The Keys to Situational Leadership

By Plum Cluverius, MA/ABS, PCC

Have you ever been at a loss about how to approach an employee who isn’t performing the job satisfactorily?  If so, you’re not alone. I’ve coached dozens of leaders, including two clients this month, who are struggling to find the right way to handle this situation.

One client has an employee who has the knowledge and skills to tackle a critical task but never seems to find the time to get it done right.  There is always something more urgent calling him away.  The second client’s employee is new on the job and is unable to handle the rapid turnarounds the job demands. The employee is now feeling discouraged and uncertain.

Although these two employee issues may seem at first blush to be miles apart, there is a leadership tool that can help both my clients (and perhaps you) determine how best to respond in a way that offers the maximum chance to move these employees toward being fully functioning and responsible.  This tool is called Situational Leadership® and it has been around since the 1950’s.  Developed originally be Paul Hersey and Ken Blanchard, this simple (but not easy) tool is still proving its effectiveness despite a changing workforce.

The idea behind Situational Leadership® is that employees are at different development levels depending on the task and need different amounts of leader direction and support for each development level.  Development levels are determined by how competent the employee is as evidenced by their demonstrated knowledge and skills and how committed they are (meaning how confident they are in their ability to complete the task and how important they think that task is).

There are four basic development levels:

D1 = low competence, high commitment

D2 = relatively low competence, low or variable commitment

D3 = relatively high competence, low or variable commitment

D4 = high commitment, high competence

These are matched by four leadership styles:

S1 = high direction, low support

S2 = high direction, high support

S3 = low direction, high support

S4 = low direction, low support

Arden Coaching

A good way to illustrate this is to think about someone who is learning to play an instrument.  When they begin taking lessons, the student obviously lacks the knowledge and skills to play the instrument but often they are really motivated and excited about learning.  The correct approach for the teacher is to give them clear instructions, set goals, monitor their playing and correct mistakes, without focusing so much on praise and encouragement (S1).

Once the student starts playing the instrument and learning how much they need to master, it’s easy to get discouraged even though their skill is actually developing a little bit.  The best approach here is to continue giving clear instructions and making corrections while at the same time praising them for what they are doing well and encouraging them to see how far they’ve come (S2).

As the student becomes more and more competent, there oftentimes comes a point when they are actually ready to perform by themselves, yet they are afraid they aren’t ready to put themselves out there.  If the teacher gives a lot of direction here, it doesn’t get to the heart of the issue.  The student knows what to do but lacks confidence in themselves.  Listening, encouraging, asking good questions that help the student reframe their situation and joint problem solving are the best approaches here (S3).

Finally, if the student keeps working at it, they reach a level of mastery where they need very little guidance or encouragement.  The motivation comes from within. This is where very little direction or support (S4) is needed from the teacher.

As my clients are learning, this approach relies on a correct diagnosis of the employee’s development level. The two ways to determine this is by asking (exploring with the employee what development level they have for this task) and observing.  This model’s biggest advantage is that it takes a lot of the guesswork out of determining what to do once the leader knows the correct development level.  It also puts the focus where it belongs, which is on the employee, rather than the leader reacting in a way that’s comfortable for her or that is the norm in the organization’s culture.  In my opinion, this is why Situational Leadership® is as useful today as it was when it was created.


For more detail on working with your employees and Situational Leadership, consult with Plum on the specifics of your situation.