Leading and Managing Situationally: Five Critical Questions Situational Leaders Always Ask

By Jeffrey D. Yergler, Ph.D., Associate Professor, Management & Department Chair, Management

During a leadership training course full of mid-level supervisors who worked in a large industrial complex with over 11,000 employees, I was explaining the strategic and tactical importance of leadership that paid attention to the needs and aspirations of direct reports. One supervisor raised his hand and made the following statement, “I don’t have time to pay attention to the commitment and competency levels of my reports. They are paid to do their jobs, they are expected to execute their job tasks, and my responsibility is to make sure our team and department get the work delivered on time!”

Hundreds, if not thousands, of leaders and managers, could certainly echo this sentiment. That statement points to four perennial problems in the work of management and leadership:

First, leaders and managers do not have time to determine what their reports need to do their best work.

Second, leaders and managers do not believe it is their responsibility to determine what their reports need to do their best work.

Third, leaders and managers do not see any connection between familiarity with their reports and accomplishing work goals and objectives.

Fourth, the organizational system makes it clear, through what they measure and how they promote, that asking managers and leaders to pay attention to what their reports need to perform is not a priority.

Leading and Managing Situationally

Leading and managing using a situational approach is time-consuming to be sure. Nonetheless, I do not think there is a more effective way of positioning followers to get work accomplished. The situational approach is an individual approach that allows the leaders to gather critical information based on the needs and feedback from each of their followers. It is situational because leaders will nuance or adapt their leadership style based in part on direct feedback from followers and based on the leader’s own observations as to what followers will need to perform at their best.

Why the Situational Approach is Effective

When it comes to leading and managing people, understanding what people require to successfully get their work completed is of monumental importance. The degree to which leaders and managers understand the “context and situation” of team members, that is, what employees need to perform specific work at their highest levels and then reasonably providing what is needed, is the degree to which work will be produced efficiently and competently. Moreover, paying attention to and providing for the situational needs of employees can increase engagement and boost morale which adds further motivation and momentum to work processes and goals.

Situation theories of leadership such as Situational Leadership (Hersey and Blanchard, 1969; Blanchard, 1985; Blanchard, Zigarmi, & Zigmari, 2013) and Path-Goal (House & Dessler, 1974; House & Mitchell, 1974) present a research-based and, therefore, compelling argument for helping leaders pay attention to what followers need to perform and deliver.

The Five Critical Questions Situational Leaders Ask

Effective leaders and managers ask a consistent set of questions each time their followers are approaching new work assignments or important organizational transitions that will challenge the entire team to take on new and more difficult objectives.

Are They Ready?

To deliver quality and performance, followers must be ready for the work. This means they have the necessary information about the scope of the work. This would include such things as awareness of benchmarks, milestones, and overall timelines, project details and deadlines, contingency plans, and other teams or departments who will touch the project along the way. When followers are ready in these ways, they are able to generate the persistence, the determination, and exercise the commitment necessary to move forward.

I continue to be astonished by the number of teams I encounter that, though they have been tasked with a work project, are nonetheless unclear and vague about the details, objectives, and goals of the work. Now, some would argue this information belongs to the work of management. I disagree. If being ready for the work includes possessing critical and important information about the parameters and details of the work, and, if having information about the work details and processes raises the engagement levels and morale of the team, then managers should provide followers with as much information as possible prior to and during the work process. For followers, knowledge is power and this knowledge cultivates commitment.

 Effective leaders and managers make every effort to learn their followers’ strengths and to then deploy those followers so that they spend the majority of work time using their strengths.

Are They Aligned?

The conversation about follower engagement is fundamentally about positioning followers to best leverage their strengths as they relate to work tasks. This is the most important work of a manager. Effective leaders and managers make every effort to learn their followers’ strengths and to then deploy those followers so that they spend the majority of work time using their strengths. Aligning follower strengths with workflow and specialized tasks is a major source of efficiency.

Alignment also includes a strategic aspect. This is where followers learn how the work of their team connects to and aligns with the greater objective or goal of the larger organization. This also includes followers knowing how their own individual strengths, knowledge, and experience support and fuel the total team. Leaders and managers who take the time to illuminate the pathway to the goal and how the followers’ collective and individual efforts contribute to the team’s effort to reach the goal are providing information that acts as a powerful catalyst to getting the work completed.

Are They Competent?

Leaders and managers ensure that followers have the knowledge and tools to get the work completed. This applies to each new project and task. It is the leader’s responsibility to make sure that followers have the specialized knowledge necessary to do the work. Performance track records, of course, will provide this information to the leader. However, new projects and assignments will often require additional competencies, expanded skillsets, and updated knowledge bases that followers may not possess.

In order to determine if followers are competent or if they are concerned about the adequacy of their knowledge base or skillsets, leaders ask non-threatening, open-ended questions that allow followers to respond openly and honestly. If the leader has established a climate of trust and credibility, he will get the accurate information.

When it becomes clear that there are knowledge and resource gaps to accomplish the work, leaders do whatever they can to provide the additional knowledge and resources. Far from penalizing or humiliating followers for “not knowing or understanding,” these leaders close the knowledge and skillset gaps by securing additional training, creating space for additional briefings, or adding tools to the followers’ knowledge portfolio.

Are They Encouraged?

It is imperative that leaders and managers provide encouragement to their followers before, during, and after the work is completed. Followers are never on “auto-pilot” after the work commences. Even the most skilled and tenured followers value encouragement, and it can help sustain performance when the work process and tasks become mundane.

So what does encouragement look like in behavioral terms? It includes such things as providing recognition for progress, appreciation and affirmation, offering reassurance, delivering targeted and focused praise, measured and appropriate honesty about work realities, and being visible and, when not visible, being available and accessible.

Never underestimate the power of encouragement for two reasons. First, it is a part of connecting with human dignity and supports that powerful human need to be valued and appreciated. Second, knowing that one’s presence and talent adds value and worth to the larger work process is a difference maker when it comes to effective task accomplishment.

Are They Supported?

The CEO of a successful startup I interviewed about leadership styles made the observation that his team seemed to perform at their best when he worked behind the scenes supporting the team’s efforts. This behind the scenes work often involved working around the margins of the team removing barriers, addressing challenges, and responding to interference that would otherwise distract the team from its primary objective.

Supporting leaders buttress the work of the team by ensuring that the team, as much as possible, is insulated from external noise. They address emerging strategic and macro issues or challenges that directly or indirectly attach to the work of the team. They work on holding crucial conversations with related stakeholders that inform, explain, and update the team’s work and progress. They advocate for resources and champion the ways in which the team is advancing the work of the larger organization.

An Effective Model that Gets Results

If you would like more information on how to train your leaders and managers to influence situationally using the Five Questions Model, please follow up with me via LinkedIn.


References

Blanchard, K. H. (1985). SLII®: A situational approach to managing people. Escondido, CA: Blanchard Training and Development.

Blanchard, K. H., Zigarmi, P., & Zigmari, D. (2013). Situational Leadership® after 25 years: A retrospective. Journal of Leadership Studies, 1(1), 22-36.

Hersey, P., & Blanchard, K. H. (1969). Life-cycle theory of leadership. Training and Development Journal, 23, 26-34.

House, R. J., & Dessler, G. (1974). The path-goal theory of leadership: Some post hoc and a priori tests. In J. Hunt & L. Larson (Eds.), Contingency approaches in leadership (pp. 29-55). Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press.

House, R. J., & Mitchell, R. R. (1974). Path-goal theory of leadership. Journal of Contemporary Business, 3, 81-97.


About Dr. Jeffrey Yergler

Jeffrey Yergler spent 22 years working in senior leadership positions in large non-profit/sectarian organizations before moving to full-time academic instruction in 2007, at Olympic College. At Olympic, Jeff served as lead faculty for organizational leadership and resource management. In 2011, he joined GGU and teaches both undergraduate and graduate courses, also serving as the chair of the Undergraduate Management department. Jeff also serves as the Academic Program Director and the 2017-2019 Nagel T. Miner Research Professor.

Jeff is a principal for Integer Leadership Consulting, a firm that specializes in providing solutions and pathways that address leadership management training, executive coaching, team building, employee engagement, growing leaders in developing nations, and organizational culture and core values. He is also actively engaged in publishing book reviews and original research addressing the factors that build and sustain employee engagement.


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