Path-Goal Theory

Discovering the Best Leadership Style

Path-Goal Theory - Discovering the Best Leadership Style

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What direction will you take?

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 to 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 – the nature of your subordinates, and the nature of your environment. These factors directly influence the best style of leadership to use with team members.

  • Subordinates – Understanding your people's needs is key to choosing the best approach for leading them.
    • How well do your team members respond to direct authority? How do they react when you tell them how to do a particular task?
    • How experienced are your people? How much do they know about the task or assignment?
    • How motivated are they?
  • Characteristics of the environment – You must also examine the current situation.
    • How complex or repetitive is your team's task or project?
    • How structured or unstructured is the task?
    • How strong is your authority over the team?
    • How well do people work together? (This looks at factors that are out of the control of individual people in the team – for example, are team dynamics healthy, and how good are relationships between team members?)

Using Path-Goal Theory

Applying Path-Goal Theory with your team is fairly straightforward. Figure 1, below, shows how to match your team members' needs with the environment, so that you can choose the best leadership style for each situation.


Figure 1 mentions "locus of control" in the Subordinates column. This is a person's belief that he or she can influence events in a positive way.

People with a high internal locus of control believe that they have a reasonable level of control over events. People in this category have great control over their behavior and try to influence others.

People with a high external locus of control believe that outside forces affect the outcome of any given situation. They believe in luck, fate or destiny. These people often put less effort into work and projects, and can be less successful than those with a high internal locus of control.

Figure 1: Path-Goal Theory Leadership Styles/Situational Factors

Subordinates Environment Leadership Style to Adopt
  • Want Authoritative Leadership
  • External Locus of Control
  • Low Ability
  • Complex or Ambiguous Task
  • Strong Formal Authority
  • Good Work Group
  • Don't Want Authoritative Leadership
  • Internal Locus of Control
  • High Ability
  • Simple or Structured Task
  • Weak Formal Authority
  • Not Good Work Group
  • Want to be Involved
  • Internal Locus on Control
  • High Ability
  • Complex or Ambiguous Task
  • Strong or Weak Formal Authority
  • Good or Not Good Work Group
  • Want Authoritative Leadership
  • External Locus of Control
  • High Ability
  • Simple or Structured Task
  • Strong Formal Authority
  • Good or Not Good Work Group

From House, R.J. (1996) "Path Goal Theory of Leadership: Lessons, Legacy, and a Reformulated Theory," Leadership Quarterly, Vol 7, No 3. Reproduced with permission.

As you can see from figure 1, you can match up the needs of subordinate and environmental factors to determine the best leadership style to use. (Where subordinate and environmental combinations fall between these four groups, use an appropriate mix of styles.)

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As an example, imagine that you're in charge of a team in human resources. You've put together this special team to help reduce some of your core team's workload. Because this new group is from a different department, they're not very knowledgeable about HR processes and practices, and they're not confident in their ability to achieve their goal (pointing towards an external locus of control).

They need clear instructions, they have low ability for the task, and their work is fairly simple. However, everyone in the team has a good relationship, so they are capable of supporting one another in their work. Using Path-Goal Theory, you determine that most people in your new team need a directive leadership style.

Or, imagine that you're a manager in IT. The marketing department needs a simple program to help them keep track of client requests. Your expert team is more than capable of completing this project, so they need to be set challenging goals. Also, you have clear authority over them and high confidence in their abilities. So the best leadership style to use in this instance is the Achievement-Oriented style. (In this this case, it doesn't matter that the team is not a good work group.)

Note 1:

Remember to treat people in your team as individuals – different people may need different styles of leadership. Be flexible in your approach.

Note 2:

The main problem with Path-Goal Theory is that it can be difficult to assess situational factors. If you don't assess these accurately, you may choose the wrong leadership style.

Key Points

Path-Goal Theory helps leaders determine an appropriate leadership style, depending on the situation and the people they're leading. It's based on four leadership styles: supportive, directive, participative, and achievement-oriented.

Consider your team and your current situation, then use the model to determine the best approach. This will help your team be more productive and motivated about their work.