Fiedler's Contingency Theory

Technical Details

Name(s): Fiedler's contingency theory
Author: Fred Fiedler
Classification: Contingency Theories
Year: 1958 in his work Leader Attitudes and Group Effectiveness

Pro's

  • The theory is extremely well researched, given the stated parameters.
  • For a "thumb-in-the-wind" approach to identifying leaders, Fiedler's contingency theory can assist enormously:
  • Leaders with good personal relations are matched to a poorly structured task environment.
  • For leaders who are impersonal, they are placed in well task structured environment.
  • Because this is a contingency theory, it is inherently more flexible than a "one takes all" theory.

Con's

  • LPC scale is subjective, and characteristics are relative in contexts.
  • Even according to Fiedler, the LPC score is valid only for groups that are closely supervised and does not apply to "open ones" such as teams.
  • It is questionable whether Fiedler's contingency theory is valid in all situations, such as when neither the task is well defined and no choice of leaders is to be had, except ones with bad personalities.

Overview

Fiedler's contingency theory is one of the contingency theories that states that effective leadership depends not only on the style of leading but on the control over a situation. There needs to be good leader-member relations, task with clear goals and procedures, and the ability for the leader to mete out rewards and punishments. Lacking these three in the right combination and context will result in leadership failure. Fiedler created the least preferred co-worker (LPC) scale, where a leader is asked what traits can be ascribed to the co-worker that the leader likes the least. As an example [1]:

Uncooperative 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 Cooperative
Unfriendly 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 Friendly
Hostile 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 Supportive
Guarded 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 Open
........ 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 ........

Discussion

Fiedler's contingency theory is a qualification or type of contingency theory. Contingency theories in general state that the effectiveness of leadership depends upon the situation, and there are numerous factors, such as the nature of the task, leader's personality, and make-up of the group being led. For a more comprehensive discussion of contingency theories in general, see Contingency Theories.

To provide meaning to Fiedler's contingency theory it is necessary to focus on at least one aspect of the leader-led situation, although such a focus only highlights an issue, rather than giving a complete description of the situation.

Fiedler's contingency theory emphasized the leader's personality, or psychological disposition, is a main variable in her/his ability to lead, and said that how the group receives the leader, the task involved, and whether the leader can actually exert control over the group are the three principle factors that determine how successful the leader-led arrangement will be. Thus, the values from the least preferred co-worker (LPC) are added and then averaged to produce the score. A high LPC score, as can be seen from the example, exhibits a positive orientation towards human relations. S/he gets along with people. The nature of the task is less important and issues in doing it may be compensated for with good human relations. When the environment is such that each group member is independent, such as in a scientific setting, tasks may not be all that well defined, and a leader must rely more on her or his personality to accomplish goals.

On the contrary side, the low LPC score, the respondent relies on the nature of the task to drive leadership. The task has to be well defined or manageable, or the leader will be in trouble. In natural disasters or survival situations, tasks are not always well defined or prioritized well. Human relations are vital. A classic scenario is depicted in William Golding's Lord of the Flies, where kids are stranded on a deserted tropical island and ultimately fall into fighting with each other. While they are youth, they exhibit many basic human qualities that emerge under duress. Situations, where tasks are structured such as in most blue collar environments or the military, a personable leader isn’t as much of a required. Orders come to "do it, or else", and while cultivating a following based on personality never hurts, it is not a requisite, except when authority becomes overbearing, such as in tyrannical situations.

Leaders who have a low LPC scoring (task-oriented) are effective, regardless of whether the factors are highly favorable or not. Also, they will act in a more assertive manner. With high LPC scores (relations-oriented) are more effective when the three factors are middle-of-the-road. Fiedler claimed that the LPC scores could be used to identify the appropriate leader for a situation. If a leader is able to control the tasks to be done, leader-led situations, and have power, the leader can create a favorable leadership environment.

Critique

The vagueness of the parameters in the LPC scale makes them open to interpretation and they are context-free. For example, "supportive" could mean anything. Giving criticism can be supportive, but in whose eyes? A leader who is egotistical may not see any criticism as supportive. As with any surveys, one must ask how dynamic are they? Personalities and judgments of them change over time and with circumstances. Survey research is notoriously inaccurate, as Gabriel Almond found four decades ago [2], and modern survey techniques are very sophisticated, albeit fraught with problems. The proof of a theory is its ability to predict, but if the terms are vague enough, just about any prediction will do. As somewhat of a sidebar, controversies about "prophets" such as Nostradamus abound, but the fact is that his predictions were so general that many could be deemed accurate. Horoscopes are beset with the same difficulties, as the traits are so general that just about anyone would qualify as having those about any day and in the right circumstances - which also are usually described in vague terms.

Future of theory

The LPC model appears very much like a Bayesian weighting scheme that might be integrated into a social networking model to test organizational integrity. However, the parameters would need to be quantified, and a research instrument tested. The ways in which such models can emerge is suggested by the diagrams of those giving their renditions of Fiedler's contingency theory and applications.

As with any theory, research awaits concerning how this theory might be compared or integrated with others, such as the Leader-Member Exchange, where a leader maintains leadership through working with her or his supporters. This involves more of an analysis of the particulars of group dynamics. There can be a refinement of the LPC with the Leadership Participation Inventory which identifies characteristics of a leader that followers admire and would cause them to follow.

This discussion would not be complete without a reference to a validation of the personality traits by cognitive neuroscience. We said earlier that refinement of these terms should be done, but their validation via brain scans, while sounding quite futuristic, is not out of the question, given developments in the field. The Trait Theory and Philosophy of Leadership articles entertain this ideas.

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