Situational Leadership Theory (SLT)

Hersey and Blanchard's Situational Leadership Theory

Hersey and Blanchard’s (1984) developed situational leadership theory (SLT) to enhance success in leadership approaches. Situational leadership theory has evolved over time. Its origin is derived from the Ohio State studies, in which two broad categories of leader behaviors, initiating structure and consideration were conceptualized.

As with the Ohio State studies Opens in new window, Harsey and Blanchard’s situational leadership theory is based on two types of leader behaviors, task behaviors and relationship behaviors.

  • Task behaviors, very similar to the Ohio State concept of initiating structure, were defined as the extent to which the leader structures how work is to be done, or spells out the responsibilities of an individual or group. Task behaviors include telling people what to do, how to do it, when to do it, and who is to do it.
  • Relationship behaviors, similar to the concept of consideration, consist in how much the leader engages in two-way communication. Relationship behaviors were identified to include listening, encouraging, facilitating, clarifying, and providing socio-emotional support to employees, as well as openly communicating with them.

There was little evidence to show that these two categories of leader behavior were consistently related to leadership success. Combinations of task and relationship behaviors may be more effective in some situations than in others.

Hersey and Blanchard stated that leadership effectiveness would increase if the combinations of task and relationship behaviors were made contingent on the maturity level of the individual follower. Thus, Harsey and Blanchard (1982) proposed a model called follower maturity.

Follower Maturity

Follower maturity describes the follower’s technical ability. Hersey and Blanchard (1977) proposed that the success of various leadership approaches depended in part on the maturity of the follower. Follower maturity is comprised of two dimensions: Job maturity and psychological maturity.

  • Job maturity is the amount of task-relevant knowledge, experience, skill, and ability. Job maturity followers possess the skills to do the task, will assume responsibility, and establish high aims for themselves. In a sense, job maturity is much the same as technical expertise.
  • Psychological maturity is the follower’s self-confidence, commitment, motivation, and self-respect relative to the task at hand.

Both job and psychological maturity are meaningful only with regard to a particular task—they vary according to the task at hand. Someone with a medical degree and years of experience as a surgeon might be rated as extremely mature at performing open-heart surgery.

That same person might have virtually no job or psychological maturity for the tasks of designing and building a house, piloting a hot-air balloon, or counseling a suicidal patient. It is impossible to assess either job or psychological maturity if the task is unknown.

Followers with high levels of maturity score high on both job maturity and psychological maturity. Followers with low maturity have little ability and low self-confidence.

Hersey and Blanchard suggested that maturity is actually a continuum. They arrayed the two orthogonal dimensions as in the Ohio State studies and then divided each of them into high and low segments (See Figure below).

The SLT Prescriptions for the Most Appropriate Leader Behaviors Based on Follower Maturity
The SLT Prescriptions for the Most Appropriate Leader Behaviors Based on Follower Maturity

The horizontal bar or arrow in the Figure above depicts follower maturity as increasing from right to left (not in the direction we are used to seeing). There are four segments along this continuum, ranging from M1 (the least mature) to M4 (the most mature).

Along this continuum, however, the assessment of follower maturity can be fairly subjective.

A follower who possesses high levels of both job and psychological maturity relative to the task would clearly fall in the M4 category, just as a follower with neither job nor psychological maturity would fall in M1. The discriminating factors for categories M2 and M3 are less clear, however.

To complete the model, Hersey and Blanchard (1982) added a curved line that represents the leadership behavior that will most likely be effective given a particular level of follower maturity. In order to use SLT, leaders should first assess the maturity level (M1 – M4) of the follower relative to the task to be accomplished.

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Next, a vertical line should be drawn from the center of the maturity level up to the point where it intersects with the curved line as in the Figure above. The quadrant in which this intersection occurs represents the level of task and relationship behavior that has the best chance and relationship behavior that has the best chance of producing successful outcomes.

For example, imagine you are fire chief and have under your command a search-and-rescue team. One of the team members is needed to rescue a backpacker who has fallen in the mountains, and you have selected a particular follower to accomplish the task.

What leadership behavior should you exhibit?

Assuming this is a responsible and psychologically mature follower who has both substantial training and experience in this type of rescue, you would assess his maturity level as M4. A vertical line from M4 would intersect the curved line in the quadrant where both low task and low relationship behaviors by the leader are most apt to be successful.

As the leader, you should exhibit a low level of task and relationship behaviors and delegate this task to the follower. On the other hand, you may have a brand new member of the fire department who still has to learn the ins and outs of firefighting. Because this particular follower has low job and psychological maturity (M1), SLT maintains that the leader should use a high level of task and a low level of relationship behaviors when initially dealing with this follower.

Hersey and Blanchard suggest one further step leaders wish to consider. The model described above helps the leader select the most appropriate behaviors given the current level of follower maturity.

However, there may be cases when the leader would like to see the followers increase their level of maturity. Because more mature followers are generally more effective than less mature followers, leaders may wish to implement a series of developmental interventions to help boost follower maturity levels.

The process would begin by first assessing the follower’s current level of maturity and then determining the leader behavior that best suits that follower in that task. Instead of using the behavior prescribed by SLT, however, the leader would select the next higher leadership behavior.

Another way of thinking about this would be for the leader to select the behavior pattern that would fit the follower if that follower were one level higher in maturity. This intervention is designed to help followers in their maturity development; hence its name (see box below on typical developmental interventions).

Exhibit I, Developmental Interventions

Dianne is a resident assistant in charge of a number of students in a university dorm. One particular sophomore, Michael, has volunteered to work on projects in the past but never seems to take the initiative to get started on his own.

Michael seems to wait until Dianne gives him explicit direction, approval, and encouragement before he will get started. Michael can do a good job, but he seems to be unwilling to start without some convincing that it is all right and making explicit the steps to be taken.

Dianne has assessed Michael’s maturity level as M2, but she would like to see him develop, both in task maturity and in psychological maturity. The behavior most likely to fit Michael’s current maturity level is selling, or high task, high relationship. But Dianne has decided to implement a developmental intervention to help Michael raise his maturity level.

Dianne can be most helpful in this intervention by moving up one level to participating or low task, high relationship. By reducing the amount of task instructions and direction while encouraging Michael to lay out a plan on his own and supporting his steps in the right direction, Dianne is most apt to help Michael become an M3 follower. This does not mean the work will get done most efficiently, however.

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