What are the Most Common Approaches to Leadership in I-O Psychology?

What are the Most Common Approaches to Leadership in I-O Psychology?

One of the many tasks of Industrial-organizational psychologists is to:

  • study leadership
  • learn the characteristics that make someone a good leader
  • help businesses and organizations implement proven leadership strategies that will help them achieve their short-term and long-term goals.

In other words, without effective leadership, businesses are doomed to fail.

Industrial-organizational psychologists aren’t the only ones who study leadership.  However, their input on the matter has revealed that there are some highly common leadership styles. Some of these are proven to be highly effective and others aren’t typically recommended for positive growth in the workplace.

It’s important to note that the efficacy of these common types of leadership styles varies somewhat depending on the type of business or organization where it is used. Additionally, different leadership styles might be needed depending on if the business or organization is:

  • new or established
  • stable or unstable

Let’s explore some of these common leadership styles and how and why one’s leadership style might change over time.

First, we’ll discuss the three oldest types of leadership styles as outlined in research by Kurt Lewin:

  • autocratic
  • democratic
  • laissez-faire

We’ll then discuss three more modern leadership styles:

  • transformational
  • coaching
  • pacesetter

The Autocratic Leader

The Autocratic LeaderThe autocratic leader is an authoritarian. He or she creates and maintains the culture of an organization. The leader makes and enforces the rules and protocols of a group. This leader does not encourage initiative. There may be teams at work in the organization, but decisions they make or ideas they formulate will be approved by the leader. Authority is centralized, and input is seldom, if ever, sought from others.

Autocratic leadership works well in certain situations. In emergencies, for instance, people need a “take charge” individual. Military combat situations rely on autocratic leadership as well.

Groups with autocratic leaders maintain focus on goals and achieve them faster than organizations with other kinds of leaders. Some group members prefer leaders of this type. Why?  Because it takes the pressure of making decisions or taking responsibility off them.

However, autocratic leaders can rub people the wrong way. They can be seen as:

  • cold
  • distant
  • dictatorial

Likewise, under autocratic leadership, there is a risk in some situations of followers feeling marginalized or as though they don’t matter. In extreme cases, followers might develop feelings of displeasure or even hatred for their leader and attempt to curb their leader’s power.

Again, what happens under this type of leadership depends on the situation. Autocratic leadership can be extremely valuable during an emergency response. It might not be as effective in a day-to-day office setting.

The Democratic Leader

The Democratic Leader seeks the opinions of othersThis leader seeks the opinions of others. He or she effectively delegates responsibility to others and organizes teams to accomplish goals. As was put so well in Psychology Today, leaders can emerge at any level if they “cultivate a desire in those with whom they collaborate to strive toward a common goal…”

These leaders allow others to work toward goals through a variety of approaches. This is in direct opposition to the autocratic leader who sets the goals and demands that group members meet them through his or her direction. Additionally, democratic leaders encourage and develop innovation in group members.This is lacking under autocratic leadership.

While this type of leadership develops loyalty in the membership, it can be slower in making progress toward goals. Many different opinions and approaches must be considered. An example of this might be a family that’s trying to decide which movie to watch on a Friday night. With input from each member of the family, it could take quite a bit of time to:

  • hear each person’s input
  • hash out each option
  • make a decision as to which movie will be watched

While that’s a silly example, you can see how this style of leadership would likely not be appropriate in an emergency situation. However, in a setting in which creativity is desired – say, a meeting between marketing professionals charged with developing a new marketing plan for a client – this type of leadership is often the best.

That’s because democratic leaders encourage their followers to:

  • be engaged
  • voice opinions
  • be fully invested in helping achieve the stated goals

As a result, the group moves forward. It’s at a slower pace than in other leadership situations. However, the group devises a solution that is often of much higher quality than those devised under other leadership styles.

The Laissez-Faire Leader

The Laissez-Faire LeaderLaissez-faire leaders place the most value on innovation. They rely on the initiative of individuals to accomplish goals. These leaders provide the resources and tools to accomplish goals along with some guidance. But individual members or teams bear the responsibility for completion.

This type of leadership is effective in organizations of members who have expertise and skills in the goal areas. Where that expertise is lacking, or where members are young and unmotivated, laissez-faire leaders could be virtually no leaders at all.

For example, taking a laissez-faire approach to leading a group of ergonomics experts in the process of designing a new product might generate some excellent ideas. However, the same approach with a group of new employees who have no idea what they’re doing could lead to disaster.

Ultimately, this type of leadership style is best used in moderation. Among the common leadership styles discussed here, it is likely the one that leads to the most disorganization and the least amount of personal responsibility among team members.

The Transformational Leader

The Transformational LeaderThe hallmark of the transformational style of leadership is its focus on:

  • motivating employees
  • having clear communication
  • outlining clear-cut goals for the future

These goals are not on the individual level, though. Instead, transformational leaders focus on the big picture and long-term success.

Typically, transformational leaders:

  • are highly encouraging
  • strive to challenge their followers
  • inspire others to achieve their goals
  • have (and show) respect for all team members

The benefits of this type of approach are many, including:

  • Developing meaningful connections with employees or other team members
  • Long-term retention and commitment to goals
  • An emphasis on teamwork and ethical practice

This type of leadership style is effective in management situations. For example, assume that you’ve been hired as an HR specialist for a business and that you have several teams of people reporting to you. You might spend a few weeks or months:

  • getting your feet wet
  • gaining an understanding of the current state of the company
  • identifying goals for the company’s future growth

Then, you would:

  • meet with the teams that report to you
  • outline your goals for each team
  • have the members of each team develop their own goals that support the larger team goals

Again, the focus is on the big picture and encouraging each stakeholder to do their part in making that big picture goal a reality.

The Coaching Leader

The Coaching LeaderCoaching leaders aren’t that different from transformational leaders. Both types of leaders value their team members’ input and strive to help people improve and reach their potential.

Additionally, coaching leaders use goal-setting as a means of making progress. To do so, coaching leaders will offer consistent feedback on an employee’s progress, noting what they’re doing well and what still needs improvement. This is done in a positive, supporting, and meaningful way that motivates someone to continue pressing forward.

Typically, coaching leaders are extremely self-aware. They’re also aware of the strengths and weaknesses of the people they lead. Coaches are supportive and encourage personal growth, yet also offer direction when needed. The key is in providing guidance – not barking out commands or telling someone what they should or shouldn’t do.

The benefit of this type of leadership style is that it empowers employees to be their best. With its focus on development, coaching leadership can help direct a company’s culture in a positive direction. Employees feel valued and empowered.

The problem with using this type of leadership approach is that it can be very time-consuming. It requires a lot of one-on-one time with employees to provide the needed encouragement and feedback for continued growth. Nevertheless, this is a highly effective way to lead a group in a variety of settings.

For example, a coaching style of leadership is ideal for businesses that are in sales. A coaching leader might:

  • bring the sales team together to discuss the team’s successes and failures
  • seek input from the team regarding how to address weaknesses
  • work on a plan for improving team success in the future as a cohesive group

The Pacesetter Leader

The Pacesetter LeaderAnother common leadership style is the pacesetting style, which, as you might imagine, focuses on getting results quickly.

Pacesetter leaders are all about performance. They set high standards for themselves and their followers. They expect an effort from all followers to meet or exceed those standards.

In certain settings, this type of leadership style can be extremely effective. For example, there are situations in which employees need to feed off of positive energy and need only general direction for improving their performance. Pacesetting leadership might be the way to go.

However, if team members are highly motivated, yet excel best with more direction and feedback, pacesetting leadership can backfire. The focus is on getting results and getting them quickly. There is little time in this type of leadership style for dishing out guidance or praise. Without the needed guidance from their leaders, employees might become overly stressed or dissatisfied with their job. Since pacesetters value performance over skills development, some employees might find that they fall behind in their duties. This could lead to conflict with a pacesetting leader as well.

Pacesetting leaders do a good job of goal-setting and holding their followers accountable for achieving their assigned goals. Pacesetters are often admired for their competency and their willingness to “aim high” and work hard to achieve goals that others might deem too lofty to achieve.

Which Leadership Style is Best?

It’s important to remember that each style of leadership can work in certain situations. There isn’t a one-size-fits-all answer to the question of which style is best.

According to Forbes, the best leaders can move between types according to organizational and situational needs. Likewise, some leaders are a combination of two or more of leadership styles that can change as needed.

For example, people who are elected to office or put into leadership positions might display some “authoritarianism ” that gets them noticed. It may, or may not, disappear once they settle into their position. Presidential races, for instance, are seldom won by self-effacing candidates with a laissez-faire leadership style. Instead, candidates often pride themselves on their ability to take charge. Once a leader becomes accustomed to his or her position, some degree of delegation of powers may be seen. The authoritarian style might give way to a more democratic style of leadership.

Surprisingly, the most effective leader may be the one who encourages members to explore different approaches to meeting goals. The democratic leader tends to be the most productive. Generally, the least effective type is the laissez-faire leader. But in certain situations, such as collaborations between experts or skilled group members, it may be the best option.

Psychologists who have studied group behavior have determined that leaders who are less rigid develop the most loyal followers. Those followers will be “like-minded” to accomplish goals and tasks. Still, most experts in industrial-organizational psychology agree that the best leadership style for an organization may depend upon the character of the organization itself.

Whatever leadership situation you might find yourself in, just remember that how you lead a team will likely need adjustments along the way, no matter what approach you’re using. Ultimately, what will often help an organization or business move forward in a positive direction is:

  • open communication
  • a commitment to teamwork
  • a focus on forward-thinking goals 

But keep in mind that every situation is different. Being adaptable to change is a critical skill to have in leadership situations.

Sean Jackson

B.A. Social Studies Education | University of Wyoming

M.S. Counseling | University of Wyoming

B.S. Information Technology | University of Massachusetts

Updated October 2021