Business Leadership Today

The 4 Behavioral Leadership Styles


Matt Tenney, Author of Inspire Greatness: How to Motivate Employees with a Simple, Repeatable, Scalable Process

Being a leader comes with many challenges. Being a good leader can be even more challenging, especially for new leaders, but it is essential for keeping employees engaged in their jobs. 

With leaders playing such a significant role in engaging and retaining employees, the behaviors they model and the actions they take can profoundly impact the employee experience and, ultimately, the success of the organization.

For leaders to be effective, their behaviors should be informed by an organization’s culture, core values, and its employees. But how do leaders determine which behaviors will be best suited to their teams? To answer this question, we can look to behavioral leadership theory.

Behavioral leadership theory is a management philosophy that examines the behaviors and actions of leaders in the workplace and evaluates how they respond in certain situations. 

Rather than focusing on a person’s natural leadership attributes, behavioral leadership theory approaches leadership as something that can be learned and maintains that anyone can learn to be a leader. 

There are four main leadership styles that are based on two factors that were identified by an Ohio State University study. These factors are consideration (relationship behaviors, including trust and respect) and initiating structure (task behaviors, including organizing, scheduling, and overseeing the completion of work). 

The four behavioral leadership styles are directive leadership, supportive leadership, participative leadership, and achievement-oriented leadership. Each style has its merits and drawbacks. Leaders can utilize aspects of each style to better meet the needs of employees and motivate them to perform well. 

In this article, we’ll explore the four behavioral leadership styles and how they affect employees. 

Directive Leadership

Directive leaders provide clarity and coordinate work, informing their team members of what is expected of them. Directive leaders tell their team members what to do, how to do it, and when to do it.

This behavior leadership style is particularly effective in situations where workers are unsure about their duties or during times of uncertainty. It is one of the more common leadership styles, but it has become a less popular style in recent years. Author and executive coach Louis Carter explains why.

“With the evolution of work and job performance, people are less likely to be patient with a leader who uses a ‘command and control’ approach to leadership.”

While there may be certain situations where elements of this style of leadership can be useful, it can cause problems if the directive leader lacks expertise or if they treat their employees as little more than cogs in a machine.

With this style of leadership, the power rests almost solely with the leader. Directive leaders prefer giving directives because they may be unwilling to take suggestions from their teams. This can make employees feel marginalized and unappreciated.

It removes the vital element of feedback from the equation, which can hurt creativity, innovation, and collaboration. It can also make employees unhappy in their roles because this type of control often leads to micromanaging. 

Supportive Leadership

Supportive leadership is when leaders improve the employee experience by making the lives of their employees more pleasant. Supportive leaders are approachable, empathetic, friendly, and maintain an open-door policy to ensure healthy communication and a culture of feedback. 

Supportive leaders care about their workers and want them to thrive. They foster supportive cultures where workers feel valued. 

Supportive leaders demonstrate care and concern for employees, maintaining a high level of trust and treating employees with respect. This style of leadership is employee-friendly and good for engagement. 

Employees with supportive leaders feel valued, cared for, and heard. 

This leadership style is particularly effective in difficult times when employees look to strong leaders to help them navigate uncertainty. It can also be the ideal form of leadership when employees’ jobs involve work that is physically or mentally challenging. 

While this is a great form of leadership for leaders who want to maintain a culture of care and a welcoming work environment, some managers and employees may find that there is too much ambiguity with this style of leadership. 

It can create a situation where there is ambiguity in processes and even expectations, which can lead to employees not being able to meet goals or do their best work. 

It can also be a time-consuming process to lead in this way, and it requires a considerable amount of emotional intelligence and patience from leaders. This would not be the ideal leadership style for anyone who isn’t on board with normalizing setbacks and mistakes and viewing them as part of the growth process. 

Participative Leadership

Participative leadership, sometimes known as democratic leadership, involves employees in the decision-making process. 

Participative leaders are pro-participation and foster professional growth. These leaders delegate responsibilities, consult with and seek feedback from their teams, and use that information to drive decision-making and implementation of new policies, procedures, and processes.

Transparency is important to participative leaders, and they strive to ensure all team members are aware of how their roles fit into the organization’s bigger picture and how their work makes an impact. 

This is a good leadership style when you have a team of engaged, experienced, and highly-skilled workers who are invested in their work and motivated to perform well. 

The style of leadership can help employees meet their need for purposeful, impactful work and provides a healthy system of feedback that benefits both employee and employer. 

It can, however, slow decision-making since participative leaders try to include each team member in the decision-making process, creating a “too many cooks in the kitchen” scenario. 

While the intent may be to help employees feel included, some employees may not want to be a part of the process. There is also an increased chance of conflict with this leadership style.  

Achievement-Oriented Leadership

In achievement-oriented leadership, leaders foster growth by setting goals for employees that are challenging and encouraging employees to cultivate an attitude of continuous improvement. 

Achievement-oriented leaders have a bias toward results and top performance, and they ensure their employees have the tools they need to achieve the goals set for them. These leaders set high standards for their teams and provide clarity about objectives, help employees figure out ways to improve, and make goals easier to reach. 

This leadership style is well-suited to leaders who have highly engaged and motivated employees who work well with a high level of autonomy and have exceptional problem-solving abilities. 

However, this style of leadership can create a work environment where leaders focus on tasks and what their teams achieve, rather than focusing on team members. 

Some employees may feel that they are easily replaceable, which can cause them to disengage. This form of leadership can also stifle innovation, cause burnout, and lead to turnover. 

The Ideal Leadership Style

Each leadership style has its pros and cons. Leaders may find that the ideal style of leadership for them is a combination of the positive aspects of each of these styles, as they all have a few characteristics to recommend them. 

Supportive leaders are more likely to build trust and rapport with their employees, which are essential for improving the employee experience, engagement, and retention. 

Participative leadership behaviors can also build engagement and improve retention by helping employees meet their need for purposeful work. 

Achievement-oriented leadership, when done well, can inspire high performers and help your employees thrive. 

Leaders should be directive in times of uncertainty or shifting responsibilities when workers may need more clarity about their roles and responsibilities. But it is important to always remain supportive of staff and to maintain strong communication practices that include frequent feedback so that employees know their voices are heard.

Matt Tenney has been working to help organizations develop leaders who improve employee engagement and performance since 2012. He is the author of three leadership books, including the groundbreaking, highly acclaimed book Inspire Greatness: How to Motivate Employees with a Simple, Repeatable, Scalable Process.

Matt’s ideas have been featured in major media outlets and his clients include numerous national associations and Fortune 500 companies.

He is often invited to deliver keynote speeches at conferences and leadership meetings, and is known for delivering valuable, actionable insights in a way that is memorable and deeply inspiring.

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