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One of the earliest theories of leadership that deliberately included features of the situation was proposed by the Austrian-born American psychologist Fred E. Fiedler (1967). According to Fiedler’s contingency model of leader effectiveness, the performance of a group is a joint function of the style of the leader and key attributes of the context. Broadly stated, the model identifies appropriate “matches” of different leadership styles for particular types of situations.
Fiedler characterized leader style as varying across a single dimension of socioemotional orientation versus task orientation. Socioemotional orientation denotes a leader who is primarily concerned with maintaining positive social relations, whereas task orientation denotes a leader who is primarily concerned with task structure and accomplishment. This stylistic orientation is assessed by having a leader complete a “least preferred coworker” (LPC) attitude scale. Comparatively high (or lenient) LPC scores are interpreted as an indication of a socioemotional orientation, while low (or harsh) LPC scores are interpreted as an indication of a task orientation. The assumption that a social-relations orientation and a task orientation are opposite ends of a single continuum differs from other popular approaches to conceptualizing leader style (e.g., the Ohio State University–based conceptualization of consideration and structuring proposes two independent dimensions of leadership style).
Situations are judged in terms of how much control they afford the leader. High-control situations are those that provide a leader with strong subordinate support, clear task structure, and substantial power that is tied to the leader’s formal position. The model posits that in extremely high-control situations and extremely low-control situations, leaders who are low LPC (i.e., task oriented) will be more effective than high LPC (i.e., socioemotional oriented) leaders. For more intermediate-control situations, the ordering of leader effectiveness is reversed, and high LPC leaders are predicted to be comparatively more effective. The precise underlying social process that might explain this pattern of association has been a major topic of study throughout the model’s history.
Fiedler developed his model from data collected over a large number of work groups in a great variety of settings. As the results of these studies were used to induce the model’s principles, subsequent research efforts have attempted to verify the proposed interaction of leader style and leader circumstance. By and large, these later attempts at verification have met with mixed success. Meta-analytic efforts (designed to summarize results across many studies) do suggest the model may be valid in certain extreme combinations of subordinate support, task structure, and leader position–based power (Peters et al. 1985). However, the magnitude of these effects for the observed associations of LPC with group performance in specific situations is not great. Moreover, there is some evidence that performance may actually decrease as situational control decreases (Schriesheim et al. 1994; Vecchio 1977). This suggests that performance may be maximal (and, therefore, situations should be created) where high LPC leaders are located within settings of extremely high situational control (i.e., positive leader-subordinate social relations, maximum task structure, and strong leader position power). Because much prior research has focused on within-setting comparisons of leaders, this across-setting comparison deserves further study.
Despite these concerns, Fiedler’s contingency model of leadership is important for its emphasis on the interplay of leader style and the situation, and its suggestion that, in some settings, it may be more reasonable to modify or engineer the situation to fit the leader’s personality, rather than attempt to modify the leader’s style.
- Fiedler, Fred 1967. A Theory of Leadership Effectiveness. New York: McGraw-Hill.
- Fiedler, Fred , and Martin M. Chemers. 1984. Improving Leadership Effectiveness: The Leader Match Concept. 2nd ed. New York: Wiley.
- Peters, Lawrence , Darrell Hartke, and John T. Pohlmann. 1985. Fiedler’s Contingency Theory of Leadership: An Application of the Meta-analysis Procedures of Schmidt and Hunter. Psychological Bulletin 97: 274–285.
- Schriesheim, Chester , Bennett J. Tepper, and Linda A. Tetrault. 1994. Least Preferred Co-worker Score, Situational Control, and Leadership Effectiveness: A Meta-analysis of Contingency Model Performance Predictions. Journal of Applied Psychology 79: 561–573.
- Vecchio, Robert P. An Empirical Investigation of the Validity of Fiedler’s Model of Leadership Effectiveness. Organizational Behavior and Human Performance 19: 180–206.
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