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What Is Situational Leadership?

December 03, 2021 Leadership
Kaya Ismail
By Kaya Ismail

In the post-COVID workplace, organizational leaders consistently find themselves in situations they may not have been accustomed to in traditional office environments.

While remote work isn’t necessarily new, the sheer volume of people working remotely has reached enormous levels. According to Upwork’s Future Workforce Survey, roughly 40.7 million people in the US are expected to be working remotely within the next five years. 

With so many people already working remotely, millions continuing to work from home, and legions of others heading into hybrid working arrangements, managers need to employ a variety of leadership styles to get the best results. One of these styles is situational leadership. But what is situational leadership exactly, and how does it fit in the remote and hybrid workplace?

Situational Leadership, Defined

Situational leadership as a management theory goes back several decades. The essence is that the way a manager leads a team should be determined by the current work environment they find themselves in and the task at hand. Adaptability is the key component of this leadership style, said Roy Morejon, founder of Charlotte, N.C.-based Enventys Partners.

“It’s mainly flexible leadership in the sense that you 'read the room' of your employees and then adapt your leadership style to whatever is suited at that stage or moment,” he said. 

Managers who use situational leadership recognize that every day can’t be the same. As Morejon explained, some days require leaders to be a good cop and other days to be the bad cop. Effectiveness is the ultimate objective. When deadlines are swiftly approaching and employees are in danger of missing them, the bad cop approach would be warranted.

In the case of hybrid and remote work, situational leadership requires managers to change based on specific scenarios. This approach can prove beneficial, particularly in a remote environment. However, managers need to be aware that remote and hybrid workers tend to prefer a high level of autonomy and have a strong aversion to micromanagement in many situations. That makes situational awareness even more important if managers are to avoid making common leadership mistakes. 

Related Article: 5 Leadership Mistakes in Remote and Hybrid Work

Assess the Organization's Comfort With Flexibility

Another thing to consider in employing the situational leadership approach is that some organizations aren’t accustomed to workplace flexibility. That's not to mention the individual preferences of workers and managers.

“There are also organizations where there are more structured types of individuals who prefer stability and consistency and they will find too much flexibility uncomfortable,” Morejon said. 

Banks and similar organizations won’t benefit from situational flexibility in the same way that a startup will, for example. Yet, since many businesses were forced to transition to remote work due to the pandemic, these hard and fast rules for specific types of organizations have been loosened, and managers should take that into account. 

That aside, one drawback of situational leadership is that it can lead managers to focus on short-term expectations for a particular time and neglect long-term requirements.

“Situational leaders may fall into the trap of focusing more on immediate situations and less on long-term growth concerns,” said David Bitton, chief marketing officer at DoorLoop, a rental property management software firm based in Miami.

Related Article: Take a Systems Leadership Approach to Change

How to Improve Situational Leadership Skills

Managers that want to improve their situational leadership skills can follow some of these tips:

Keep Emotions Neutral

“Maintain emotional neutrality to ensure that you approach an employee correctly,” said Bitton. A manager's responses to employees needs to be adjusted based on different scenarios. This means avoiding rash decisions when they're feeling overwhelmed or excited. Keeping emotions in check can help managers engage with employees better, depending on the scenario. 

Have Clear Communication

“Communication is critical to build trust and making sure milestones are achieved,” said Per Ohstrom, chief marketing officer at Houston-based Chief Outsiders. Communicating clearly to employees so nothing is lost in translation makes it easier to adjust as required. Developing coaching capabilities as a manager can aid in communication and help get the point across. 

Understand the Team

It's difficult to be a situational leader if a manager doesn't know the team. This means understanding each person’s core strengths, motivations and weaknesses. “Managers need to have a good understanding of each employees’ skill set and motivation to be able to manage them effectively,” Ohstrom said. Knowing the team allows the manager to create development plans tailored to each individual and help in long-term career development. 

Learn to Be Persuasive 

As a remote leader, you need to be persuasive if you want to adapt to each situation. For example, while remote workers might enjoy a certain level of independence and autonomy, you need to also present things to them in a way that gets them to buy into a different approach at times.

Be a Problem Solver

Problem solving is another key element of situational leadership. As things change and outcomes need to be more adaptable, leaders will need to fix emerging problems and resolve conflicts within the team. 

Given the flexibility and adaptability of remote and hybrid work arrangements, situational leadership can be an effective style, especially if leaders focus on improving their skillsets and engaging with their teams on shared goals. 

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