Situational Leadership : “Not the Same” Old Leadership

When I was in graduate school at San Jose State, we had a rather passionate discussion in an instructional methods class about “to which student do you gear your class?”.  Many opted on the side of targeting the higher achievers as it would challenge the rest of the class.

Others, in the spirit of “no child left behind” thought that the class should be geared so that no child was lost in the subject matter. The majority felt that you should aim for the middle and assist those who were struggling.

situational leadership

Our instructor simply said: You are all right. Provide challenging work that is a stretch for the high achievers. Provide simpler lessons for those who are struggling to help them grasp the subject matter. And structure your basic lesson plans for those who are neither struggling nor unable take on the extra work.

Many thought the proposal to be unfair, requiring additional and more difficult work for some and lowering the standards for others. He said that to the contrary it was very fair. “You don’t treat people the same, you treat them with fairness.

In this case, fairness is providing your students with what they need to learn.” You structure your basic lesson plan to teach the majority. You have a separate plan to help those students who won’t be able to succeed with your plan.

And, you provide more challenging work to those who will not be challenged by your plan. Learning doesn’t take place if you are failing. It also doesn’t take place if you’re tuned out because you’re bored.

Your job is to help your students learn. You won’t do your job if you treat everybody the same. Treat them fairly by providing what they need to learn.

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The same holds true in the workplace. A leader’s job is to ensure that goals are accomplished by the work of the team.  The more successful the individual contributors are – the more successful the team.

“Don’t treat everyone the same”.

However, in many organizations this notion sometimes stops short of “treat them with fairness”.  They are treated selectively – which manifests itself as favoritism or misdirected consequences.

We’ve all either experienced or witnessed favoritism in the workplace. A select few who benefit from the largesse of management. The generosity of choice assignments, opportunities for development and higher visibility in the organization result in favorable employment decisions: advancement, salary increases and enviable perks.

Selective leadership is a slippery slope that creates angst for HR practitioners because it opens the door for charges of unlawful discrimination – some well founded and difficult to defend. Thus the mantra of “treat everybody the same – don’t set precedents”.

Consequences are misdirected when a pattern of punish the good performer and reward the poor ones is in place. If someone is not performing well on a project, shift the work to the person who is dependable – who can always be counted on. Punish the good performer with more work – reward the poor performer by taking away responsibilities.  And what happens to the “average” performers? Simple – ignore them.

Both of these management behaviors stop short of “treat with fairness”. To treat with fairness is not to treat the same, but to provide every employee with the opportunity for success.

selective leadership

Situational Leadership enforces this belief. Developed by Paul Hersey and Ken Blanchard, the underlying principle of Situational Leadership is that there is no single “best” style of leadership. Effective leadership is task relevant and to be effective, a leader must adapt their style to the maturity of the individual or group they are leading. Leadership styles varies with the person and the task that need to be influenced.

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The model focuses on the “maturity” level of the employee assigned a task:

  • Unable to take on the task and unwilling or insecure
  • Unable to take on the task but are willing
  • Able to take on the task but are unwilling or lack confidence
  • Able and fully competent

Based on this “maturity” level for the task, the leader provides the employee with the necessary direction and/or support. As employees become more skilled and more confident, they move up the “maturity” ladder. The leader provides specifically what the employee needs to be successful performing the task. Or, in the case of the fully capable and competent employee – nothing is better – just the assignment.

The reverse is also true. If a leader provides direction and “coaching” to a fully capable and willing employee (micromanagement) they risk undermining the confidence and commitment of the employee.

If you are interested in Situational Leadership – give me a shout!

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