Contingency Theory Of Leadership



Managers and leaders in any organization are expected to influence the actions of their employees through several channels. Some of these include communicating with staff members, stimulating subordinates to work hard and ensuring that all the resources within the company are allocated well. These expectations can either be met successfully or unsuccessfully. Numerous researchers felt the need to come up with theories that govern successful leadership. One of these theories is known as the contingency theory.

An analysis of the contingency theory

Fielder (1964) came up with this approach to leadership after realizing that leaders could function well if they changed their styles to suit the situation at hand. This is where the name contingency originates. Fielder conducted several studies of effective and ineffective leaders. Thereafter he concluded that the most successful approach would be to match organizational settings with leadership styles. These two parameters form the basis of the contingency theory of leadership.

According to Fiedler, leadership style may be defined as the way leaders and employees interact with one another. One cannot claim that a manager’s leadership style changes from time to time. On the contrary, this is a fixed parameter since every leader has a different personality. The latter term largely affects the nature of the leadership style. Since this trait is important, Fielder came up with a method for categorizing leadership styles. He used the Least Preferred Coworker Scale (LPC). The Scale is applied only to leaders; the latter are asked to rate the person they feel has worked very poorly with them. The scale starts from one to eight and may be a classification of a co-worker from the past or the present depending on which worker was the worst. Examples of personality traits that guide the scaling process include;

  • Unfriendly versus friendly workers
  • Hostile versus supportive
  • Guarded versus open
  • Uncooperative versus cooperative (Fiedler, 1964)

All the latter traits are in ascending order with number 1 representing the character trait on the left while number 8 represents the character trait on the right.

The LPC  scale’s main purpose is to determine whether a particular form of leadership style is task oriented or people oriented. Leaders who score high marks in the scale favor interpersonal relationships. Consequently, those leaders who rate their co-workers in a negative light may be more interested in the task at hand. This also implies that such leaders have poor interpersonal relationships. However, critics have asserted that such traits may not necessarily be accurate. Some individuals may portray their co-workers in a negative light but still be keen on interpersonal relationships.

Fielder (1964) felt that those leaders who managed to match the requirements of the task with a dominant personality trait tended to be more successful.  Dominant personality traits largely determine the approach chosen by leaders i.e. either people oriented or task oriented approach. The LPC scale indicates whether or not a certain individual values interpersonal relationships. In case leaders score highly, then they normally consider interpersonal relationships as a crucial part of implementing tasks. However, those who score low marks in the scale value task completion more than anything else does. Consequently, most of them may not bother creating close relationships with their employees.

Fielder (1964) was also concerned with the organizational environment or what is also called the situational variable. According to him, the situational variable can be defined as that aspect within the organization that can allow leaders to exert influence within their team.

He divided the situational variables as follows;

-Task structure

-Position power

-Leader to member relationships

The leader-member structure is defined as the level of acceptance team players have towards their leader. Task structures may be defined as the level of job specificity among subordinates. Lastly, position power is described as the level of authority attributed to a leader as result of his position within the organization. (Fiedler, 1964)

In the Leader-member situation, a leader would be more successful if he establishes strong links between himself and the other people within the organization; this is through trusting and respecting members of his organization. Additionally, successful leaders in the task structure situation are those ones that specify job detail well. Powerful leaders in the position power situation are those ones that exercise their right to fire and hire or to reward individuals within the organization.

All the latter three situations create eight leadership styles. These are then divided into two important groups known as the relationship or task oriented leaders. Five of the leadership styles fall under the latter category.

Fielder (1964) felt that task oriented approach were more appropriate in disasters or extreme situations. In cases where a fire strikes an organization, then leaders would be more efficient if they applied the task oriented approach. At this time, the issue of position power is not very relevant and neither are the relationships of the co-workers. In extreme cases or in disasters, the individuals who direct tasks most efficiently become the leaders. The opposite is true for leaders who try applying a people oriented approach. This would mean considering what people think and this would eventually delay outcomes. Such cases require only the fastest responses for survival.

Task oriented relationships are also important in blue collar jobs. This is because such workers normally require direction and job specificity. Therefore, this leadership approach would be most appropriate. On the other hand, such scenarios may still be characterized by strong leader member relationships. The latter situation can be effected when leaders reward worker well for their efforts.

Relationship oriented leadership styles may be more favorable in situations where the organizational environment is highly predictable. Some of the most appropriate environments include research institutes. In such circumstances, subordinates would not like it if their leaders interfered with the nature of their task. Here, it would be more appropriate to work on building relationships with subordinates.

It should be noted that Fielder’s theory does not cover all the possible factors affecting leadership. Some leaders may be more effective if they undergo training or gain experience on the job. Such factors have not been accounted for by the contingency theory.


Overly, Fielder was trying to say that leaders are not just successful or unsuccessful. Leaders can either be effective in certain situations and not all of them. Therefore, all individuals can become leaders if they choose the most appropriate situation to apply their leadership styles. Additionally, it is possible to make a leader more effective by altering the following; position power, task structure and leader member relationships. It should also be noted that Fielder’s scale can be quite appropriate in determining leadership styles.


Fiedler, E. (1964): A Contingency Model of Leadership Effectiveness; Journal for Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, Academic Press 1, 12, 149-190


Source by Carolyn Smith