The Tannenbaum-Schmidt Leadership Continuum
Balancing Control With Your Team's Need for
Free to act, or closely controlled?
Leaders use a variety of different approaches.
Some are autocratic and prefer to tell their teams exactly what
to do. Others use a much more participative style. Still
others may use a style somewhere between these two
These differences suggest a continuum of leadership behavior
– with leaders being able to choose the style they use.
So, how do you choose the leadership style that's right for
One popular approach to leadership, the "contingency" approach,
argues that your choice should be based on the situation, and not
on your personal preferences (here, "contingency" means that your
approach is dependent on, or contingent upon, the situation).
In 1958, contingency theorists Robert Tannenbaum and Warren
Schmidt identified a continuum of seven distinct leadership styles,
which they published in the Harvard Business Review. By
understanding this continuum, you can see some of the options
available to you, and these help you think about which leadership
style is most appropriate in a given situation.
Understanding the Tannenbaum-Schmidt Continuum
The Tannenbaum-Schmidt Continuum shows where a manager's
approach lies on a continuum, running from the manager exerting
rigid authority at one extreme, through to the team having full
freedom to act at the other. This is shown in Figure 1, below.
The model highlights seven leadership styles that occur across
- Tells – The leader makes decisions and
expects the team to follow; and the team has very little
involvement in decision-making. This type of style is sometimes
used early in a team's existence, before trust is established, or
with very inexperienced team members. Continued use of this style
can be very frustrating for team members and can break down trust,
so leaders must be careful to use this style only when absolutely
- Sells – The leader makes the decision,
but provides a rationale. Team buy-in is important. Although the
decision won't be changed, the team is allowed to ask questions and
feel that its needs are being considered.
- Suggests – The leader outlines the
decision, includes a rationale, and asks if there are any
questions. While the decision is already made, this style helps the
team understand why, so team members don't feel so much that the
decision is forced on them. According to Tannenbaum and Schmidt,
because people have the opportunity to discuss the decision, they
feel that they have participated in it, and they accept it more
readily. This helps build trust, and it's a good strategy to use
when you're trying to figure out what the team is capable of on its
- Consults – The leader proposes a
decision and then invites input and discussion to ensure that the
decision is the right one. The team has the ability to influence
the final outcome, and to make changes to the decision. By using
this style, the leader acknowledges that the team has valuable
insight into the problem. This shows that he or she trusts the team
members and wants them to participate actively in problem solving
and decision making. This leadership style can build cohesiveness,
and provide much-needed motivation to a team.
- Joins – The leader presents the problem
and then asks the team for suggestions and options to consider.
Through the discussion that follows, the team helps the leader
decide. So, while the leader ultimately makes the decision,
decision making is a very collaborative process, and the team feels
valued and trusted. This style is often used when the team has
specific knowledge and expertise that the leader needs to make the
- Delegates – The leader outlines the
problem; provides decision parameters; and allows the team to find
solutions and make a final decision. The leader remains accountable
for the outcome, and he or she controls risks by setting limits and
defining criteria that the final decision must meet. To delegate
this much authority, the leader needs to trust the team and ensure
that it has the support and resources necessary to make a solid
- Abdicates – The leader asks the team to
define the problem, develop options, and make a decision. The team
is free to do what's necessary to solve a problem while still
working under reasonable limits, given organizational needs and
objectives. Although the level of freedom is very high, the leader
is still accountable for the decision and therefore must make sure
the team is ready for this level of responsibility and
Situational Leadership Theory is another, popular
contingency theory that uses similar style definitions. It proposes
that there are four leadership styles to consider in every
situation: Telling, Selling, Participating, and Delegating. You can
learn more about it here
Using the Continuum
The continuum's seven leadership styles broadly correspond
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