The leadership approach supervisors 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 a supervisor should vary his or her 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 supervisor’s leadership style.

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

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 his or her commitment takes a nose dive (low commitment), particularly if the job didn’t add up to what he or she 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 D1s 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 supervisors and managers, help employees move to the D4 star performer?

That’s why situational leadership approach suggests that your supervision or 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 it and providing frequent feedback. Supportive behavior involves praising, listening, encouraging and involving others in decision-making.  Leadership style is based on the amount of directive and supportive behavior given to the individual team member by the supervisor. Each level needs a different combination or dose of each as shown in the diagram below.

S1 (Directing): This is a one-way communication. The leader defines exactly what needs to be done by the individual or the group and when and how a given task needs to be completed.

S2 (Coaching): With this style, the leader still provides direction, but using a two-way communication. The supervisor aims to sell an idea to an individual to gain his commitment and also encourage him to provide his own views.

S3 (Supporting): With this style of leadership, a supervisor shares the decision-making with the individual he is leading. With this style, there is less task-specific information exchange. Instead, the focus is on participation to reach a decision to move forward. The leader is supportive and understanding of the individual’s specific constraints and commitments.

S4 (Delegating): Here, the responsibility is passed to the individual. However, the leader still remains involved in the decision making process and monitors performance to make sure the results are satisfactory.

The matching colours between figure 1 and figure 2 imply the kind of leadership style that can be applied at each level of an individual’s development. For instance, D1sneed S1 – a directive approach where the supervisor is highly involved in the assignment of tasks and teaching the employee how to perform the job.

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

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 supervisor who will empower them – S4

Individual employees pass through a job cycle of development going from a D1 to D2 to D3 to D4 as they mature on the job. However, if the wrong leadership style is used at any of the development levels, some individuals can get stuck resulting to low motivation and an unproductive team. This can prove to be a challenge, not only for the individual, but supervisors as well.

Many performance problems are rooted in poor leadership primarily due to the manner in which people become supervisors and team leads. Moving seamlessly from hands-on role to a leadership role, most supervisors are usually ill-prepared and consequently unaware of key leadership and management principles required to keep their teams productive.

Taken together, supervisors should avoid one-size-fits-all approach and vary their leadership styles so as to help their subordinates develop progressively while delivering on the job. In other words, they should consider themselves not just responsible for performance outcome but also responsible for managing and developing front-line talent. This will lead to higher productivity.

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