Fiedler's Contingency Model
Matching Leadership Style to a Situation
What is your natural leadership style?
Do you focus on completing tasks or on building relationships with your team?
And have you considered that this natural style of leadership might be more suited to some situations than it is to others?
In this article, we'll explore Fiedler's Contingency Model, and we'll look at how it can highlight the most effective leadership style to use in different situations.
With this theory, we are not using the word "contingency" in the sense of contingency planning. Here, a contingency is a situation or event that's dependent – or contingent – on someone or something else.
Understanding the Model
The Fiedler Contingency Model was created in the mid-1960s by Fred Fiedler, a scientist who studied the personality and characteristics of leaders.
The model states that there is no one best style of leadership. Instead, a leader's effectiveness is based on the situation. This is the result of two factors – "leadership style" and "situational favorableness" (later called "situational control"). We explore these two factors in the next section, below.
In our opinion, the Fiedler Contingency Model is unhelpful in many 21st Century workplaces (see Criticisms of the Model, below). It may occasionally be a useful tool for analyzing a situation and determining whether or not to focus on tasks or relationships, but be cautious about applying any style simply because the model says you should. Use your own judgment when analyzing situations.
Identifying leadership style is the first step in using the model. Fiedler believed that leadership style is fixed, and it can be measured using a scale he developed called Least-Preferred Co-Worker (LPC) Scale (see figure 1).
The scale asks you to think about the person who you've least enjoyed working with. This can be a person who you've worked with in your job, or in education or training.
You then rate how you feel about this person for each factor, and add up your scores. If your total score is high, you're likely to be a relationship-orientated leader. If your total score is low, you're more likely to be task-orientated leader.
Figure 1: Least-Preferred Co-Worker Scale
|Unfriendly||1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8||Friendly|
|Unpleasant||1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8||Pleasant|
|Rejecting||1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8||Accepting|
|Tense||1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8||Relaxed|
|Cold||1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8||Warm|
|Boring||1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8||Interesting|
|Backbiting||1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8||Loyal|
|Uncooperative||1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8||Cooperative|
|Hostile||1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8||Supportive|
|Guarded||1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8||Open|
|Insincere||1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8||Sincere|
|Unkind||1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8||Kind|
|Inconsiderate||1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8||Considerate|
|Untrustworthy||1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8||Trustworthy|
|Gloomy||1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8||Cheerful|
|Quarrelsome||1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8||Harmonious|
The model says that task-oriented leaders usually view their LPCs more negatively, resulting in a lower score. Fiedler called these low LPC-leaders. He said that low LPCs are very effective at completing tasks. They're quick to organize a group to get tasks and projects done. Relationship-building is a low priority.
However, relationship-oriented leaders usually view their LPCs more positively, giving them a higher score. These are high-LPC leaders. High LPCs focus more on personal connections, and they're good at avoiding and managing conflict. They're better able to make complex decisions.
Next, you determine the "situational favorableness" of your particular situation. This depends on three distinct factors:
- Leader-Member Relations – This is the level of trust and confidence that your team has in you. A leader who is more trusted and has more influence within the group is in a more favorable situation than a leader who is not trusted.
- Task Structure – This refers to the type of task you're doing: clear and structured, or vague and unstructured. Unstructured tasks, or tasks where the team and leader have little knowledge of how to achieve them, are viewed unfavorably.
- Leader's Position Power – This is the amount of power you have to direct the group, and provide reward or punishment. The more power you have, the more favorable your situation. Fiedler identifies power as being either strong or weak.
Applying the Fiedler Contingency Model
Step 1: Identify your leadership style
Think about the person who you've least enjoyed working with, either now or in the past.
Rate your experience with this person using the scale in figure 1, above. According to this model, a higher score means that you're naturally relationship-focused, and a lower score means that you're naturally task-focused.
Step 2: Identify your situation
Answer the questions:
- Are leader-member relations good or poor?
- Is the task you're doing structured, or is it more unstructured, or do you have little experience of solving similar problems?
- Do you have strong or weak power over your team?
Step 3: Determine the most effective leadership style
Figure 2 shows a breakdown of all of the factors we've covered: Leader-Member Relations, Task Structure, and Leader's Position Power. The final column identifies the type of leader that Fiedler believed would be most effective in each situation.
Figure 2: Breakdown of Most Effective Leader Style
|Leader-Member Relations||Task Structure||Leader's Position Power||Most Effective Leader|
For instance, imagine that you've just started working at a new company, replacing a much-loved leader who recently retired. You're leading a team that views you with distrust (so your Leader-Member Relations are poor). The task you're all doing together is well defined (structured), and your position of power is high because you're the boss, and you're able to offer reward or punishment to the group.
The most effective leader in this situation would be high LPC – that is, a leader who can focus on building relationships first.
Or, imagine that you're leading a team that likes and respects you (so your Leader-Member relations are good). The project you're working on together is highly creative (unstructured) and your position of power is high since, again, you're in a management position of strength. In this situation, a task-focused leadership style would be most effective.
Criticisms of the Model
There are some criticisms of the Fiedler Contingency Model. One of the biggest is lack of flexibility. Fiedler believed that because our natural leadership style is fixed, the most effective way to handle situations is to change the leader. He didn't allow for flexibility in leaders.
For instance, if a low-LPC leader is in charge of a group with good relations and doing unstructured tasks, and they have a weak position (the fourth situation), then, according to the model, the best solution is to replace them with a high-LPC leader – instead of asking them to use a different leadership style.
There is also an issue with the Least-Preferred Co-Worker Scale – if you fall near the middle of the scoring range, then it could be unclear which style of leader you are.
There have also been several published criticisms of the Fiedler Contingency Model. One of the most cited is "The Contingency Model: Criticisms and Suggestions," published in the Academy of Management Journal, Vol. 13, No. 3. The authors say that, even under the best circumstances, the LPC scale only has about a 50 percent reliable variance. This means that, according to their criticism, the LPC scale may not be a reliable measure of leadership capability.
It's also perfectly possible that your least preferred co-worker is a genuinely confused, unpleasant or evil person (they do exist) – if you are unfortunate enough to have encountered such a person just once in your career, then you might always be categorized as a low-LPC leader, however people-oriented you actually are.
The Fiedler Contingency Model asks you to think about your natural leadership style, and the situations in which it will be most effective. The model says that leaders are either task-focused, or relationship-focused. Once you understand your style, it says that you can match it to situations in which that style is most effective.
However, the model has some disadvantages. It doesn't allow for leadership flexibility, and the LPC score might give an inaccurate picture of your leadership style.
As with all models and theories, use your best judgment when applying the Fiedler Contingency Model to your own situation.
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