Contingency Theory and Organizational Leadership

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Concentrating on leaders themselves failed to provide an adequate overall theory of leadership. Hence, attention turned to other factors such as the group being led, the exchange relationship and the situational aspects of leadership. In contingency theories, the success of the leader is seen as a function of various contingencies in the form of subordinate, task, and/or group variables. The effectiveness of a given pattern of leader behaviour is contingent upon the demands imposed by the situation. These theories stress using different styles of leadership appropriate to the needs created by different organizational situations. No single contingency theory has been postulated. Some of the theories are Fiedler’s contingency theory and Hersey & Blanchard’s situational theory.

Fred Fiedler proposed the contingency theory for leadership effectiveness. This model contained the relationship between leadership style and the favorableness of the situation. Situational favorableness was described by Fiedler in terms of three empirically derived dimensions: the leader-member relationship, which is the most critical variable in determining the situation’s favorableness; the degree of task structure, which is the second most important input into the favorableness of the situation; and the leader’s position power obtained through formal authority, which is the third most critical dimension of the situation. Situations are favourable to the leader if all three of these dimensions are high. In other words, if the leader is generally accepted and respected by followers, if the task is very structured and everything is ‘spelt out, and if a great deal of authority and power is formally attributed to the leader’s position, the situation is favourable. If the three dimensions are low, the situation will be very unfavourable for the leader. Through the analysis of research findings from all types of situations, Fiedler was able to discover that under very favourable and very unfavourable situations, the task-directed or authoritarian type of leader was most effective. However, when the situation was only moderately favourable or unfavourable, the human-oriented or democratic type of leader was most effective (Luthans, 2005).

The relationship between the leader and group members is more of an internal matter. It is reflected in the degree to which the leader is accepted, and members are loyal to that person, and in the affective reactions of members to the leader. Good leader-member relations are reflected in a highly positive group atmosphere. Task structure refers to the extent to which rules, regulations, job descriptions, and policies–role prescriptions–are clearly and unambiguously specified. It is easier to lead in highly structured situations because structured tasks are enforceable. Position power is a measure of the legitimate authority and the degree to which positive and negative sanctions are available to the leader. Like position power, task structure is derived from the organization. In the contingency theory, leadership style is measured using the LPC score, which in turn measures the level to which an individual perceives his least-preferred coworker. LPC measure can be interpreted as a measure of psychological distance, motivational orientation, cognitive complexity, and a hierarchy of primary and secondary motivations. The high LPC individual (who perceives his least–preferred coworker in a relatively favourable manner) is often a person who derives his major satisfaction from successful interpersonal relationships, while the low LPC person (who describes his LPC in very unfavourable terms) derives his major satisfaction from task performance. (Fiedler, 1967, p. 45). In many of the studies that Fiedler had done up to that time, measures of these three variables were already available or could be inferred from the circumstances or conditions. For example, the interpersonal ambience was sometimes measured with a “group atmosphere” scale consisting of semantic differential scales such as friendly-unfriendly, cooperative-uncooperative or enthusiastic-unenthusiastic (Chemers, 1997). The second factor, task structure, could be determined through the objective parameters of the task. Hunt (1967) developed a scale for assessing the degree of formal power in a leadership position. The leader’s authority to reward and punish followers and the leader’s expertise for judging subordinate performance were central to the position power measure. These three variables were ordered in terms of importance, with leader-member relations being the most important and position power the least. However, these three factors are not the only ones that determine the leader’ situational control and influence. Other studies have pointed to situational stress as affecting the leader’ control; cross-cultural studies have shown that linguistic and cultural heterogeneity also play a major role in determining leader control. And leader experience and training also increase control. Chemers (1991) recently argued that cultural values must be included as a moderating variable in any grand contingency theory of leadership. Factors like follower needs and expectations, leadership prototypes and behaviours, task characteristics such as uncertainty have dramatically different implications in different cultural contexts (Chemers, 1997).

The implications of the contingency model were dramatic and profound. The findings meant that the idea of one universally effective leadership trait or style was a myth. Effective leadership was an “if-then” proposition, with some leaders being effective in some situations but not others. It was also quite clear that leadership, like other social psychological phenomena, was dependent on a subtle set of interpersonal relationships rooted in a particular context of task and authority.

The basic view of low LPC persons as task-oriented and high LPC persons as relationship-oriented was eventually found to be not entirely satisfactory. Although the two leader types usually behaved in ways consistent with the task and relationship designation, there were studies in which, at least in some conditions, the low LPC leaders showed more considerate behaviour, whereas the high LPC leaders were more structuring. To account for these discrepancies, Fiedler (1972) proposed a motivational hierarchy interpretation of LPC. Fiedler suggested that leaders might have a primary motivation and a secondary motivation. Under demanding conditions where it is not clear that all needs will be satisfied, people are motivated to focus on their primary goals, that is, task goals for the low LPC leaders and relationship goals for the high LPCs. However, in very favourable situations when the satisfaction of primary needs seems assured, people have the psychological luxury to pursue secondary goals, and low LPC persons become more relationship-oriented, whereas high LPC leaders seek task accomplishment.

An excellent review and analysis by Rice (1978) helped to clarify the nature and meaning of the LPC measure. He found that the LPC score, itself a judgment of a coworker, was most strongly related to other kinds of judgments made by the leader. For example, whereas high LPC persons were generally more positive in their judgments of other people, low LPCs were more positive in their judgments of people who contributed to task success, such as good coworkers and loyal subordinates. When asked to describe the kind of persons who were their least preferred coworkers, high LPCs depicted persons who might be disruptive of interpersonal relations, whereas low LPCs described a poor worker, that is, one who is stupid, careless, or slow. When comparing the two types of leaders on judgments of their groups and task environments, low LPCs were found to be more complex, more accurate, and more optimistic when discussing aspects of group life related to task accomplishment, whereas high LPCs were more complex, more accurate, and more optimistic about the interpersonal environment.

A broad reading of the contingency model literature brings the following conclusions. First, the LPC construct reflects the relative degree to which a person in a leadership position values and strives for task or interpersonal success and the extent to which they employ relatively task-focused structuring and directive behaviour to achieve those goals. Second, each of these types of leaders has variable success in attaining high levels of group productivity, and organizational performance depends on the degree to which the leadership situation provides the leader with a sense of predictability, certainty, and control. Task-motivated leaders perform significantly and consistently better in situations in which the leader has either very high or very low levels of control, whereas the relationship-motivated leader performs best in situations of moderate control.

In situations of high control, a leadership style that creates high expectations for performance in a structured and goal-directed atmosphere, without undue pressure, is likely to be quite successful. The task-oriented leader feels relaxed and at ease in this situation because primary goals are likely to be met. The task-motivated leader can keep the group moving forward with an emphasis on performance that results in continued attention to goal attainment. The relationship-motivated leader in high control may become bored or distracted. The things that he or she is interested in, such as being liked by others, are already attained, and the skills that are well developed, such as participative problem solving, are not really necessary.

A much more complex and ambiguous environment is present in situations of moderate control. The intermediate level of the dimension involves a mix of variables that both enhance and diminish predictability and control. The leader might have a support group but a very unclear and unstructured task. Conversely, the task might be quite well organized, but interpersonal relations are problematic. If a leader faces a situation with strong follower support but an unclear task, the task-oriented leader will be very effective. On the other hand, if the task is clear, but the difficulty is created by an uncooperative or unmotivated group, the relationship-oriented leader will be effective.

The low control situation presents the leader with a task that is not well understood, to be solved with a hostile and uncooperative group in conditions of limited authority. Here, the task-motivated leader can provide at least a minimal amount of organization to the situation to get the group moving forward. The relationship-motivated leader, in an attempt to consider all angles and everyone’s concerns, may end up wheel spinning without progress.

In each of the situations, the task- or relationship-motivated leader is likely to behave in particular patterns based on deeply held and long-practised inclinations. Whether one style or another will be effective depends on the demands of the specific situation. Leader behaviours interact with situational demands to produce high or low group performance. However, other potential explanations of the contingency model place less emphasis on the objective effects of the situation and more emphasis on the leader’s “phenomenological” experience of the situation.

The first extensions of contingency theory into the domain of leadership dynamics involved changes that were introduced by training and increased experience. The primary consequence of training in organizations is to increase leader influence and control through improved leader-member relations, task structuring, and position power. Such changes are equally likely to shift an individual into a good LPC–situation match.

The contingency model had a pervasive impact on the field of leadership and social psychology almost immediately. However, the work was not without its detractors. Although Fiedler recognizes that there is indeed criticism of his conclusions, he maintains that “methodologically sound validation studies have on the whole provided substantial support for the theory” (Fiedler and Mahar, 1979). Fiedler’s theory was the first visible leadership theory to present the contingency approach. It emphasized the importance of both the leader’s characteristics in determining leader effectiveness. It stimulated a lot of research, including tests of its predictions and attempts to improve on the model, and inspired the formulation of alternative contingency theories.


Chemers M. M. (1991). The cultural universality of contingency approaches to leadership. Presented at Academy of Management meeting. August, 1991. Miami Beach, FL.

Chemers, M. M. (1997). An Integrative Theory of Leadership. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. Mahwah, NJ. 1997.

Fiedler E. F. (1972). “Personality, motivational systems, and the behavior of high and low LPC persons”. Human Relations, 25, 391-412.

Fiedler, E. F. (1967). A Theory of Leadership Effectiveness. McGraw-Hill. New York, 1967, pages 13-144

Fiedler, E. F. and Mahar, L. (1979). The Effectiveness of the Contingency Model Training: A Review of the Validation of Leader Match. Personnel Psychology, 1979. p. 46

Hunt J. G. (1967). “Fiedler’s contingency model: An empirical test of three organizations”. Organizational Behavior and Human Performance, 2, 290-308.

Luthans, F. (2005). Organizational Behavior: Tenth Edition. McGraw-Hill Publication. New York. 2005

Rice R. W. (1978). “Construct validity of the least preferred coworker”. Psychological Bulletin, 85, 1199-1237.

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