21 May, 2018

How to Get the Best from Your Project Team with Situational Leadership

Situational Leadership is a simple and compelling idea. If you want to get the best from someone, choose a leadership style that suits the situation.

I almost don’t need to write any more… Done.

But, if you want more, here it is. You need to assess what the situation is, and you need to pick the correct style from a variety of choices.

PMI Talent Triangle - Leadership

And that’s what this article is all about. I’ll show you what matters most about the situation, and what your choices are.

Your pay-off will be huge.

You’ll have the skills to give people the leadership they will want, need, and value. In turn, this means they will give you the results you will want, need, and value. So, for a project manager, situational leadership is the key to to getting the best for your project, day-to-day.

Let’s get started…

Get the Best from Your Project Team with Situational Leadership
Get the Best from Your Project Team with Situational Leadership

No History or Theory of Situational Leadership Here

I love telling the story of the history of situational leadership, and the ideas that underpin it. But do you know what? Most working Project managers like you don’t have time for that.

No; you want reliable results. And you want them quickly.

So, this article offers you a simple formula that is easy to apply, and works well.

If you want more – and there really is a lot more to know – we have a full course: Day-to-Day Project Leadership that Gets Results. More on that later in this article.

By way of introduction, here is a video from our Project Management in Under 5 Minutes series…

How to Figure out What Someone Needs

If situational leadership means picking the right leadership style, the first step must be to work out what each person needs.

There are loads of factors to sift through. But, once again, I want to keep things as simple as possible for this article. This means sticking to the two most important.

But, I don’t want to over-simplify. So, to alert you to the range of factors, I’ll use a framework championed by Robert Tannenbaum and Warren Schmidt, in their article for the Harvard Business Review: How to Choose a Leadership Pattern.

Factors relating to you: the Project Manager

  • Your style, values, and experience
  • How you assess the risks
  • Your confidence in the people around you

Factors relating to your Team Members

  • Their confidence and enthusiasm for the task at hand
  • How much relevant experience and expertise they have
  • Relative preference for autonomy or following instruction

Factors relating to the Immediate Situation

  • The nature of the problem, and the time pressure you’re under
  • Organizational culture, policies, and processes
  • How effective your team are as a group

A Simple Assessment of What People Need

To create a simple model for situational leadership, we need to cut through all those factors, and find the ones that make the biggest difference. And I’m not the first to observe that he most important factors relate to the person you want to lead.

You need to know and understand each of your team members by getting to know them individually. This is one of our Four Essentials of Project Team Leadership. In the immediate situation, the first two of our factors will dominate your thinking:

  1. Their confidence and enthusiasm for the task at hand
  2. How much relevant experience and expertise they have

The third, their preferences and all the other nuances that make them who they are, will qualify your choices and add subtleties to the simple model I’ll show you.

I prefer to remember these two factors as:

  1. Attitude
  2. Ability

So, your first step in situational leadership is to perceive the levels of attitude and ability that someone has, towards the task you want to allocate to them. This perception is the first skill (of five) of situational leadership.

The Cycle of Learning and Development

As soon as you start thinking about attitude and ability, you can start to map out how they progress, as we learn and bcome more comfortable with a new type of task Again, keeping it simple, this gives us four stages.

Stage 1: Enthusiastic but Inept

If your your team member doesn’t know what they don’t know, they tend to show enthusiasm and confidence for a novel and therefore interesting new task. So, you can think of them as having:

  • A positive attitude, marked by confidence and enthusiasm
  • Low levels of ability for a task they’ve never tried

We often describe this stage as ‘Unconscious Incompetence’.

Stage 2: First Steps to Learning and Shaken Confidence

Once they start learning a complex task, they will start to realise it’s not as easy as they thought. They are likely to make mistakes and suffer setbacks. This will dent their confidence and maybe shake their enthusiasm. Now they are characterized by:

  • Lowered attitude, with failing confidence and reduced enthusiasm
  • Ability little changed, while they struggle to understand the task

We often describe this stage as ‘Conscious Incompetence’.

Stage 3: Persistence Leads to Developing Skills with Highs and Lows of Confidence

As the learner persists, their skills gradually increase. So does their confidence. But as they also stretch themselves, they will have successes and failures, leading to highs and lows of enthusiasm and confidence. At this stage, they have:

  • Considerable and growing ability
  • Variable attitude that can swing from positive to depressed with each triumph or setback

We often describe this stage as ‘Conscious Competence’.

Stage 4: Mastery Leads to Confidence and Enthusiasm

Once we master a task, by sticking with it, not only do we no longer need guidance, but we know it. Now, we are keen to take it on and do it well, with no self-doubt or hesitation. Fnally, you can think of the learner as:

  • High ability, because they are capable and skilled
  • Highly positive attitude of confidence and enthusiasm

We often describe this stage as ‘Unconscious Competence’.

We can summarize these four stages with a simple diagram

The Cycle of Learning and Development
The Cycle of Learning and Development

Four Situational Leadership Styles for Four Learning Stages

I promised to keep this guide simple, so I’ll cut straight to the substance.

We have four stages of learning, each with a different balance of attitude and ability. So, you will need four styles of leadership, each addressing that different balance.


You can address low attitude with high levels of support, to motivate enthusiasm and generate confidence. If these are high, then you only need to offer low levels support. But, crucially,

Low support: not no support.


Likewise low levels of ability demand that you offer high levels of instruction; clear and direct guidance on what to do and, sometimes, how to do it. As someone grows in their ability, offer lower levels of instruction. But, once again:

Low instruction: not no instruction

Therefore, the second skill of a situational leader is to adapt to the needs of the person you are leading. Taking these together, we can summarize the four styles of leadership with a simple diagram.

Four Situational Leadership Styles
Four Situational Leadership Styles

Stage 1: Guiding an Enthusiastic Beginner

It’s often tempting to be supportive to enthusiastic beginners, but you don’t need to be. Your time is better spent elsewhere, or saved for when they need support later on. But, what you do need to do is give them clear guidance on what to do and how to do it. And offer your instruction in small, bite-sized chunks, to minimize the risk of failures that will put them, you,or your organization at risk. Let them start to learn for themselves, while limiting the opportunities for error to acceptable risk.

I’ll call this style of Instructing.

Step 2: Supporting a Nervous Beginner

When you are dealing with someone who doesn’t have confidence or is not enthusiastic, it’s often because they have realized how ill-prepared they are, for the task. So you need to give them clear guidance, and also act in a supportive way to boost their confidence and motivation.

I’ll call this style of Persuading.

Step 3: Helping a Hesitant Learner to Develop

Once someone understands the basics of what they need to do and how to do it, they don’t need anywhere near as much instruction. Indeed, if you offer too much, you’ll stifle their learning. You’ll also send the wrong messages about trust. But, if they aren’t yet a master of their task, they will have setbacks or suffer from anxiety about their performance. This requires high levels of confidence-building support.

I’ll call this style of Assisting.

Step 4: Leaving a Confident Expert to Succeed

If you are leading someone in doing a task for which they are well-prepared, you can apply a very light touch. Their experience and expertise means it would be, frankly, insulting to give instruction. All you need is to define what you need accomplished, the standards to which you need it, and the deadlines and budget. Likewise, if they have a lot of knowledge and skills, they will likely know it. So they will be confident in their abilities and need little support, beyond knowing where to find you if they have questions, and a willingness to offer feedback and praise at the end of the task.

I’ll call this style of Entrusting.

Three More Skills of a Situational Leader

This article covers a part of our Day-to-Day Project Leadership that Gets Results course. In that course, we also cover in detail three more skills. These are also an essential part of situational leadership. However, to keep this article to a sensible length, we’ll only discuss one here. And, once again, I’ll stick the the essential minimum you need to know, to make situational leadership work for you, day-to-day.

That skill is partnering. The other two are feedback and goal-setting, but I’ll aim to cover those in some detail in other articles, in the future. So, to summarize, the five skills of a situational leader are:

The Five Skills of Situational Leadership
The Five Skills of Situational Leadership

Partnering for Situational Leadership

Let me be as clear as I can:

Don’t do situational leadership to people

Rather, you need to form an alliance with them. This means explaining what you are doing and why. Share your assessment of their level of ability and their attitude. Then show how this leads you to select a balance of support and instruction that fits their needs. Check that they understand your thinking, and are happy with it.

Then, critically, fulfil your commitment, by offering the amount of support and instruction you promised: no more and no less.

Obviously, keep an eye on how well your approach is working. Adaptability (the first skill) means nothing if you cannot adjust your approach if it is not working the way you hoped it would.

Learn More about Situational Leadership

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Day-to-Day Project Leadership
Day-to-Day Project Leadership

I was once a new project leader.
So, I know the challenge of going from a delivery role to your first leadership role. It doesn’t matter how good you are at doing stuff: leading a project – and the people on it – is something new.

Learn How to Select and Apply the
Right Leadership Style for Every Situation

Learn more about our exceptional new course.

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What are Your Thoughts about Situational Leadership?

This article has been a whistle stop tour through one of the most valuable and powerful toolsets I know of to help Project Managers lead your people. When I learned this, it made a transformational change to how I worked as a team leader and – crucially – to the results I got from my team. You may have come across these ideas in different forms. There are at least two published models that use the same principles, but each with its own, different, terminology.

But what are your thoughts? Do you like these ideas, have you tried them, what questions do you have?

As always, I’ll respond to anything you write in the comments section below.

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Mike Clayton

About the Author...

Dr Mike Clayton is one of the most successful and in-demand project management trainers in the UK. He is author of 14 best-selling books, including four about project management. He is also a prolific blogger and contributor to ProjectManager.com and Project, the journal of the Association for Project Management. Between 1990 and 2002, Mike was a successful project manager, leading large project teams and delivering complex projects. In 2016, Mike launched OnlinePMCourses.
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