Contingency Theories

This article explores Fiedler’s contingency theory of leadership.

Fiedler’s contingency theory of leadership states that your effectiveness as a leader is determined by how well your leadership style matches the situation you find yourself in.

It isn’t the only contingency theory – contingency theory is actually a bunch of theories which say that there is no one singular best leadership style. They generally say that the best leadership style will be contingent on the situation you find yourself in.

It’s important to realise that in Fiedler’s contingency theory, your leadership style is fixed, you cannot change your style to suit the situation. Instead, the theory says that you must put leaders into situations that match their preferred style. This puts the theory at odds with more modern contingency theories, such as Situational Leadership.

To use the model, there are two things you need to determine; the first is your leadership style and the second is the favourable circumstances of the situation you find yourself in.

So let’s examine each of those in a little bit more detail.

First, we have to determine your leadership style. Now to do this, Fiedler developed a scale called least preferred co-worker or LPC for short. And to score yourself on this scale, you have to describe the coworker with whom you least prefer to work. To do this right now ask yourself, what do you think about the person you least prefer working with? According to this model, the more favourably you rated the person you least prefer to work with, then the more relationship-oriented you are, but the less favourably you rated the person you least like working with, the more task-oriented your leadership style is. So in a nutshell, if you have a high LPC, you’re a relationship-oriented leader (or that’s your natural style), and a low LPC means you’re naturally a more task-oriented leader.

Task-oriented leaders tend to be good at organising teams and projects and getting things done. Relationship oriented leaders tend to be good at building good relationships and managing conflict to get things done.

The second step of the model is to understand the favourable circumstances of the situation you face. This is determined by how much control over the situation you have as a leader and determining situational favourableness. Three factors must be examined.

Firstly, leader-member relations. This factor measures how much your team trusts you. Greater trust increases the favourableness of the situation, and less trust reduces it. Next, we have task structure. This factor measures the tasks that need to be performed. Are they clear and precise? Or are they vaguer? Vague tasks decrease the favourableness of the situation, whereas concrete tasks increase the favourableness of the situation. And finally, we have position power. This is determined by your authority, meaning the power you have to reward or punish your subordinates. As you might expect, having more power increases situational favourableness.

So let’s look at how you actually use the model in practice. There are three steps to use the model and the first is to identify your leadership style or your preferred leadership style, using the LPC scale. To do that, you can use the table shown here to score how you feel about the person that you least like to work with.

Fiedler's Least Preferred CO-Worker (LPC) Scale.

So as you can see, if you if you think someone is really pleasant, you might score them a seven or an eight. And if you think they’re quite unpleasant, you might score them a one, two, or maybe three. Fill in all the scores for this table, and then you tot up your results to come up with a total number, which can be used to see where you fit on the scale. If you score 73 or above, then you’re a relationship-oriented leader, if you score 54 and below, and you’re a task-oriented leader, and if you find that you’re between 55 and 72, you’re actually a mixture of both types of leader and it’s up to you to determine which style you feel suits you best.

The next step is to understand your situation. You can do this by asking these questions:

  • Is trust with your team high or low?
  • Are tasks vague, or are they clear cut and well understood?
  • Is your authority low? Or is your authority high?

The easiest way to answer these questions is to score each on a scale from one to eight, just like before, with eight representing the highest value and what obviously, the lowest.

Now that we understand how we like to lead, and we also understand the situation we’re facing, we’re in a position to determine if we have the right style for the situation we’re facing.

The table below is showing us what Fiedler found to be the best leadership style given different combinations of situational factors.

Fiedler's contingency Theory - graph showing that low lpc leaders are best suited for situations that are highly favourable or highly unfavourable. High LPC leaders are best suited for situations that are neither favourable nor unfavourable.

It’s important to realise that the red line in this diagram represents task-oriented leaders and the yellow line represents relationship-oriented leaders.

In general, what you can see from this diagram is that when situations are highly favourable, or highly unfavourable, then the task-oriented leader is the most effective. It’s only in the middle area, where situational factors are mixed, that the relationship-oriented leader is the most effective.

From Fiddler’s perspective, you would place leaders into situations that are the most suited to their style. However, a more modern approach is to adapt your style according to the situation you’re facing.

So let’s look at a couple of examples to bring all of this to life.

In this first example, we’re going to imagine that you’ve been newly appointed as the manager of a pizza restaurant. And in this scenario, we might expect the following situational factors. Trust will be low because you’re new to the job, and so your team won’t trust you. Secondly, staff turnover is high, so it’s going to be difficult to build strong relationships. Task structure will be high because there are extremely clear operating procedures to follow covering everything from how to make each pizza, and how to welcome customers to the restaurant. Finally, position power will be high because as the manager, you’ll have the ability to hire and fire and reward and punish as you feel necessary. According to Fiedler’s contingency theory, a relationship-oriented leader is best suited to this type of role.

Let’s take a look at another example. In this scenario, we’re going to imagine that you’ve just been promoted to be the manager of a software development team that you’ve been working in for two years. The situational factors in this scenario might look something like this. Trust will be high because you’ve already worked with the team for two years and know each of the team members well. Task structure will be high because even though software development is complex, team workers know what they have to do each week. Finally, position power is low – although you’ve been promoted to manage the team’s day to day work, you’re not actually responsible for line management of any of them. Therefore, you don’t hold much formal authority over any of them. You can’t fire them, if they underperform, for example. So based on those situational factors, and using the table we looked at before, a task-oriented leader is best suited to this type of role.

Now let’s take a look at the advantages and disadvantages of the theory.

So in terms of advantages, it provides a simple rule of thumb for identifying which leaders are best for which situations. Unlike many other leadership theories, it takes the situation into account in determining the effectiveness of a leader and both the LPC and the situational factors are pretty easy to measure.

In terms of disadvantages, it’s not flexible at all. If your leadership style doesn’t match the situation, then that’s it, you need to be replaced. There is nothing you can do to change the situation. Also, the LPC scale is subjective and so it’s possible to incorrectly assess your own leadership style. If you happen to fall in the middle of the LPC scale, then there’s no real guidance as to what to do to determine which type kind of leader you might be. that’s entirely up to you. Finally, your assessment of the situation is also subjective. So it means you might incorrectly assess the situation and consequently, you may incorrectly determine what kind of leader is required.