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The Right Leadership for the Right Situation

Situational LeadershipDo you change your style, and adapt to the abilities of your employees?

If you are in a management position, you probably won’t have trouble imagining the following scenario.

Boss to subordinate: Please enter these statistics into the database while I’m at my meeting.

Subordinate: Sure thing!

Two hours later, boss returns to find subordinate had either 1) entered statistics in unintelligible ways or 2) had done nothing because he wasn’t sure of the process.

Can the boss get angry and upset? Sure. Should he? How would you react?

Leaders must be sure to take a few steps before delegating any tasks to their employees or they risk the above situation—wasted time and effort and upset people all around.

The act of taking the time to determine the maturity and training levels of the people being supervised and then guiding them accordingly is known as Situational Leadership. Instead of using just one style, successful leaders adapt their styles to the training and experience of those they lead, based on the job that needs to be done.

Leaders can choose from among four leadership styles:

  1. Tell: The leader tells his group what to do and how to do it.
  2. Sell: Leaders give information and direction, but do more in the way of “selling” their ideas in order to get people engaged.
  3. Participate: The leader works closely with the team, sharing the decision-making process and focusing on the relationship with his group.
  4. Delegate: Leaders hand off most of the responsibility. They oversee the progress, but are less involved in routine decisions.

There really is no single best style of leadership. The most effective leadership is task-relevant and the most successful leaders are those who adapt their leadership styles to the maturity, and education and/or experience, of an individual. By maturity, we mean the individual’s ability to set attainable goals and the willingness to take responsibility.

John Juzbasich, CEO of Merit Career Development, says that Situational Leadership is actually a simple model and easy to follow. “Look at the task at hand and the individuals on your team and choose what style to use based on their level of readiness. Know your people well and know how to work with them.”

The choice of leadership style—telling, selling, participating or delegating—is always made relative to the task-at-hand and the person’s readiness to perform.

The four levels of employee readiness are categorized in the following ways—from lowest to highest.

  1. Lack skills, knowledge, or confidence. These employees need to be developed so it’s important to give them stretch assignments. But it does mean you’ll need to give more support, clear direction, and oversight.
  2. Willing, but skills not there yet. The willingness is there, but these people will need to develop the skills to do the job well. Be prepared to do more handholding and teaching.
  3. Have the skills but not the confidence. These people are ready and willing and have a better skill set, but are nervous. Meet with them, coach them and give as much support as they need to feel confident.
  4. High levels of confidence and strong skills. Sounds perfect, but you still need to be available for guidance and input, just give them the breathing room they need.

Can these levels change? Sure.

With good coaching, readiness level can improve more rapidly than you expected. Likewise, someone can be fully motivated and engaged and then have a flat tire or have an argument with their teenager over breakfast, and suddenly they seem to go backwards in their ability to perform.

An aware leader would recognize that something was wrong, that the situation had changed, and would adapt her style to meet it.

Many variables, including personal issues and changes within the company, can cause shifts in employee readiness, and the effective leader must continually assess the best way to present projects to his or her subordinates. The ability to assess an employee’s readiness level and adaptability are hallmarks of the situational leader. The leader’s level of success will reflect how well he or she has learned those lessons.


For more information about how Merit Career Development can hone your leadership and management skills, please contact Jim Wynne at jwynne@meritcd.com.

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