The Tannenbaum-Schmidt Leadership Continuum

Balancing Control With Your Team's Need for Freedom

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 extremes.

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 you?

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).

Do you lead with authority or do you favor a more flexible approach?

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.

Figure 1: The Tannenbaum-Schmidt Continuum of Leadership Behavior

The Tannenbaum-Schmidt Continuum of Leadership Behavior Diagram

Originally published in Harvard Business Review. From "How to Choose a Leadership Pattern" by Robert Tannenbaum and Warren H. Schmidt, May 1973. Copyright © 1973 by the Harvard Business School Publishing Corporation; all rights reserved.

The model highlights seven leadership styles that occur across the continuum:

  1. 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 necessary.
  2. 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.
  3. 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 own.
  4. 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.
  5. 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 best decision.
  6. 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 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 decision.
  7. 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 that the team is ready for this level of responsibility and self-control.

Using the Continuum

The continuum's seven leadership styles broadly correspond to a team's level of development. As trust and competency grow within a team, so does the amount of freedom that team members want and that leaders can feel comfortable providing. Tannenbaum and Schmidt felt that there were three key elements to consider when deciding on the style that's most appropriate for a particular situation:

  1. The team members – How independent and experienced are they? Do they have the necessary level of competence for the level of freedom you're considering? Do they understand the goals of the team and the organization sufficiently to make good decisions?
  2. The situation – Do you have enough time to allow the team to become involved in the decision-making process? Does the team operate well enough together to make an effective decision in a reasonable amount of time? Does the team have the knowledge and experience necessary to make a good decision? Are the consequences of getting the decision wrong significant? And does the culture of the organization support team decision-making?
  3. The leader – Do you believe in your team's ability to deliver? Are you willing and able to accept accountability for your team's decision? And are you able to delegate tasks and decisions effectively?

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In 1973, Tannenbaum and Schmidt published an update to their theory, in which they recommended that managers consider the interrelationships between the above three factors – along with factors outside the team and the organization. For example:

  • If a manager trusts team members to make decisions, and the manager considers any mistakes made to be "learning experiences," then the team members' ability to make good decisions will improve.
  • If an organization has a strong culture of respect for its people, then using a "tell" or "sell" style may be less acceptable than it would be in another organization, even with an inexperienced team.
  • Consumers may boycott a company where managers are excessively authoritarian toward their people.

To find out more about leadership styles and leadership models, see our article on Leadership Styles. These include the Transformational Leadership approach, which is often the most effective leadership style in business situations.

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Comments (2)
  • Over a month ago Iyesaga wrote
    Depending on the timing, decisions can be:
    1 positive
    2 neutral
    3 negative.
  • Over a month ago Dianna wrote
    This is such a strong, visual tool that helps us understand the different types of leadership and when and why the different types are appropriate. It's not always "bad" to make a decision without consultation and it's not always "good" to use lots of participation to make a decision. There are other factors to consider. This continuum helps you to be an adaptive leader.

    Dianna