What is Fiedler’s Contingency Theory?

fielder's contingency theory

Those who study leadership or are in a management position in their organization have likely heard of situational leadership theories.   Situational leadership theories focus on the different situations leaders might find themselves in the workplace.   Fiedler’s Contingency Theory is one of the most popular models.

This leadership model posits the belief that a person’s effectiveness as a leader is in direct proportion to how well that individual’s style of leadership matches the situation. The basis of this theory is that there is no one right way to lead a team. It also relies upon the understanding that leadership styles are fixed. they do not change over time. Read on to learn more about Fiedler’s contingency model of leadership and how it relates to the world of management.

What Is Fiedler’s Contingency Theory?

There are other contingency theories that are popular in the world of business and leadership, beyond Fiedler’s. Students and professionals should understand that a contingency theory, in this context, is one that emphasizes the fact that strong leadership is dependent upon an organization’s circumstances. There is no one singular best way to lead a team. Rather, the best way to perform leadership duties is contingent upon factors such as:

  • organizational culture
  • team composition
  • the task at hand

With that being said, Chron shares how Fiedler’s Contingency Model says that there is no one correct way to lead. The Fiedler Contingency Model assumes that what is best is determined by the situation. What also matters in this approach is that a person’s style does not change. Therefore, it is impossible to alter one’s leadership style to fit a particular context or circumstance. A leader should be chosen based upon the factors at play to ensure the best fit.

How to Use This Model

The contingency model follows a three-step process:

  • Determine an individual’s leadership style
  • Assess the situation facing a leader
  • Match the situation to the leader’s leadership style

Determining Leadership Style

In Fiedler’s Contingency Theory of Leadership, a person’s leadership style is based upon the ways in which they rate their least preferred co-worker (LPC). Leaders are asked to complete an LPC scale, using bipolar adjectives that describe the coworker they have the most difficulty working with.

A commonly used LPC scale would ask leaders to rate their LPC on an eight-point Likert scale for each attribute.  For example, when considering how supportive that coworker is, the leader would be asked to rank them on an eight-point scale with eight being supportive and one being hostile.

Relationship Oriented Leaders vs Task Oriented Leaders

Leaders who rate the person they least prefer to work with more favorably are said to be a relationship oriented leader. Those of the opposite view have more of a task oriented leadership style. Leaders without a clear preference fall somewhere in between.

Relationship oriented leaders in the contingency approach excel at:

  • interpersonal relationships
  • the motivation of personnel
  • conflict management

A relationship oriented leader gets to know their employees on a personal level.  Other traits of this type of leadership style include:

  • Considerate to their employees
  • Get along well with others
  • Enjoy working in a group setting
  • Increased self-esteem when they are recognized by others

A task oriented leader tends to be good at:

  • project organization
  • team management
  • getting things done

They find satisfaction in getting the job done on time.  Task oriented leaders are:

  • Goal oriented and efficient
  • Punitive toward poor performing employees
  • Self-esteem comes from completing a task well

Assessing the Situation

Fiedler’s Contingency Theory examines how much control a leader has over a situation in order to determine fit.   Leaders are in a better position when:

  • trust is high
  • tasks are clear
  • authority is high

Fiedler found that there are three key variables that should be considered when assessing a situation.  These include:

  • The leader’s position power
  • The task structure
  • The relationship between group members and their leader

Leader position power refers to the authority they have over their team.  Leaders who have the authority to reward or tell subordinates what to do would be in a high power position.

In an ideal situation, there would a clear set of tasks to be completed.  The team would know what they should be doing and how to do it.  A leader has greater situational control when the tasks are clearly defined.

He determined these variables produce five unique types of group situations including:

  • Informal groups with structured tasks
  • Groups with structured tasks and strong leaders
  • Groups with at least two layers of management
  • Creative groups with low structured tasks and weak leaders
  • Groups with unstructured tasks and strong leaders

Matching the Situation with the Leader’s Leadership Style

Each of the group situations he found can be matched to a leadership style.  The right match is important to ensure group effectiveness.

In the case of informal groups given structured tasks, a task-oriented leader is most effective when leader-member relations are positive.  If the leader member relations are poor, then a relationship-oriented leader would be a better fit.  The same goes for groups with structured tasks and powerful leaders.  If leader-member relations are good, then a task-oriented leader would be the best choice to lead the group.  If relations are poor, the organization should find a leader with a relationship-oriented leadership style.

Fiedler’s Theory in Action

New and experienced leaders can put Fiedler’s theory into action to help ensure success.

  1.  Identify your natural leadership style.  Complete an LPC scale, being honest with your answers.  Score your results and determine if you are a:
      1. relationship oriented leader
      2. a task oriented leader
      3. somewhere in between

If you find that your score falls somewhere in the middle, another leadership theory may help provide the clarity you need to determine your own style.

  1. Assess the situation you are being asked to serve in a leadership role.  Determine the answers to the three questions.  Are leader member relations good?  Are tasks clear and structured?  Is the authority you have over the team strong?
  2. Make a decision.  Task oriented leaders do best in situations at the extremes.  Relationship oriented leaders do best in situations that lie in the middle.

What if the situation you are faced with isn’t a good fit for your leadership style?  According to Fiedler, leadership style is fixed and can’t be changed.  There are a few options you have if you aren’t the best fit for the job.

  • Delegate.  Effective leaders delegate appropriately.  Is there someone on the team that is ready for a promotion or a stretch assignment?  Delegating a leadership role can help build trust and assist with professional development.
  • Change the situation.  Since leadership style can’t be changed, try changing the situation.  You could try to improve leader member relations but increasing transparency or building trust.  You could also try and make the task list clearer.

Putting It into Practice

Now that you know the basics of Fiedler’s Contingency Theory, it’s time to apply it to real-world situations.

You are considering accepting a leadership role with a non-profit to manage a work program for adults with disabilities.  The program recently received several deficiencies during the accreditation process.  The staff of 10 have been together for about two years.  The organization needs a program leader to help the team correct the deficiencies.

  • It is safe to say that leader member relations are poor in this situation.  Staff are already dealing with deficiencies and know they need to make corrections.  A new manager will need to work to build trust and establish rapport.
  • The task structure is high.  Since the accreditation process uncovered deficiencies, you know what needs to be fixed.
  • Leader position power is high.  As a new leader, you have power over the program.

Following Fiedler’s Theory, this situation has moderate favorability and is best suited for a relationship-oriented leader.

Advantages of Fiedler’s Contingency Theory

There are a number of advantages to Fiedler’s theory when it comes to leadership. The first lies in its simplicity. It’s easy to understand and is applicable across various situations. Thus, it’s also flexible. A leader’s style needs to meet the needs of the group.  Administrators can use this theory to help place managers and supervisors in appropriate team settings to establish the best possible outcomes and improve leadership effectiveness.

It’s fairly straightforward in its predictions. Leaders who are relationship-oriented should be placed in situations with less structured tasks. Leaders that are task-oriented will do better where the environment’s tasks are better structured.

Disadvantages of Fiedler’s Contingency Theory

There are a few disadvantages or challenges with Fiedler’s theory.  There’s no clear direction for leaders who fall in the middle range of the LPC.  Leaders must choose which end of the spectrum to align with or pursue another theory to figure out their leadership style.

The model relies on self-assessment for the most part.  This can be a challenge because self-assessment isn’t always accurate.  The model does recommend checking with other members of the leadership team to make sure an assessment of the situation is accurate if you aren’t sure, but that isn’t a requirement.

The primary premise of the theory is extremely rigid.  Since leadership style cannot be changed, the only option is to match to a situation that complements your style or forgo the leadership opportunity.  A leader can try and change the situation if appropriate (especially related to task list items), but there aren’t guidelines to help the leader be more effective in a less than ideal situation.

This theory has a wide variety of applications. It’s held up well and stood the test of time in the field of leadership.

Related Resources: