The Key Fundamentals of Situational Leadership: How to Apply Them in the Workplace and Why it Matters


Leading a team of firefighters to battle an out-of-control forest fire is far different from leading a team of medical transcriptionists whose job involves transcribing physicians’ notes and patient instructions. Even the most capable leader from one of these settings would not be able to successfully lead in the other setting. The skills required would vary significantly.

Even when leaders are leading in the same general environment, or the same type of employees, different situations will require different leadership approaches and actions. That’s what situational leadership is all about.

quote on the requirements of situational leadersship

Situational leadership requires leaders to have, and to be able to call upon, different skills and behaviors depending on any given situation. Situational leaders must be adept at modifying their behaviors and instructions. They must be flexible in accomplishing the goals of the group. 

Some situations may require a very hands-off approach (letting transcriptionists work on their own to transcribe); others require more active involvement (working with firefighters to effectively conquer an out-of-control forest fire).

What Is Situational Leadership? 

Situational leadership is the ability for leaders to modify their communications and actions to fit whatever situation they’re in and whatever type of direction, support, encouragement, or course correction employees might need. 

Leaders adept at situational leadership are able to prioritize the amount of flexibility they provide employees depending on the task at hand. They adapt readily to the needs of the organization. 

They have a high level of self-awareness and the ability to quickly identify when they need to change their leadership style to adapt to the needs of the team depending on the situation the team is facing.

There are four primary styles of situational leadership.

The Four Styles of Situational Leadership 

 

the four types of situational leadership and how they work

Situational leadership requires leaders to adapt their behaviors according to the situation they, and their team members, are in. Some examples of the type of leadership behaviors exhibited in situational leadership include:

Directing

 

“This is what you need to do. This is how you need to do it.” 

In certain situations, leaders don’t have the luxury of allowing employees to come up with their own solutions or approaches, or to act independently. The firefighter example we used earlier could be an example of this type of situation. Surgeons in an operating room directing the rest of the surgery team would be another example. 

Leaders should use a directing approach when risk is high and time does not permit an opportunity for independent decision-making or action. 

Coaching

 

“You can do it. You’ve got this.” 

In other situations, more leeway can be allowed to employees who have the background and experience required to take action. They know what needs to be done. They know, or can figure out, how to do it. They simply need a supportive coach to be behind them encouraging them to take action and move forward. 

Leaders should use a coaching approach when they have experienced team members who are skilled in their roles.   

Delegating

 

“I’ve observed how good you are at dealing with customer complaints. I’d like you to develop a guide for other customer service reps to outline the steps they should take when faced with an unhappy customer.” 

Employees learn and grow through opportunities to take on new and more challenging tasks. Effective leaders are able to identify the potential in employees and offer them opportunities to exhibit that potential. 

Delegating involves asking others to do work that would otherwise—in whole, or in part—be something the manager or supervisor would do. 

Leaders should use a delegating approach when they have talented employees with a desire to grow and the ability to take on new tasks.

Supporting

 

“I’m here if you need me. Let me know what I can do to help you achieve our goals.”

When teams are fully operational and functioning at a high level, a leader’s role can be primarily supporting. They are there to help remove any barriers identified and to provide coaching and counseling as needed, but by and large, their employees are able to handle the work and resolve most of the issues that may emerge.

Leaders should use a supporting role when they have an experienced and competent team that has demonstrated their ability to work independently and productively to achieve team goals and objectives.

list of five characteristics of a situational leader

Characteristics of a Situational Leader 

Situational leadership is a type of leadership that requires leaders to be able to quickly accommodate their style, actions, and behaviors to fit whatever situation they or their team members may be in. This requires the ability to be:

  • Flexible. Situational leaders need to be able to change and shift their behaviors depending on the situation. They are “jacks of all trades”—not relying on one leadership style but able to shift from one to another depending on the circumstance.
  • Adaptable. Situational leaders are adaptable. They are willing to change and good at making personal steps to adapt to change, as well as coaching and counseling others to change or modify their own behaviors.
  • Insightful. Situational leaders are able to “read” a situation quickly to determine the best course of action for moving forward. Their insights lead to a specific direction to team members to help them more productively act.
  • Trusting. Situational leaders create an environment where employees feel empowered to accomplish their goals. They trust employees to work independently, to make decisions, and to be proactive in getting their work—and the work of the department and organization—done.
  • Problem solvers. In order to identify the right approach to take in any given situation, situational leaders must be effective problem solvers—able to quickly assess a situation and determine the best course of action.

Situational Leadership in the Workplace 

In the workplace, effective situational leadership is exhibited through leaders’ behaviors and actions that shift depending on the situation or tasks at hand. Once they have evaluated a situation and determined the best course of action they will then communicate with and lead their team to success.

That requires the ability to tap into individual team members’ personal desires, values, and goals, to help them achieve both their own and organizational goals. 

It also requires the ability to understand where the employee is at in terms of commitment and competency and help them improve. For instance, team leadership might involve:

  • Helping a highly competent and committed employee further develop, by clarifying what the company’s strategic priorities are and determining how their individual actions can help achieve those priorities.  
  • Working with an employee with low commitment to recognize their contributions, how they have positively impacted the team, and how they might find purpose in their work as they move forward. 
  •  Helping a highly committed employee who lacks competence or confidence in a specific area and connecting them with team members who they might learn from and/or model. 

In each of these situations, the situational leader is able to adapt their behavior to the needs of individual team members and to approach them in different ways to help them achieve company goals.   

Situational leadership skills are critical for leaders in any type of organization or role. 

All organizations operate in ever-changing and very fluid environments. All organizations are made up of employees with vastly different backgrounds, preferences, capabilities, and competencies. 

Within these situations, leaders must demonstrate flexibility, adaptability, and the ability to change and modify their behaviors, actions, and communications to move the team forward. Training will help leaders develop and practice situational leadership skills. 

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Categories: Leadership
Lin Grensing-Pophal, SPHR, SHRM-SCP

Author: Lin Grensing-Pophal, SPHR, SHRM-SCP

Lin is a business journalist and communication strategist with expertise in HR and employee relations. She is accredited through the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM-SCP) and Human Resource Certification Institute (SPHR) and writes frequently for SHRM, HR Daily Advisor, and a wide range of trade publications and corporate clients.