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A Situational Framework for Leaders and Learners

Great leaders want their team members to succeed and strive to treat them all fairly and equitably. But leaders who think that means they should treat everybody the same are doing their people a disservice. 

If you’re thinking: “But I have to use the same leadership style with everyone or it will look like I am playing favorites,” remember that everyone is at different development levels in specific areas of their job. Most likely, every team member has areas where you can simply delegate to them as well as other tasks or goals where they may need different amounts of support or direction from you.

For example, let’s say John and Jane are on your team. John is an ace at creating graphs and managing data on spreadsheets, while Jane is highly skilled in designing online presentations. Although you probably could delegate a spreadsheet task to John and walk away, he would need to begin at square one to learn presentation software. And Jane could sail through a design project with no trouble, but would need specific direction on how to create a spreadsheet. 


Leading and learning situationally


Let’s see how a leader might address this discrepancy by leading situationally.

Every person, when working on a given task or goal, moves along a continuum made up of four development levels. Their manager uses a situational framework to diagnose each person’s development level based on their competence and commitment on each task or goal.

Next, the manager matches the person’s development level on the task with one of four leadership styles. The matching style has the right combination of directive and supportive behaviors to help the person succeed at the task.

Here are the typical stages in the situational learning/leading process.  

  • A person has no idea how to do a task (low competence) but is excited to get started (high commitment). They are an enthusiastic beginner. They need a directing leadership style on this task to move forward.
  • Still early in the learning process (some competence), the person is feeling discouraged and insecure about moving forward (low commitment). A disillusioned learner on this task, they can benefit from a coaching leadership style.
  • When the person is finally getting the hang of things (high competence) but still needs occasional help (variable commitment), they are a capable, but cautious, contributor on this task. They would appreciate a supporting leadership style.
  • When someone is at the top of their game on a task, they have both high competence and high commitment. Now a self-reliant achiever, they will do best with a delegating leadership style.

Work isn’t the only place where this situational model can be successful. Think about an area in your own life where you could apply (or have applied) this process, and it becomes clear how versatile this manner of leading and learning can be.

One example we’ve used for years in training sessions at Blanchard is in regards to learning how to ski.

  • Starting out, your instructor shows you exactly how to put on your skis and move forward. You feel the thrill of starting down your first small hill, envisioning yourself easily mastering this fun sport. 
  • After your first lesson — and several falls — you realize skiing isn’t as easy as you had thought it would be. You feel inadequate and a little foolish, and think about quitting. Your instructor continues giving you specific direction and also encouragement.
  • Several more lessons go by. You are having more fun skiing and are practicing on more difficult runs. You know there is still much to learn, but feel optimistic about your progress. Your instructor helps you make decisions, answers your questions, and provides support.
  • With time and the right amount of direction and support from your instructor along your learning journey, you have achieved your goal of becoming a confident skier. 

Now think of how these stages of learning and leading might pertain to almost any task or goal you can think of — areas as diverse as learning to play a musical instrument, bake cookies or learn a foreign language. It could be used while coaching a team sport or helping children with their homework. Someone even told me this process helped them train their dog! How’s that for being versatile?

As an example of a way you can use this situational approach in your personal life, I wrote a book a few years ago titled “Fit at Last: Look and Feel Better Once and For All” with my fitness coach, Tim Kearin. In the book, we describe how Tim used this model to help me through my health and fitness journey. He kept track of my development levels on goals such as nutrition and weight control, aerobic exercise, strength training, flexibility, balance, and sleep, and he used all four leadership styles as needed. Tim’s ability to lead situationally played a huge part in my reaching my goals.

Let your people know you care about helping them develop their skills. Work with them to diagnose their development level on each of their tasks, and flex your leadership style to match by giving them the amount of direction and support they need to accomplish their goals. Your people, your organization, your leadership, and your life will be all the better for it! 

More info in https://chieflearningofficer.com/


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