Adapt your leadership style

Chances are that sooner or later you will be leading a problem-solving team. When you do, make sure that you use the right leadership style.

Just as there isn’t a single golf club that’s optimal for all shots, there isn’t one leadership style that is most effective in all situations. Instead, you must adapt your style depending on the skills and confidence of your team to do the task in hand. This is called situational leadership; it was first developed by Ken Blanchard and Paul Hersey in Management of Organizational Behavior (now in its 9th edition). Here is a variation of it.

There are four leadership styles. You should use the one that’s best suited for your team in this specific situation

S1 – Telling. If your team doesn’t have the skills and confidence to do the job, you, as a leader, must show high direction: deciding alone on what to do and instructing your team. In that case, you’ll reward compliance with the instructions. On the positive side, this leadership style has the tightest control on the task: you know precisely how things are going and you can make the appropriate changes quickly when problems arise. But this comes at a price: you must be significantly involved, you must be motivated at all times, and you might limit the speed of progresses when you become saturated. Also, this limits the abilities of the team to your own abilities.

S2 – Selling. When your team doesn’t have the skills to do the task but is willing to work at it, you can start involving them in the decision-making process by listening to their input. You will spend more efforts influencing them, seeking their buy-in in decisions. Here, you reward inputs from team members. This approach has several positives: it taps more in the collective wisdom of the group and your efforts to include the team can buy goodwill. However this comes at the expense of lots of meetings and can be tiresome for the leader.

S3 – Developing. Sometimes the team has the skills to do the job but lacks the confidence to do it. The leader’s job then becomes that of a developer’s: actively listening and coaching and sharing the decision-making process. In this situation, you reward team members for seeking advice. This approach takes the tapping-the-team-for-collective-wisdom to a higher level but the leader might be perceived to be more interested in being popular as being effective.

S4 – Delegating. When the team has both the skills and the confidence to do the task, the leader can delegate the operation, letting the team make decision and only monitoring the process. Here, you’ll reward assuming responsibilities.

In the absolute, there is no leadership style better than another. Instead, adopting the right leadership style in each situation is what matters as it will improve the quality of the team’s work. Adopting the wrong style can result in frustration and lower-quality deliverables.

In particular, one of the common traps in situational leadership is oscillating between S4 and S1, which becomes a frustration cycle.

In this instance, the leader starts by instructing the team on what to do (S1) but then leaves them to their own means without further direction or support (S4). When the team fails to reach a first milestone, the leaders becomes involved again, giving yet further rigid instructions (dominating – S1). Both the leader and the team suffer from this vicious cycle.

Break the frustration cycle by transforming it into an empowerment cycle by introducing the other two situations. After giving directions (S1), let your team get on with the task (S4). However keep an active involvement in the situation, meeting with the team to assist in solving problems (S3). When the team hits a significant obstacle, listen and make a decision (S2).

As a leader, providing more autonomy to your team has several advantages—benefiting from their input to compensate your own limitations and gaining more goodwill for the project, to name two essential ones—so you should try to spend more time in S3 and S4 than in the other two situations. Although this might not be your own decision, you might be able to influence it in some way, either by choosing your team, choosing your engagement, or motivating your people.

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1 comment to Adapt your leadership style

  • Joseph

    Arnaud: Another good post from you. Recently I read ‘Delegate or Die’ from Derek Sivers (http://sivers.org/delegate) where he talk of how he coached his team members to take decisions. Instead of adapting to the team, he coached the team to make better decision. I constantly see this leadership quality (coaching leading to delegation) missing.

    Joseph