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Manage effectively by knowing the situation: The Whiteboard

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Richard Randall, founder and president of New Level Advisors
Richard Randall, founder and president of New Level Advisors - (Photo / )

I was recently asked to plan and facilitate a leadership summit for a group of managers at a college. One of the topics they wanted to explore is how to be a proactive manager without becoming a micromanager. It's an interesting question, which led me to show them a methodology that I think more managers should consider.

Some managers are very controlling and do micromanage their employees, getting involved in every little detail of how the work is done. Others can be quite the opposite, setting goals and delegating all the details to the employees, expecting them to figure out what to do. I’ve known examples of both and I’m sure you have, too.

The problem is that these modes of management don’t work well with all employees and tasks. Even with individual employees, it may be possible to delegate certain tasks, but disastrous to delegate others. Being micromanaged doesn’t seem so bad when you are learning a task, but it is beyond frustrating when you have mastered it.

A management methodology that deals with these issues is called situational leadership. The theory of situational leadership was first developed and published in 1969 in a textbook titled “Management of Organizational Behavior” by Ken Blanchard and Paul Hersey. It isn’t a new concept.

Ken Blanchard went on to gain fame for his 1982 book “The One Minute Manager,” co-authored with Spencer Johnson. In 1985, he published “Leadership and the One Minute Manager; Increasing Effectiveness through Situational Leadership” with co-authors Patricia and Drea Zigarmi. That is when the theory became widely accessible. But for reasons I can’t explain, almost every manager I speak with knows about “The One Minute Manager,” while most know little or nothing about situational leadership.

The situational leadership theory recognizes that we can’t use just one leadership mode. It depends on the specific task or project involved and the performance readiness of the employee, defined by his or her competence and commitment. Commitment is further defined as a combination of willingness and confidence on the part of the employee.

When someone is learning a new task, they lack competence. They have to be shown what to do. They need a little bit of micromanagement. As their skill and confidence improve, the manager can begin to let the employee make more decisions and perhaps begin proposing new or different ways to do the work. Employees who master a task and have full confidence and willingness are ready for delegation.

Managers trying to delegate to someone who lacks readiness are inviting trouble for themselves and the employee. Micromanaging one who has achieved full readiness creates the risk of frustrating, demotivating and even losing the employee.

It is important to reemphasize that situational leadership is task-specific. While I may delegate one task or type of task to an employee, I may be quite the micromanager on another until the employee begins developing competence and commitment. The idea is to develop the employee so that delegation is possible.

The notion that employees must adapt to the manager is turned on its head. It is the manager who must adapt leadership modes. And it is the wise manager who does just that, knowing that it is the best way to ensure both the employee and manager will succeed.

There is much more to situational leadership than I can fit in this column. Blanchard’s book is an easy read that fills in all the details. If you want to find that right balance between delegating and keeping your fingers in the details I highly recommend you consider situational leadership.

Richard Randall is founder and president of management-consulting firm New Level Advisors in Springettsbury Township, York County. Email him at info@newleveladvisors.com.

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