​​​Fiedler’s contingency model is designed to determine the effectiveness of a team based on its leadership and unique set of circumstances. The model provides organizations an efficient way of identifying the leaders best suited to take charge of any single group.

Edward Fiedler, professor emeritus of management and organization at the University of Washington in Seattle, created this model in 1976.

Since then, Fiedler’s contingency model has undergone rigorous testing by countless researchers. An abundance of related academic literature has been published. For each context a manager attempts to apply the principles of the model, a corresponding study can likely be found.

Aspects of Fiedler’s Contingency Model

The model assumes two different kinds of leadership styles – task-motived leadership and relationship-motivated leadership. The group’s circumstances are calculated using three metrics:

  • The relationship between the team and its leader
  • The structure of tasks and how well-defined a team’s goals are
  • The ability of the team’s leader to influence members via punishment or reward

By altering specific variables, Fiedler’s contingency model allows managers to maximize the efficiency of the groups they manage.

According to the model, there is no strict, objective standard when it comes to leadership styles. Different leaders can excel in different situations. Matching the correct leader with the correct team is the goal of the model.

For instance, under Fiedler’s contingency model, a leader that lacks interpersonal skills can still thrive so long as the group is well-structured and has succinctly stated goals.

The effectiveness of a group is seen as the aggregate sum of the three variables measured by the model. When one variable falls short, it can be compensated for by capitalizing on the strengths of the other variables.

Because a leader’s personality is generally fixed according to this theory, Fiedler’s contingency model relies upon molding the situation to suit the leader. The term for this action is job engineering. Providing members of groups with additional training is another method that can be used to improve the group-leader relationship.

The first and most important step in applying the model is to determine a leader’s style of leadership. For this purpose, Fiedler developed a scale referred to as the Least-Preferred Co-Worker (LPC) Scale.

The scale asks team members to consider someone they least enjoyed working with, whether it be a colleague, former teacher, or another professional encountered elsewhere.

The scale contains sixteen different personality traits. Participants are asked to rate each trait on a scale from one to eight, with one being the most negative and eight being the most positive. The scale includes traits such as friendliness, loyalty, sincerity, trustworthiness, and so on.

Fiedler’s contingency model asserts that lower LPC scores indicate task-oriented leadership styles, whereas higher scores indicate relationship-oriented styles.

Leadership Styles and Fiedler’s Contingency Model

Leaders that lean toward task orientation will do well in groups that allow them to supervise well-defined, specific tasks in a setting that allows them to exercise a significant degree of control. Task-oriented leaders tend to thrive when difficult but clearly defined tasks have to be accomplished according to a strict deadline.

By contrast, relationship-oriented leaders have the ability to utilize their interpersonal skills to create a group that functions well in spite of complex issues, vague goals, or poorly defined task structure. Relationship-oriented leaders can manage or avoid conflict and foster cooperation among team members.

Due to its nature as a contingency model, the theory doesn’t assume to have all the answers. The versatility of Fiedler’s contingency model arises from the fact that it attempts to provide accurate approximations rather than objective standards. This allows it to be adapted to a wide range of group-leader dynamics.   

According to the model, the most important dynamic in any group is the relationship between its leader and its members. The success of a team will function according to the quality of this relationship. When a leader can trust his or her employees, the employees will reciprocate that trust and engage tasks with a loyal, cooperative disposition.

When overall interpersonal dynamics are positive, a leader with sufficient interpersonal finesse can get creative and find solutions to goals even if they have not been well-established. When a leader fails to gain the full trust of his or her team and doesn’t have the same level of communication competency, a more authoritarian approach can make up for those losses.

Summary of Fiedler’s Contingency Model

Overall, this model can help managers tremendously. Rather than learning by trial and error, which can cost valuable time and possibly damage relationships, it becomes possible to make educated guesses when assigning leaders to groups. Taking into account a few simple factors about the nature of the group and the characteristics of a potential leader can lead to smooth sailing where there otherwise might have been troublesome tides.

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