A group of five chefs in white jackets stand in a modern kitchen. The chef in the middle of the group, a woman with dark hair pulled back into a ponytail, is speaking while holding an electronic tablet. The other four chefs watch her. The kitchen is equipped with stainless steel equipment, including sinks, a few pots hanging from overhead vents, and a small glass-fronted refrigerator; in the foreground are a few stainless steel containers filled with vegetables.
The Situational Leadership framework outlines four styles of leadership that can be used to respond to specific situations you may encounter in the workplace. — Getty Images/Maskot

Studies have shown that there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to leadership that best suits every organizational need. Leaders who take a top-down, command-style approach may miss opportunities for innovation, but achieve greater productivity. Those who rule by consensus may see greater employee engagement, but slower business growth.

The best leaders are those who are able to respond to the moment, adapting their leadership style to different situations, contexts, and business needs. Adapting your leadership style can help your company navigate a fast-changing business environment, embrace change, and keep your employees motivated. Here’s how to think about leadership as your company goes through different stages of growth.

What is the Situational Leadership model?

Situational Leadership refers to a framework by Paul Hersey in 1969 that allows leaders to adapt their behaviors to suit the unique needs of each situation. The framework provides four leadership styles that can be used to respond to a specific situation. These four options are:

  • Style 1: Telling, Directing, or Guiding.
  • Style 2: Selling, Coaching, or Explaining.
  • Style 3: Participating, Facilitating, or Collaborating.
  • Style 4: Delegating, Empowering, or Monitoring.

Each style is best suited for a particular context. For example, telling your team what to do would be appropriate for a crisis situation, training, and any short-term tasks. “This is a short-term approach intended to create movement,” wrote The Center for Leadership Studies.

The Situational Leadership framework asks leaders not only to consider the context but also the needs of their team. For instance, if you’re working with an employee who is highly skilled but insecure in their role, you may decide to use the participating leadership style to encourage confidence and risk-taking.

[Read more: 10 Business Leadership Styles and What They Mean]

How to put Situational Leadership into practice

The first step in adapting your leadership style is to take stock of your business goals, natural leadership tendencies, and the needs of your employees.

The most common need to adopt a different leadership style comes from a change in circumstance.

GBS Corporate Training

Small businesses go through five stages of growth, from startup to survival to growth to take-off and maturity, according to research from Harvard Business Review. Understanding where your business is within that cycle can help you determine which style might be most effective. For example, companies in survival mode may need more of Style 2 leadership, while mature businesses could benefit from innovations resulting from Style 3 leadership.

Likewise, most business owners have a natural tendency toward one style over the others. You may need to develop new leadership skills in order to properly address a new context.

“Take the time to write out a self-evaluation. Describe what you think your leadership style is, making sure to include strengths and weaknesses, as well as how you believe others see you,” wrote Janine Schindler in Forbes. “Ask a trusted colleague to write a similar evaluation of you.”

Comparing these two evaluations can show you where you may have a skills gap to address.

[Read more: 5 Leadership Skills to Learn: Train Yourself to Lead]

Finally, consider the needs of your individual employees. Some employees may have more experience than others, and therefore place more value on leadership styles 3 and 4. However, if you’re a new or seasonal business, you may have lots of new faces who don’t yet have confidence in their work. These instances call for more supervision and a hands-on approach.

Knowing when to adapt your approach

Your employee’s work style, your business goals, and your personal approach are all relatively predictable factors that can inform your leadership style. But what happens when something external — such as a natural disaster, supply chain disruption, or global pandemic — starts to impact your business?

“The most common need to adopt a different leadership style comes from a change in circumstance. Identifying the need for leadership style changes is crucial, however, it’s also essential that you take your time and let the situation unravel before making any decisions,” wrote GBS Corporate Training. “Change is something that many people struggle with, so keep your team in mind when you consider any style changes and remember that no one knows everything.”

Responding to a crisis could mean changing your leadership style, but remaining consistent in your communication helps keep everyone on the same page. Be open and transparent about changes to your approach to ensure your team is engaged and motivated to follow your lead.

CO— aims to bring you inspiration from leading respected experts. However, before making any business decision, you should consult a professional who can advise you based on your individual situation.

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