Contingency Theory: Mastering Leadership Flexibility

Contingency theoryWhile most of us would recognize a great leader, few of us know what it takes to become one (Hill et al., 2022).

And it’s no surprise. Even psychology has trouble identifying a universal set of traits to define and support effective leadership across various situations and contexts (Villoria, 2022).

The contingency theory of leadership recognizes the importance of a flexible style in response to key situational variables and factors (Fiedler, 1967).

In this article, we introduce contingency theory and its importance for mastering leadership flexibility and explore the importance of being tuned in to environmental needs.

Before you continue, we thought you might like to download our three Positive Leadership Exercises for free. These detailed, science-based exercises will help you or others adopt positive leadership practices and help organizations thrive.

Unpacking Contingency Theory

Organizations and businesses have seen dramatic changes in recent decades.

According to Harvard Business Review, in this evolving climate, the role of leaders is “no longer about getting others to follow them into the future” but to invite them “to co-create the future with them” (Hill et al., 2022, para. 8).

Behaviorist theories offer little instruction regarding what it takes to master leadership across multiple situations. In response, the contingency theory of leadership (CTL) emphasizes the situational variables effective leaders must contend with and what they will be shaped by (Villoria, 2022).

Contingency theory suggests that the effectiveness of a leader’s style depends on context and situation rather than a one-size-fits-all approach. A good leader must, therefore, remain flexible and adapt their approach as required (Villoria, 2022; Shenkar & Ellis, 2022).

Psychologist Fred Edward Fiedler’s (1967) contingency theory of leadership builds upon strategies born out of Douglas McGregor’s (1960) two opposing sets of assumptions concerning human motivation and behavior, known as Theory X and Theory Y (Villoria, 2022).

  • Theory X
    This more traditional and widely held view of direction and control assumes most of us have a fundamental dislike of work and will avoid it where and when we can.
  • Theory Y
    This theory takes a different stance and suggests that work is as natural as play and does not require coercion, control, bribes, or punishment (Pearson, 2020).

According to the CTL, the two theories shape leadership style. Leaders holding assumptions based on Theory X prefer an autocratic style, while those who maintain assumptions based on Theory Y are more participative (Villoria, 2022).

The CTL argues that the latter is a better, more effective style of leadership that can be developed in response to a series of situational variables rather than based on a set of unknown universal traits (Villoria, 2022).

Overall, the most effective leadership behavior seems to involve a high degree of concern for employees, achieving goals, and completing tasks efficiently (known as production; Villoria, 2022).

Debbie Lovich: 3 tips for leaders to get the future of work right

Check out Debbie Lovich’s video, which encourages more flexible leadership that supports the needs of staff members.

Taking a Deep Dive Into Fiedler’s Model

Following several years of research, Fred Fiedler (1967) outlined his contingency theory of leadership in A Theory of Leadership Effectiveness (Miner, 2015).

Fiedler recognized that each workplace situation creates different leadership style requirements. He identified three situational factors that influence the situation and define the managerial task (Villoria, 2022).

  1. Leader–member relations
    How well do the manager and staff get along?
    A solid rapport between leaders and their team members is seen as positive, and a lack of trust or conflict is recognized as unfavorable (negative).
  2. Task structure
    How well structured is the job or task? Very well, not at all, or somewhere in between?
    If the work is clearly outlined with specific guidelines, it is positive, while ambiguous and unstructured procedures are deemed negative.
  3. Positive power
    How much authority or power does the leader have? Does the leader possess a high degree of control over resources and decision-making (positive), or is authority restricted and limited by a reliance on others or additional resources (negative)?

These situational variables combine to determine the appropriate leadership style and the favorability of the situation for the leader (Villoria, 2022).

We can score managerial situations on a continuum between favorable and unfavorable. A task-oriented style is better suited to the extremes, while a relationship-oriented approach fits the middle ground (Villoria, 2022).

“As the level of followers’ maturity increases, the leader should begin to reduce his or her task behavior and increase relationship behavior.”

Villoria, 2022, p. 2

Optimal results are most likely when the leader’s relationship with their members, the structure of the task, and their position of power have been identified, understood, and acted upon (Villoria, 2022).

Download 3 Free Positive Leadership Exercises (PDF)

These detailed, science-based exercises will help you or others to adopt positive leadership practices to help individuals, teams and organizations to thrive.

4 Examples of Contingency Theory in Application

The contingency theory of leadership can be applied in several different settings, as the following examples demonstrate (Asana, 2024; G., 2018).

Tech start-up experiencing rapid growth

Situation: A tech start-up experiences rapid growth and must scale its operations quickly. While the team is highly skilled, it lacks clear direction due to the fast-paced nature of the environment.

Leadership style: Task-oriented, focuses on the nature of the work rather than being relationship oriented

Application: A task-oriented approach helps organize projects and define precise tasks that enable the team to focus, prioritize, and ensure the start-up can manage its growth effectively.

The leader focuses on efficiency and goal achievement that are aligned with the start-up’s need for structure and direction during this critical phase.

Nonprofit organization with volunteer staff

Situation: A nonprofit organization relies heavily on volunteers for community service programs. They come from diverse backgrounds and vary in their degree of commitment and skill.

Leadership style: Relationship oriented

Application: A relationship-oriented leader succeeds in this environment by building strong, trust-based relationships with the volunteers.

They focus on interpersonal connections, motivating and engaging the volunteers and fostering a collaborative and committed team environment that enhances the organization’s ability to serve the community.

Established corporation undergoing a merger

Situation: An existing corporation is undergoing a merger with another company. The process is complicated and involves integrating various cultures, systems, and processes.

Leadership style: Task oriented

Application: A task-oriented leader defines clear objectives, organizes the integration process efficiently, and focuses on achieving specific goals to navigate the complex merger. Their style ensures the merger is effectively executed while minimizing disruptions and maximizing synergies between the two companies.

Creative agency pitching for new business

Situation: A creative agency is getting ready to pitch for a significant new business opportunity. The team must develop innovative ideas and a compelling presentation to win the client.

Leadership style: Relationship oriented

Application: A relationship-oriented leader thrives by fostering a creative and collaborative team environment. They focus on interpersonal relationships and team dynamics and encourage open communication and idea sharing. Their goal is to enable the team to harness its creativity and develop a winning pitch.

These four examples highlight the flexibility and applicability of Fiedler’s CTL and why it’s essential to match leadership style to the situation and context.

Exploring Varieties in Contingency Leadership Theory

In the article “Contingency Theory of Leadership,” Manuel Villoria (2022) outlines several theories and models beyond Fiedler’s that can be considered contingency leadership, including the following:

  • Tannenbaum and Schmidt’s leadership continuum (1958) arose out of ongoing criticism that leadership exists at either of two extremes: autocratic and democratic. The model suggests leadership behavior appears along a continuum connected to the degree of subordinate participation and involvement in decision-making.
  • The Hersey–Blanchard model (1977) suggests that the maturity — or development level — of a leader’s subordinates is crucial to determining leadership style. The four resulting subleadership styles include:
    • Directing: Low-readiness followers require explicit instructions and specific directions.
    • Coaching: Moderate follower maturity levels benefit from two-way communication, which builds confidence and motivation in the employee.
    • Supporting: Followers who can make things happen effectively but are unwilling to take responsibility respond well to sharing decision-making with their leader.
    • Delegating: High-maturity followers are ready to own tasks, competent, motivated, and can be delegated to.
  • Adair’s action-centered leadership model (1973) sees action-centered leaders direct the job or task to completion, support and review the team members performing it, and coordinate and grow the team. Time and energy devoted to each aspect rises and falls according to the task’s nature, context, and timing.

Ultimately, each model emphasizes different factors and variables influencing leadership effectiveness across various situations and contexts (Villoria, 2022).

Common Criticisms of Contingency Models

Criticism of contingency theoryWhile CTL models have proved popular, they have received criticism, including (Villoria, 2022; Shenkar & Ellis, 2022; Miner, 2015):

  1. Poor generalizability
    Such models are typically specific to the situation and context in which they were developed and may not be appropriate elsewhere. ​
  2. Degree of complexity
    They can be complex, difficult to understand, and challenging to apply in practice. ​Their complexity may make them less helpful for managers looking for practical guidance.
  3. Insufficient empirical evidence
    Contingency models are based on theoretical assumptions rather than empirical evidence. More research is needed to validate their effectiveness and understand the many factors involved.
  4. Overemphasis on situational factors
    Too much emphasis may be placed on situational factors, neglecting the importance and relevance of the leader’s traits and characteristics.
  5. A lack of clear guidelines
    Such models can appear vague and open to interpretation, making it difficult for leaders to know how, when, and where to apply them in practice.

Fiedler himself recognized the contingency leadership model as somewhat of a black box, meaning that it does not readily reveal the reasons behind the behavior it predicts (Miner, 2015).

7 Practical Tips for Implementing Contingency Principles at Work

While there are many approaches to implementing contingency theory principles in the workplace, the following practical tips support their execution and embedding (Villoria, 2022; Shenkar & Ellis, 2022; Miner, 2015).

1. Understand situational variables

Leaders must identify and understand situational variables within their work context and structure, including leader–member relations, task structure, and degree of power.

2. Maintain an adaptable and flexible leadership style

There is no single best way for managers to lead, so leadership style must remain contingent on the situation. ​Leaders must be flexible and adaptable and adjust their leadership style according to the needs and characteristics of the situation and their employees. ​

3. Recognize employee maturity

Understanding staff developmental levels (maturity) should determine the appropriate leadership style. ​Leaders must recognize their readiness and ability to take responsibility and tune their leadership style accordingly.

4. Balance task and relationship orientation

Leaders should balance their focus on achieving tasks and organizational goals with building positive team member relationships and supporting individual growth.

5. Build legitimacy and standing

The leader must communicate their capacity to meet others’ expectations (for example, their employees, senior management, and board members) while developing legitimacy. ​The focus should be on building trust, credibility, and a positive public image.

6. Take organizational and individual factors into account

Leaders should assess the level of institutionalization and power within their organization and their degree of responsibility and tune their leadership approach accordingly. ​

7. Recognize the limits of the CTL

While helpful in understanding and promoting positive leadership behavior, no single theory is appropriate for all situations. The leader must continuously assess their approach and change course when applicable.

Contingency Theory of Leadership: Its Future in Organizations

OrganizationThe CTL has undoubtedly been influential in the field of leadership and remains valuable in both the public and private sectors (Villoria, 2022; Miner, 2015).

As workplaces and business climates continue to evolve, robust and flexible leadership remains vital to organizational success. The CTL emphasizes the need to consider situational variables and tailor leadership approaches to specific and, often, dynamic contexts (Shenkar & Ellis, 2022).

In the future, there may be potential to integrate with other leadership theories, such as transformational leadership and servant leadership, to meet the continuing needs of public and private organizations (Villoria, 2022).

Research on the CTL in public management is less extensive. Therefore, there may be further opportunities as awareness and understanding of the public sector’s unique challenges and needs grow.

As such, more sophisticated models are required to improve the CTL’s practicality and tools for effective leadership in both the private and public sectors (Villoria, 2022).

17 Exercises To Build Positive Leaders

Use these 17 Positive Leadership Exercises [PDF] to help others inspire, motivate, and guide employees in ways that enrich workplace performance and satisfaction.
Created by Experts. 100% Science-based.

Helpful Resources From

We have many resources for managers, HR specialists, and team members wishing to develop group and leadership skills.

Articles you might find very useful include:

Our free resources include:

  • Visualize Success: Visualizing successful performance can help employees become more resilient to criticism and change.
  • Confidence Booster: This exercise helps identify confidence-boosting activities and habits for use inside and beyond the workplace.
  • Knowing When to Speak Up: The individual asks themselves a series of questions to help decide whether this is the right time to speak up regarding a concern.

More extensive versions of the following tools are available with a subscription to the Positive Psychology Toolkit©, but they are described briefly below:

  • Using Guided Imagery to Envision Organizational Success

Within leadership, guided imagery can enhance problem-solving skills and performance, bolster confidence, alleviate work-related distress, and clarify organizational goals and challenges.

The following steps are typically performed within a group setting:

    • Step one – Explain the power of a shared vision using vision stories and breakthrough statements.
    • Step two – Guide the group through relaxation and visualization to imagine a successful future for their organization.
    • Step three – Ask the group to write and share breakthrough statements.
  • Leaders You Admire

Effective leadership is intrinsically linked to positive behaviors like consistency, integrity, and empathy.

This exercise helps individual clients and groups identify leaders they admire and explore their specific characteristics.

Try out the following steps:

    • Step one – Identify and write down a list of positive leadership characteristics.
    • Step two – Select one or more leaders that represent these qualities.
    • Step three – Reflect on what you want to change or develop to move closer to how those leaders act and behave.

If you’re looking for more science-based ways to help others develop positive leadership skills, check out this collection of 17 validated positive leadership exercises. Use them to equip leaders with the skills needed to cultivate a culture of positivity and resilience.

A Take-Home Message

Leadership is unique to each organization, context, and obstacle. As such, it can never be a one-size-fits-all approach.

There is no universal set of traits to define the ideal leader.

Fiedler’s contingency theory of leadership recognizes the necessity of remaining flexible in a leadership role and being aligned to situational variables and factors.

The three situational factors that shape leadership include leadership relations (how well staff and leaders get along), task structure (how well the task is structured), and positive power (the degree of authority the leader has).

Together, they shape the leadership style and the favorability of the situation.

While several criticisms exist, particularly regarding the CTL’s generalizability, complexity, and lack of empirical evidence, the approach successfully highlights the importance of flexibility and matching leadership style to the situation.

Understanding the CTL is vital for HR managers, business coaches, and developing leaders who wish to support organizational and employee growth and engagement effectively.

We hope you enjoyed reading this article. Don’t forget to download our three Positive Leadership Exercises for free.

  • Adair, J. (1973). Action-centered leadership. McGraw-Hill.
  • Asana. (2024, January 26). Fiedler’s contingency theory: Why leadership isn’t uniform.
  • Fiedler, F. (1967). A theory of leadership effectiveness. McGraw-Hill.
  • G., Denis. (2018, November). Fiedler’s contingency theory of leadership. Expert Program Management.
  • Hersey, P., & Blanchard, K. (1977). Management of organizational behavior: Utilizing human resources. Prentice Hall.
  • Hill, L. A., Tedards, E., Wild, J., & Weber, K. (2022, September 19). What makes a great leader? Harvard Business Review.
  • McGregor, D. (1960). The human side of enterprise. McGraw-Hill.
  • Miner, J. B. (2015). Organizational behavior 4: From theory to practice. Routledge.
  • Pearson, G. (2020). Remaking the real economy: Escaping destruction by organised money. Policy Press.
  • Shenkar, O., & Ellis, S. (2022). The rise and fall of structural contingency theory: A theory’s autopsy. Journal of Management Studies, 59(3), 782–818.
  • Tannenbaum, R., & Schmidt, W. (1958). How to choose a leadership pattern. Harvard Business Review, 36(2), 95–101.
  • Villoria, M. (2022). Contingency theory of leadership. In A. Farazmand (Ed.), Global encyclopedia of public administration, public policy, and governance. Springer.

Let us know your thoughts

Your email address will not be published.


Read other articles by their category