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What is the Contingency Leadership Theory?

Updated on January 7, 2014

Contingency Theory of Leadership - Fiedler

F.E. Fiedler's Leader-Match Theory

In 1976, F.E. Fiedler wrote the below book, Improving Leadership Effectiveness: The Leader Match Concept, as a self-paced leadership training guide created to assist leaders to take control of a situation by altering the favourableness of the work scenario.

Contingency Theory Introduction

The contingency theory aligns the leader's style with the most constructive circumstances for his or her success. What are contingency leadership styles? How does the contingency theory work?

"Most social scientists interested in leadership have now abandoned the debate between person or situation in favor of a search for a set of concepts that are capable of dealing both with differences in situations and with differences in leaders" (Vroom & Jago, 2007, Pg. 20). Contingency theories conventionally were created. "Although several approaches to leadership could be called contingency theories, the most widely recognized is Fiedler's contingency theory" (Northouse, Peter, 2007, Pg. 75).

The basic idea behind the contingency theory as a "leader-match" theory is to align the leader's style with the circumstances most constructive for his or her success. This theory is called "contingency" because "it suggests that a leader's effectiveness depends on how well the leader's style fits the context" (Northouse, Peter, 2007, Pg. 75). "Fiedler's contingency model was designed to enable leaders to diagnose both leadership style and organizational situation" (Daft, Richard, 2008, Pg. 66). FIedler studied primarily military organizations, and other businesses in different contexts, in order to devise the contingency theory.

Fred E. Fiedler


Contingency Leadership Styles

"The cornerstone of Fiedler's theory is the extent to which the leader's style is relationship-oriented or task-orientd" (Daft, Richard, 2008, Pg. 67). A relationship-oriented leader is primarily concerned with people and interpersonal relationships. "As with the consideration style, a relationship-oriented leader establishes mutual trust and respect, and listens to employees' needs" (Daft, Richard, 2008, Pg. 67). The consideration style illustrates the degree to which a leader is concerned with reference to employees, esteems their thoughts and feelings, and creates reciprocated confidence. "Showing appreciation, listening carefully to problems, and seeking input from subordinates regarding important decisions are all excellent examples of consideration behaviors" (Daft, Richard, 2008, Pg. 46). The task-oriented leader is fueled by task achievement and reaching goals. "Similar to he initiating structure style, a task-oriented leader provides clear directions and sets performance standards" (Daft, Richard, 2008, Pg. 67). The initiating structure explains the degree to which a leader is task oriented and directs employees' work activities near objective realization. "This type of leader behavior includes directing tasks, getting people to work hard, planning, providing explicit schedules for work activities, and ruling with an iron hand" (Daft, Richard, 2008, Pg. 46).

The Contingency Leadership Theory

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Least Preferred Coworker

Fiedler measured leadership style by conducting a questionnaire known as the least preferred coworker (LPC) scale. "Leaders who score high on this scale are described as relationship motivated, and those who score low on the scale are identified as task motivated" (Northouse, Peter, 2007, Pg. 76). The least preferred coworker scale "has a set of 16 bipolar adjectives along an eight-point scale" (Daft, Richard, 2008, Pg. 68). Examples of these adjectives include: open vs. guarded, quarrelsome vs. harmonious, efficient vs. inefficient, self-assured vs. hesitant, gloomy vs. cheerful. "If the leader describes the least preferred coworker using positive concepts, he or she is considered relationship-oriented; that is a leader who cares about and is sensitive to other people's feelings" (Daft, Richard, 2008, Pg. 68). On the other hand, "if a leader uses negative concepts to describe the least preferred coworker, he or she is considered task-oriented, that is, a leader who sees other people in negative terms and places greater value on task activities than people" (Daft, Richard, 2008, Pg. 68).

Least Preferred Co Worker (LPC) Questionnaire by Fiedler


Leader-Member Relations


Contingency Situational Variables

"Contingency theory suggests that situations can be characterized by assessing three factors: (a) leader-member relations, (b) task structure, and (c) position power. These factors can be either favorable or unfavorable to a leader. Leader-member relations "refers to group atmosphere and members' attitudes toward and acceptance of the leader" (Daft, Richard, 2008, Pg. 68). Leader-member relations are considered good if the employees have confidence, are favorable, and relate well to their leader. In contrast, if the environment is unsociable and resistance exists within the group, the leader-member relations are defined as poor. Task structure "refers to the extent to which tasks performed by the group are defined involve specific procedures, and have clear, explicit goals" (Daft, Richard, 2008, Pg. 68). With high task structure, the situation is thought to be complimentary to the leader, and when low, the situation is less favorable. Position power "is the extent to which the leader has formal authority over subordinates" (Daft, Richard, 2008, Pg. 68). when the leader has little authority, position power is low. When the position power is high, the circumstances is measured to be positive for the leader. "Combining the three situational characteristics yields a list of eight leadership situations in Fiedler's Classification: How Leader Style Fits the Situation" (Daft, Richard, 2008, Pg. 69).

Contingency Theory

"Based on research findings, contingency theory posits that certain styles will be effective in certain situations" (Northouse, Peter, 2007, Pg. 77). Task-motivated individuals (with a low LPC score) will be effective in either highly favorable or highly unfavorable situations. "The task-oriented leader excels in the favorable situation because everyone gets along, the task is clear, and the leader has power; all that is needed is for someone to take charge and provide direction" (Daft, Richard, 2008, Pg. 69). If the circumstances are extremely poor for the leader, a huge deal of structure and task direction is desirable. On the other hand, relationship-motivated individuals are more successful in circumstances of moderate favor-ability. "The relationship-oriented leader performs better in situations of intermediate favor-ability because human relations skills are important in achieving high group performance" (Daft, Richard, 2008, Pg. 69). Good interpersonal skills, in a situation of intermediate favor-ability, can create a optimistic team environment, that will perk up employee morale, elucidate task structure, and create position power.

How Does Contingency Theory Work?

In order to use Fiedler's contingency theory, a leader needs to recognize two things. First, the leader should know whether he or she has a relationship- or task-oriented style. Secondly, the "leader should diagnose the situation and determine whether leader-member relations, task structure, and position power are favorable or unfavorable" (Daft, Richard, 2008, Pg. 69). "If an individual's style matches the appropriate category in the model, the leader will be effective; if the individual's style does not match the category in the model, the leader will be effective; if the individual's style does not match the category, that leader will not be effective" (Northouse, Peter, 2007, Pg. 79). Leaders will not be successful in all circumstances, according to the contingency theory. "If your style is a good match for the situation in which you work, you will be good at the job; if your style does not match the situation, you will most likely fail" (Northouse, Peter, 2007, Pg. 79). The contingency theory "can point to changes that upper management might like to make in a lower-level position in order to guarantee a good fit between an existing manager and a particular work context" (Northouse, Peter, 2007, Pg. 82).


Daft, Richard, L. (2008). The Leadership Experience (4th Ed.) Thomson Higher Education: Mason, OH.

Kang, Fan. (2009). Hersey & Blanchard's Contingency Model. Kang's Blog. Retrieved on January 24, 2010 from

Northouse, P.E. (2007). Leadership: Theory and Practice (5th Ed.). Sage: Thousand Oaks, CA.

Vroom, V.H., & Jago, A.G. (2007). The role of situation in leadership. American Psychologist, 62(1), 17-24.

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    • Michael S Cook profile image

      Michael S Cook 

      2 years ago from Laurel

      Well researched and thoughtful. Great introduction+ to this topic. I would point out that Blanchard's "Situational Leadership" is a variation on contingency theory. Since Blanchard's work is copyrighted -- and enforced -- someone wanting to include contingency theory/leadership in a training program could use some of the ideas in this article, rather than Situational Leadership, and keep themselves out of court.

    • Melinda Longoria profile imageAUTHOR

      Melinda Longoria MSM 

      6 years ago from Garland, Texas

      Thank you Adityapullagurla! I appreciate you stopping by today. ;-)

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      Very Interesting Hub


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