With Martin G. Moore

Episode #63

Reading the Play: Situational leadership

Sometimes we focus so much on developing our own leadership style that we forget to read the play.

One of the most useful leadership models that I have encountered is Situational Leadership Theory. It basically states that, since every individual is different, and they often find themselves in different situations, the style of the leader should vary according to this in order to optimise results.

In this episode we look at when it is appropriate to push harder, when it is appropriate to work more closely with someone, and when it is appropriate to stand back and let them get on with it!

Using practical scenarios, we bring the theory to life to help you navigate changes in style, depending on the needs of your followers.

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Episode #63 Reading the Play: Situational leadership

Hey there, and welcome to Episode 63 of the No Bullsh!t Leadership podcast. This week’s episode, Reading The Play: Situational leadership. One of the most useful leadership models that I’ve encountered is Situational Leadership. It basically says that since every individual is different and they often find themselves in different situations, the style of the leader should vary according to this. In order to optimise results. This requires leaders to read the play and know when it’s appropriate to push harder, when it’s appropriate, to work more closely with someone and when it’s appropriate to stand back and let them get on with it. So we’re going to start by looking at the situational leadership model and how it’s evolved. I’ll talk about some of the strengths and drawbacks of the model and then I’ll take you through a number of common scenarios to demonstrate how to apply this in your day to day leadership work. So let’s get into it!

The fundamental premise behind Situational Leadership Theory, is that leaders should adopt different styles depending on the maturity of their followers. This model was first proposed by Hersey and Blanchard in the late sixties and Ken Blanchard you might recall, is also famous for writing the book, ‘The One Minute Manager’, which has become a timeless classic. The first rung of the situational leadership model is to understand the maturity of your followers. This can be measured as a combination of both competence and willingness, which translates into a maturity or a developmental level. The next is to choose the leadership style you would use with each individual based on that assessment of their maturity. Now, the implication is that on any given day you could be employing completely different styles with the different people you lead, and you probably already do this to an extent now without necessarily making it deliberate and explicit.

The four leadership styles are different based on how directive or how supportive they are. And so this is mapped on a two by two matrix. The four styles are telling, selling, participating, and delegating. And in later revision of the model Ken Blanchard also described these as directing, coaching, supporting and delegating, but it’s the same thing.

So first of all, telling. This is for the most immature or least developed followers. It’s highly directive and has a low element of support in it. This is for situations when the follower doesn’t have the competency in their role as yet to work unsupervised, and in fact you need to be extremely prescriptive with them. Not having the competence isn’t fatal. People can always learn if they’re willing, but at the lowest level of follower maturity, they may or may not have the willingness to improve and grow their competence. This style requires you to be extremely prescriptive about what to do and how to do it. Now it can suck up a lot of your time and energy. So the prerequisite is that you’re seeing progress towards the next level of development and maturity. This is the only situation in which you should go even remotely close to micromanaging someone, so don’t get into the habit of doing this.

The second style is selling or coaching. This for slightly more mature followers, generally with a base level of competence and some willingness to grow. This style is a little less directive and a little more supportive than the telling style and here you can expect to spend more time in the ‘how’ rather than the ‘what’. You can still spend a lot of time though in this phase convincing people of why they need to do their job to a certain standard or in a certain manner.

The third leadership style is participating or supporting. This is for followers who are largely competent, but their commitment varies. It’s primarily a cheerleader role, but keeping them on track with what needs to be achieved. This is where you generally let them make decisions and do their own thing, but you need to keep reasonably close tabs on them to ensure that the variability is managed. It’s very much a coaching style, but less directive and intrusive than the selling style we spoke about before.

And finally you’ve got delegating. This is used when the person has a high level of competence and commitment. You can largely let people go on their own, trust they’ll come to you if they have any issues and know that they’ll deliver to a certain standard, both the ‘what’ and the ‘how’. This is eventually where you want your whole team. So the aim should be to help people progress to the level of competence and commitment that allows you to use this style. It’s pretty hands off. It enables you to focus upwards and outwards instead of inwards and downwards and it allows you to set the tone, the pace, and the standard, giving people the room to excel themselves. The interesting thing about this model is that follower maturity sits on a continuum. There is an almost limitless range of possible maturity levels when we think about capability and behaviour, although Hersey and Blanchard chose to break it into the four quadrants. This is pretty sensible, if I learned nothing else at Harvard Business School, it’s that you can represent almost anything on a two by two matrix. But taking someone’s capability and willingness and being able to measure those and then to also make an assessment of their potential, this can make things pretty tricky. So your tools in terms of style are the combination of supporting and directing. How much do you coach and how prescriptive are you in what you need? The key concept is that in my view, you need to adapt to what will best reach an individual to help them perform better than they would without your intervention. Just be wary of over-functioning for them or stepping in to do their job. Stay in your own lane.

Okay, let’s have a quick look at some of the drawbacks of this model. Situational Leadership Theory has been widely criticised for not having the empirical rigour of other research models. I’m less worried about this because it’s the concept that’s really useful. If it does nothing more than help you think more consciously of the choices you make in your leadership style, then it’s hugely beneficial to us. Thinking about your followers in terms of what they need will always help you to be a better leader. One of the other criticisms is that it tends to oversimplify some of the different variations of follower maturity. Now, once again, it gives you a framework for thinking and you can modify this based on your experience and your own judgement . The important thing is to choose a level of directiveness or intervention that accompany any individual’s maturity. You move this as they mature or show themselves to be less mature than you’d originally thought. Once again, it’s a frame for thinking.

Third thing is, it doesn’t make any explicit allowance for timeframes. Now to have someone placed in the low maturity quadrant may be perfectly alright when they first transition to a new level or into a new field of expertise. But is it still okay if they’re there six months later or 12 months later? You can’t spend your life directing someone. That just means you aren’t setting a high enough standard for their performance and in my view, there has to be continual evolutionary movement of people through the quadrants to a greater level of maturity. And the fourth criticism for me is that commitment is a prerequisite. The model caters for different levels of commitment to the job almost as if to say that you can lead people in a certain way, even if they don’t have any commitment to the job, the outcomes or their own development.

Now, in my view, willingness to improve will largely determine whether you can move a person to the next level of maturity or whether they have to be exited from the organisation. At some point in time they need to move up or out unless they’re in a particularly mundane or undemanding role of which there were very few in today’s world of automation. As a leader, I just simply don’t believe that it’s your job to get people to a basic level of commitment. This really should come with the paycheck. Your job is to get them to give their discretionary effort. Anyone who can’t master the basic level of commitment and professionalism required to do their job should probably be freed up to be successful in another organisation. Hopefully one of your competitor’s companies.

Let’s look at a few common scenarios and how you might approach them using the principles of the Situational Leadership Theory model. Scenario one, you have a direct report who’s just been promoted into the role from the level below. Now you’d assume that their commitment is high after the promotion, but their competency is yet to be proven. If this is not the case, it means you probably just promoted the wrong person, so you’ve got to think about another way around that. But all things being equal, this puts this person in the first maturity category where your leadership should be the telling style. This is high in directing and low in supporting. Bear in mind, although this might be quite a mature individual in terms of the new role, they might be classified at the lowest level of maturity. This scenario dictates that you’re quite directive, but I’d also like to think quite supportive and encouraging as they learn the ropes of the new level.

But here’s what you need to do. Be really clear about what you need them to achieve. Talk regularly with them about your expectations, the ‘what’ and the ‘how’. Give them more feedback than you naturally would with a more experienced person as you see them growing and developing reward approximations of desired behaviour. So in other words, when you see them attempting to do the right things, even if they are very, very imperfect at the time, give them encouragement, let them know that they’re on the right track and they’re doing the things that are taking them in the right direction. You should monitor their growth and gradually back off as they demonstrate that they’re starting to stand on their own two feet. If these people are developing the right way, you should be able to move naturally through the phases of selling, participating and delegating, and have a clear set of expectations for the timing of this transition.

But just remember, it’s not your job to offer unlimited time to learn the ropes, gain maturity and function without your direct intervention. If they don’t demonstrate a trend of progress and you’re certain that you’ve given them every reasonable type of support they could expect, then you have to face up to the fact that they may have been promoted past their level of competence.

Scenario number two, you have an employee who’s been around the organisation for some time and has all the basic competencies, but a low level of commitment. He just skates by with the bare minimum effort in every situation and has a toxic attitude to the job. These people tend to waver between acceptable and unacceptable performance based on whatever pressure you managed to bring to bear at any given point. These people theoretically in maturity quadrant two, which would require you to use a selling style of leadership.

Here’s where I depart a little from the theory. This leadership style is supposed to be high in both directing and supporting behaviour. Now, I think the directing still needs to be there to an extent, particularly around the required behaviours, quality and timeliness of output, which tend to suffer if someone’s not committed to the task. The moral of the story though, is don’t give these people too much rope. They need to meet you halfway. So the conversation goes something like this, “Okay, I’ll support you with whatever you need. But what I require from you is a basic level of commitment to the job and that you give me a level of professionalism that is appropriate for your role. Without that, it’s going to be a pretty short story.” Bringing people through from here is possible, but it’s a job in turning their motivation by aligning them to a cause and helping them to realise that as long as they’re turning up, they may as well be achieving things for themselves and for the organisation. But it’s a tricky maturity level as people tend to fall out of organisations often from this position. It’s enormously frustrating as a leader too, to see people who could be excellent if they could just learn to give a shit or lose the chip on their shoulder or whatever it is that’s holding them back.

In scenario number three, you hire an experienced leader from outside who knows the industry, has experience in the job they’re taking on and simply needs to learn how to adapt to your culture. Once again, their commitment should be high and their competence should also be reasonably strong based on their track record and experience. This probably puts them notionally in quadrants three, which calls for a participating style of leadership. Your immediate challenge is to make sure they fit your team and organisation. There’s no need to teach these people how to suck eggs. Show them that you have confidence in them and that you’re keen to give them the scope and latitude to bring their own ideas and suggestions to the table. Tap into their diversity of experience and capability and harness that as a value add for your team. Stay close enough to make sure they understand the rules, the boundaries and the cultural norms. Whereas this situation doesn’t require prescriptive intervention. You need to be close enough in the early stages to see how they’re progressing and to guide them accordingly. Coaching is a big part of this style, but keep it light touch. You want these people to learn to be confident in your environment, their new context and thereby increase their level of commitment and performance.

Scenario four – you have an established employee who is considered a strong performer. They’re respected for both their capability in their behaviour and they naturally lead the people around them, if not through their formal title and hierarchy then at least as thought leaders that others rely upon. They are often custodians of the organisational culture. Now, this puts these people at the highest maturity level and demands that you lead them with a delegating style. That is basically, agree on the objectives and then get out of their way. This is what you’re looking for in your people. You should be trying to move all of your people to this level of maturity. If you’re talking about the most senior levels of an organisation, being someone of this maturity level is really a prerequisite and as an executive team member at CS Energy, if you couldn’t muster this level of maturity over time, you simply couldn’t survive.

Leading these people, your job is to give them very clear guidance about your objectives. Give them the scope to make their own decisions without running them past you first, be available when they need to bounce things off you, but don’t poke into their day to day work. Give them feedback regularly and informally to ensure they maintain their focus and performance and then watch them soar.

I just want to finish with a personal reflection to cap this all off. As I think about my most often made mistake as a leader over the years, it’s been to give people too much credit for maturity when they weren’t yet up to it. Now, I don’t actually regret this for an instant, but I would’ve been a better leader sooner if I learned how to recognise less mature or developed people earlier and manage them better. Despite this, I still like to give everyone the benefit of the doubt of being the most mature and developed person that I think I’ve hired and work from there.

So in other words, I start with a delegating style, but now I know to keep close enough tabs to see if there are deviations from that. And if people start to move backwards in my view through the maturity categories, then I know I’ve got a problem. In that case, if I can’t arrest the slide with all of my leadership capability, effort, and support, then I know that that person is simply not going to make it. But in that case, it always tends to work out okay as there are plenty of leaders in organisations that don’t insist on high levels of performance for their top leaders and they tend to have a plethora of less demanding jobs.

Alright, so that brings us to the end of Episode 63, thanks so much for joining us, and remember at Your CEO Mentor, our purpose is to improve the quality of leaders globally. So please share the podcast with another leader as this is how we improve the world of work. I look forward to next week’s episode, Restructures and Redundancies. Until then, I know you’ll take every opportunity you can to be a no bullshit leader

Until then I know you’ll take every opportunity you can to be a No Bullsh!t Leader.


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