Path-Goal Theory

Discovering the Best Leadership Style

Path-Goal Theory

Lead your team to their objectives effectively.

© iStockphoto/ssstep

Imagine that your boss has just assigned a major project to your new team. There are some very talented people within the team, but you've worked with them in the past, and it wasn't a pleasant experience...

You've always felt that the best way to manage a fast-paced, expert team is to set objectives, and then let team members work out how they'll deliver for themselves. You don't want to interfere with what they're doing, so you rarely have meetings with individuals or with the group.

The problem is that the team hasn't responded well to this approach. So what else should you do? Would daily meetings waste your people's time? And would they be annoyed if you involved yourself more in decision-making, or gave them more guidance on the project?

When thinking about the best way to lead a team, we have to consider several different factors, and it's easy choose the wrong approach. When this happens, morale, effectiveness, and productivity can suffer.

Path-Goal Theory helps you identify an effective approach to leadership, based on what your people want and your current situation. In this article, we'll look at Path-Goal Theory, and we'll explore how you can apply it to your own situation.

About Path-Goal Theory

Psychologist, Robert House, developed Path-Goal Theory in 1971, and then redefined and updated it in a 1996 article in The Leadership Quarterly. Let's look at some of the elements of the theory.

Leadership Responsibilities

According to it, if you want your people to achieve their goals, you need to help, support, and motivate them. You can do this in three ways:

  1. Helping them identify and achieve their goals.
  2. Clearing away obstacles, thereby improving performance.
  3. Offering appropriate rewards along the way.

To do this, you can use four different types of leadership:

  • Supportive leadership – Here, you focus on relationships. You show sensitivity to individual team members' needs, and you consider your team members' best interests. This leadership style is best when tasks are repetitive or stressful.
  • Directive leadership – With this, you communicate goals and expectations, and you assign clear tasks. This style works best when tasks or projects are unstructured, or when tasks are complex and team members are inexperienced.
  • Participative leadership – With participative leadership, you focus on mutual participation. You consult with your group, and you consider their ideas and expertise before making a decision. This approach works best when your team members are experienced, when the task is complex and challenging, and when your team members want to give you their input.
  • Achievement-oriented leadership – Here, you set challenging goals for your team. You have confidence in your team's abilities, so you expect your team to perform well, and you maintain high standards for everyone. This style works best when team members are unmotivated or unchallenged in their work.

The best style to use is then dependent on the situational factors explained below.

Situational Factors

Path-Goal Theory defines two distinct situational factors...

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