Jory MacKay
Jory is a writer, content strategist and award-winning editor of the Unsplash Book. He contributes to Inc., Fast Company, Quartz, and more.
January 16, 2024 · 9 min read

How to master Fiedler’s Contingency Theory of Leadership

How to master Fiedler’s Contingency Theory of Leadership: Illustration in blues and black showing the title, some happy faces and some ticked boxes

While there’s no “perfect way” to lead a team, data shows that many leaders are still doing it wrong.

A recent study by global leadership consulting firm DDI found that only 40% of companies believe they have great leaders, and only 32% trust their senior leaders to make the best decisions.

To build better team connections and deliver great results, the best project leaders match their leadership style to the team and situation around them. Fiedler’s contingency theory provides a straightforward way for leaders to understand their leadership style and assess how it works (and doesn’t) versus the situation around them.

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If you’re a new project or team leader looking to develop a successful leadership style, this article is for you. After we’ve looked at Fiedler’s leadership model, we’ll help you use it to uncover your ideal leadership style and what you can do if your style and team don’t match.

What is Fiedler’s contingency theory of leadership?

Fiedler’s Contingency Model states that there is no one “best” leadership style for any project. Instead, the best leadership style can only be determined by the leader’s inherent strengths and how they work with the team and situation at hand.

Austrian psychologist Professor Fred Fiedler developed the theory in the 1960s by studying the personalities and characteristics of hundreds of leaders. His theory concluded that an individual’s leadership style is largely fixed, based on their life experiences, and is difficult to fundamentally change.

But with that said, the study also concluded that no single leadership style is the best.

Instead, choosing the right style, as well as other management factors such as communication methods and team engagement, was dependent on the situation at hand.

It makes sense if you think about this practically, as two different situations may call for two different leadership styles.

For example, a more directive leadership style may be best if you’re working on a project to implement new regulatory standards under a tight timescale. On the other hand, if you’re working to create a prototype for a new product, a more collaborative and participative style may be best to foster the creation of new ideas.

Fiedler’s contingency theory of leadership is defined by two key factors: someone’s natural leadership style and the favourableness of the situation.

Let’s dig into both of them in a little more detail:

Natural leadership style

In Fiedler’s world, there are two types of leaders: one who is relationship-oriented and one who is task-oriented. To determine which one you are, you must complete the Least Preferred Coworker (LPC) test.

This test asks leaders to score the coworker they least prefer to work with against several questions. The questions are found below, with the answer for each question adding up to give an overall score.

Illustration showing in blues and blacks the scale used to determine the Least Preferred Coworker (LPC). Catergories that are included with a scale fomr 1 to 8 are Friendly, Pleasant, Rejecting, Tense, Cold, Supportive, Boring, Quarrelsome, Gloomy, Open, Backbiting, Untrustworthy, Considerate, Nasty, Agreeable, Insincere and Kind.

Depending on the final score, an individual’s leadership style falls into one of three brackets:

  1. Relationship-Orientated. If they rate their coworker highly (above 73), it indicates they’re a relationship-oriented leader, akin to a servant leader in other models.
  2. Task-Orientated. If they score them less positively (below 54), they’re more likely to favor task-style leadership.
  3. Mixture. If they score in the middle (55 to 72), they’re a mix of relationship and task-orientated with a mix of top-down and bottom-up leadership strategies.

Fiedler believed those who scored highly and favored relationship-building were more suited for situations involving collaboration, conflict management, and morale building. Meanwhile, those who scored lower and favored task-based situations were better suited for functional project management and logistical work.

The best leadership style can only be determined by the leader’s inherent strengths and how they work with the team and situation at hand.

Situational favorableness

Fiedler believed you couldn’t be a great leader without the world around you working in your favor.

In more specific terms, you need the project’s situation to favor your leadership style. In Fiedler’s model, the situational favorableness is determined by three distinct factors:

  1. Leader-Member Relations (rated as either “good” or “poor”). This factor relates to the level of trust and confidence that the team has in the leader. The more trust the team has, the more likely the leader will succeed. Without trust, motivating and engaging team members and achieving the project’s objectives is hard.
  2. Task Structure (rated as either “High” or “Low”). This refers to the type of task a leader and their team are completing and whether it’s clear and structured or vague and unstructured. It might sound like common sense, but the more unstructured a task is, the more unfavorable the situation is for a leader to generate good results.
  3. Leader’s Position Power (rated as either “Strong” or “Weak”). The final factor relates to the power a leader has to direct the group. The more power a leader has to drive results, give rewards, and impart punishment, the more favorable the situation.

Based on the assessment of these three factors, Fiedler’s contingency model shows the type of leadership style that would perform best in any given situation. Typically, task-oriented leaders deliver well at situational extremes, with relationship-oriented leaders doing well in moderately favorable situations.

Illustration in blues and blacks showing Fiedler’s contingency theory of leadership. It shows a line graph demonstrating that typically, task-oriented leaders deliver well at situational extremes, with relationship-oriented leaders doing well in moderately favorable situations.

The 4 benefits of following Fiedler’s leadership model

While Fiedler’s model draws criticism at times, it does have a range of benefits for organizations and their leaders. Let’s take a look at some of the most common benefits.

How to use Fiedler’s contingency theory to be the best leader for your team

Now that we know all about Fiedler’s model and the benefits it can bring, it’s time to bring it to life and actually start using it.

Next, we’ll walk through five steps you can use to understand your leadership style and how to match it to the right project.

1. Uncover your own personal leadership style

The first place to start this process is with the least preferred coworker (LPC) scale from before. You’ll need to score your least favorite coworker on each of the 17 questions to determine your overall leadership style.

Tips for success:

Once you’ve completed your test, add up the scores to give you a final result:

Real-life example:

Phillippe works as a Project Manager for ReviveO, an energy supplement company. Phillippe has been offered two projects to work on as his next assignment: an IT system data migration project and an HR process improvement project. He wants to choose the best project based on his leadership style, so he begins by completing the LPC test. He scores 74, which makes him a relationship-oriented leader.

At a time when only 32% of people trust their leaders, it’s worth investing in identifying and developing your own unique leadership style.

2. Assess your project’s environment

Once you’ve identified your own leadership style, the second step of Fiedler’s model is to assess the salutation you find yourself in. This is going to help you determine if your leadership style is a match for the project at hand.

Tips for success:

Real-life example:

Phillippe assesses both projects to determine their situational favourableness. In the IT systems project, the leader-team relations are strong, the task structure is high, and the power position is high. This project falls into category one.

On the HR process project, the leader-team relations are good, the task structure is low, and the leadership position is weak, meaning the project falls into category four.

3. Map the results to see if you’re the right leader for the project

Once you know your leadership style and you’ve assessed the favorability of the project, it’s time to compare the two to determine if you’re the right fit. The Fiedler model can be quite black and white, so don’t worry too much if the two don’t line up perfectly.

Tips for success:

Real-life example:

Phillippe maps both projects to the chart. He notices that the IT systems project in category one favors a task-oriented style. On the other hand, the HR process project in category four favors his own relationship-oriented style. Phillippe speaks to his manager and asks to be assigned to the HR process project.

4. Delegate or re-assign if you’re not the right fit

What do you do if your style isn’t right for the project at hand? It’s a tricky situation to be in, but sometimes admitting the job isn’t right for you and finding someone else is the best thing to do.

Tips for success:

Real-life example:

Phillippe shares with his manager the reasons he didn’t want to work on the IT systems project. His manager suggests another project manager, Sasha, who’s a task-focused leader. Sasha is a lot more junior, so Phillippe offers to act as a mentor, using his natural relationship-centered qualities to provide additional support.

5. Change the situation (if possible)

Unfortunately, there are times when we’re left with no choice, and our leadership style doesn’t match the project we are assigned to. Fiedler believed our leadership styles are largely fixed, so in these situations you have to do everything you can (within reason) to change the situation to match your style.

Tips for success:

Screenshot of Planio showing the agile board with the tasks colored according to priority.

Is your leadership style really fixed? What to do if your style and team don’t match

Even though Fiedler didn’t believe our leadership styles can change, many other experts do.

If you and your team don’t match, here are some steps you can take to tailor your leadership style to drive great project outcomes:

Style and situation combine for great project results

At a time when only 32% of people trust their leaders, it’s worth investing in identifying and developing your own unique leadership style.

If you’re new to leadership, Fiedler’s Contingency Model is a great place to start, providing a clear and concise way to learn more about your leadership strengths.

But even the best leaders fail in the wrong situations. That’s why Fiedler’s model also considers the situation around you to determine if you’re the right fit for the job — something you might not have considered if you’ve recently had a project failure.

If you follow the steps in this article, you’ll be equipped with the leadership knowledge you need to drive forward your next project. But that’s only half the battle.

Planio helps thousands of customers manage their projects from start to finish, keeping tasks, actions, documents, communications, issues, and bugs all in one place. Planio not only helps teams stay on track, but frees project managers up to focus on delivering the things that matter for their business.

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