexibility: Situational leaders are flexible enough to adjust their approach based on the development level of each team member.
  • Trustworthiness: Good situational leaders are skilled at gaining the trust of other people.
  • Ability to delegate: To use the situational leadership approach, you must be able to delegate effectively to team members with high levels of competence and commitment.
  • Coaching skills: When you work with R1 and R2 team members, you must be able to provide clear instructions for task completion.
  • Courage: It takes courage to adjust your leadership style when everyone else is content to use the same tired approach.

While all good leaders have at least some of those qualities, it’s also important to understand situational leadership’s potential drawbacks — below is a summary of benefits and drawbacks of situational leadership in project management.

The benefits and limitations of situational leadership in project management

One of the main benefits of using situational leadership in project management is that you can adjust your approach based on the skills and competence of each team member.

If you have several R1 team members, you can plan your schedule accordingly, leaving plenty of time for supervision and monitoring. As these team members gain higher levels of competence and commitment, you can shift your focus to sharing ideas or delegating tasks.

Situational leadership is also helpful for situations in which you have to share authority with others. A lack of direct authority sometimes makes it difficult to gain loyalty and make sure that everyone on the team is committed to the project.

Despite its benefits, situational leadership does have some potential drawbacks. If you change your leadership style frequently, team members may be confused, causing them to be less committed. You also need to be comfortable assessing team members and determining their readiness level. If you can’t do this accurately, you may choose the wrong type of situational leadership.

Situational leadership examples

To make it easier to apply situational leadership in a project management setting, here are four examples of a leader adjusting their approach based on a follower’s level of competence and commitment.

  • Scenario 1: Your company implements a new project management tool. One of your team members struggles to learn new software and doesn’t seem too motivated to learn the new system. Based on your knowledge of situational leadership, you identify this team member as an R1 (low confidence and low ability). As the project manager, you provide close supervision and give the team member explicit instructions for using the tool to complete assigned tasks.
  • Scenario 2: You need someone to track expenses for your newest project. A new team member is eager to help, but they have little experience with project accounting. You decide to help them build their skills by explaining how to track project expenses, answering their questions about the process, and providing positive reinforcement as often as possible.
  • Scenario 3: You have a team member with extensive experience using work breakdown structures to track project schedules. Although they have a lot of experience, they’re hesitant to take on new responsibilities. You respond by including this team member in the decision-making process and providing positive feedback each time they complete a scheduling task.
  • Scenario 4: One of your team members has more than a decade of experience serving as a liaison between contractors and project managers. They’re confident in their ability to maintain positive relationships with contractors without missing deadlines or going over budget. Based on their high levels of competence and commitment, you determine that this team member is an R4. You respond by giving them additional tasks and empowering them to take ownership of this aspect of project management.

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Practice good team leadership with has several tools to help you monitor project progress, including dashboards and templates, so you can make decisions with confidence and determine if your team members need additional information on how, why, or when to complete their assigned tasks. workdocs is another an excellent tool from that lets your team connect, collaborate, and execute ideas and workflows in one place.

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Frequently asked questions

Why is situational leadership most effective?

Situational leadership is the most effective form of leadership because it accounts for different skill and confidence levels among team members. As a result, situational leaders can deliver just the right amount of direction and support.

What are the three theories of situational leadership?

The three theories of situational leadership are variations on Hersey and Blanchard’s original model. They produced their original statement of the theory in 1972 and revised it in 2007. In 2009, Geir Thompson and Robert P. Vecchio developed an alternative statement of Hersey and Blanchard’s situational leadership model, positing that employee autonomy and job experience interact when determining a team member’s development level.

What are the four leadership styles of situational leadership?

The four leadership styles of situational leadership are telling, selling, participating, and delegating.

Put situational leadership into practice

Now that you’re aware of the four situational leadership styles, it’s time to put them into practice. The first step is to assess your team members to determine their individual levels of commitment and competence. Once you know how much directive and supportive behavior each team member needs, use to help you determine when each type of situational leadership is appropriate.

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