What Is Path-Goal Theory? Definition, Types and Tips
There are many leadership styles that managers and business leaders can use to provide guidance to others. In the path-goal model, the leader changes their leadership based on the situation and people within it. If you're a leader or manager, learning more about the path-goal model can help you improve your leadership skills. In this article, we explain what path-goal theory is, explore the different types, detail how you can use this theory and offer helpful tips for using this theory.
What is path-goal theory?
Path-goal theory is a type of leadership model that assumes it's ideal for a leader to adjust their approach based on the situation. This model specifies how a leader can react to different situations depending on team members and the environment. A leader using this model assesses their team members by measuring their skills, learning about their preferences and understanding their competencies.
The leader also assesses the environment by considering the group and the structure in which it operates. After considering both team member and environmental factors, the leader can choose between achievement-oriented, directive, participative and supportive approaches to a situation. This leadership style also requires the leader to focus on motivation factors, including potential distractions and obstacles to success.
Types of path-goal theory
When you use the path-goal model, you choose a leadership approach based on your team members and the environment. These are some different leadership styles within the path-goal model:
With this type of leadership style, the leader focuses on encouraging excellence by setting challenging goals. Leaders encourage employees to pursue their highest level of performance and the leader trusts their ability to handle this. The leader encourages employees to display excellent work achievements and be continually improving. Employees who are comfortable working fully independently and have strong problem-solving skills are suitable for this type of management.
In directive leadership, the leader provides employees with clear guidelines for the processes and expectations for them, and how they can perform tasks. This style of leadership aims to reduce ambiguity in job functions and clarify work functions to give employees high certainty regarding procedures, policies and rules. The relationship between performance goals and rewards, including pay increases and promotions, is defined to avoid ambiguity and confusion. With this style of leadership, leaders closely supervised employees, which makes it most appropriate for inexperienced employees who need guidance and to be checked on regularly.
This type of leadership behaviour involves consulting with employees on decisions related to work, task goals and paths to reach goals, enabling the employee to be directly involved in the decision-making process. This typically results in the employee exerting greater effort to achieve the goals they selected. Leaders use this style of leadership when employees are highly involved or have specialist knowledge. In these situations, their insight can be invaluable to the leader.
With supportive leadership, the leader pays attention to the needs and well-being of employees and makes work pleasant for them by being friendly and empathetic. Leaders who operate under this style treat employees with respect and offer support when needed. This management style is particularly useful when employees have personal problems or need a boost in motivation or confidence.
How to use the path-goal leadership model
When using the path-goal model, your goal is to adjust your leadership style for each team member to optimise their performance. These are some steps you can follow to use the path-goal leadership model:
1. Learn more about your team members
As a leader, ensure you understand your team members and know how each of them functions so you can adjust your approach to their specific needs. Some team members are more independent than others, while others may prefer more leadership and guidance. These are some factors to consider when assessing your team members:
need for leadership
preference for structure
desire for belonging
type of motivation
Related: 10 Common Leadership Styles
2. Assess the environmental factors
While team members may consider disposition, leaders may assess the environmental factors that can contribute to the path-goal leadership process so they can adjust their approach. As a leader, aim to provide a leadership style that supplements the working environment to optimise performance. For example, if the environment has many rigidly structured tasks, then a more supportive leadership style may be appropriate. These are some factors to consider when assessing the environment:
Authority systems: Authority systems are formal policies and regulations that instruct team members on what to do. If the formal authority system isn't highly structured, it may be beneficial for the leader to use a directive leadership style.
Task structure: This refers to how much structure a team member has when beginning a task. If there's a clear process in place for completing tasks, there's a rigid task structure.
Work groups: A work group is a collection of team members who function together. When a team member doesn't receive much support from others within the group, it requires the leader to provide more support.
3. Determine which style is best for the situation
After assessing both your team members and the environment, you can determine which leadership approach is best. These are the four you can choose from:
Achievement: This style is most effective in professional work environments, such as scientific or technical, or achievement environments like sales, and often works with employees who have a low need for affiliation or who are comfortable working independently. It also works well for employees who prefer less structure and who have a high belief in their own abilities.
Directive: This style works well for employees who prefer structure and who have an external locus of control, meaning they believe external factors manage events that occur to them. It also works well for employees who lack confidence in their own abilities.
Participative: The participative style works for team members who aren't as independent as others. When you use this theory, meet regularly with employees to discuss goals and come up with a strategy together for how you can achieve those goals, then encourage employees to provide feedback to you regarding progress.
Supportive: Supportive is most effective in situations where relationships and tasks are physically or psychologically challenging. Supportive leaders focus on creating a warm and friendly environment and showing employees they're friendly and approachable in the event of a problem or concern.
4. Centre motivational factors in your approach
A leader's goal is to motivate a team and help each member optimise their performance. These are some factors a leader can consider when choosing and implementing a leadership style within this model:
Goals: Leaders ensure the goals, deadlines and quotas for each team member are clear.
Rewards: The leader ensures there's a reward for each task or project.
Obstacles: Effective leaders strive to remove all obstacles to success.
Direction: A leader provides clear and concise direction for tasks.
Coaching: An effective leader offers coaching and guidance while team members complete tasks.
Tips for using goal-path theory
These are some tips you can use when implementing this theory:
Use this theory during training. The path-goal model can be a beneficial approach when training new team members. You can use this approach to identify different training needs and adjust your style to meet them.
Develop your leadership skills. Strong leadership skills can help you display several leadership styles linked to the theory. This includes communication, active listening, conflict resolution and time management.
Ask team members for feedback. If you're unsure how to improve your leadership, consider asking your team for feedback. They may provide you with the specific information you can use to become a better leader.
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