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The Leadership Approach Managers Should Avoid

“One size fits all” – using the same leadership style in every situation and for everyone in a team. This should be avoided because at any point in a team, individuals are at different developmental levels. Hence managers should vary their style of leadership based on each individual’s developmental level. This approach, developed by Paul Hersey and Ken Blanchard, is known as situational leadership.

It rests on two fundamental concepts; an individual’s developmental level and the manager’s leadership style.

An individual’s developmental level is based on their level of competence at the job and commitment to the job. Competence means the knowledge and skills from education, training and experience while commitment means an individual’s ability for and interest in doing a task well. Each developmental level is composed of either low or high amounts of each as shown in the diagram below.

Figure 1

D1: This level is characterized by a low level of competence and yet, a high level of commitment. We all typically start here as new employees. But it doesn’t end there. D1s are also older employees with new tasks or jobs.

D2: The individual now has gained some competence or skills but their commitment takes a nose dive (low commitment), particularly if the job didn’t add up to what they thought it should be.

D3: The individuals at this level have a high level of competence (they know the work); but variable commitment to the job. In other words, they have good and bad days. D3s have roadblocks that are preventing them from having a consistent high level of commitment to the job. This is a typical stopping place for employees and without intervention, can easily become a permanent home.

D4: D4s are star performers; they have a high level of both competence and commitment. They are ready to take on new challenges, work independently and often are the first ones to be promoted. But guess what? When they get promoted, where do they end up? Yes, back to D1 again and the cycle starts all over.

Right now, as you read this article, you may have suddenly found yourself among the Ds or might have easily identified the level of some of your staff. So, how do we deal with such vast differences in individual employees? How do we, as managers, help employees move to the D4 star performer level?

That’s why situational leadership approach suggests that your leadership style must be changing based on the developmental level of the individual being led – D1s need a different style from what D4s need.

These different leadership styles are combinations of directive and supportive behaviors. Directive behavior means telling, and showing people what, when and how to do a task and providing frequent feedback. Supportive behavior involves praising, listening, encouraging and involving others in decision-making.

Each leadership style is defined based on the amount of directive and supportive behavior given to the individual team member by the manager. Each developmental level needs a different dose of each as shown in the diagram below.

Figure 2

S1 (Directing): With this leadership style, the manager exhibits high directive and low supportive behavior. It’s usually a one-way communication where the leader defines exactly what needs to be done by the individual and when and how a given task needs to be completed.

S2 (Coaching): With this style, which requires high directive and high supportive behavior, the manager blends supporting people and directing tasks. It’s used when employees understand what is expected, but need some range of support in order to take independent steps and make things happen

S3 (Supporting): With this style of leadership, the manager shows a low degree of directing tasks and a high emphasis on supporting people. This style encourages employees to come up with solutions and solve problems on their own but the manager provides them with the support they need in terms of tools and resources.

S4 (Delegating): This style is one with a low emphasis on directing tasks, and an equally low emphasis on providing people support. It means that the manager holds responsibility for results, but that the work is done by others. We delegate to individuals who have high levels of related skill and the experience it takes to locate their resources and tools.

The matching colours between figure 1 and figure 2 imply the kind of leadership style that should be applied at each level of an individual’s development. For instance, D1s need S1 – a directive approach where the manager is highly involved in the assignment of tasks and teaching the employee how to perform the job.

D2s need S2 – managers who can be good coaches because a good coach sees the potential in an individual and encourages them to do the task well.

A D3 doesn’t need much direction, but needs lots of support and guidance in order to re-kindle his or her faith in the job and the organization. In other words, they need S3.

D4s need tasks delegated to them so that they can achieve and succeed. They need permission to excel and want a manager who will empower them – S4.

With the right leadership style for each developmental level, employees pass through a job cycle of development going from D1 to D2 to D3 to D4 as they mature on the job. Team members are motivated and productivity is optimal.

Conversely, with one size fits all or the wrong leadership style on any of the developmental levels, the employees get stuck on their development track, resulting in low motivation and in turn an unproductive team.

This flawed leadership approach is common and has stunted employee development, ruined teams, sent difficult-to-find talents away, and with the attendant effects, slowed down the growth of many organizations.

Thus, to succeed, organizations should avoid this approach at every level of leadership they have.

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