People Management
9 min.

Situational Leadership, or How to Adapt to Your Team

Sarah Busque
Last updated on 26 Jul. 2023
Published on 13 Jun. 2023
Man drawing on floor around giant supermarket items

Great leaders are leaders who know how to adapt. In this post we’ll explore situational leadership and the qualities of the managers who adopt this practice.

Table of contents

Many people think of leadership as a personality trait, such as being extroverted or introverted. Nothing could be further from the truth!

Although some people are naturally charismatic or good at rallying people together, leadership is a skill that can be developed—just like any other behavioral skill, such as emotional intelligence, diligence or communication.

Leadership is not a gift from heaven that you may or may not be blessed with. Anyone can become a positive leader in their workplace, and beyond.

This post is your invitation to explore situational leadership and learn how to adapt your leadership style according to each situation. After reading the post, you will:

  • Understand situational leadership and its advantages
  • Be familiar with the 4 types of situational leadership
  • Develop the management skills needed to put it into practice

Introduction to situational leadership

As a manager, every day, you come up against staff-management challenges and a myriad of variables that you need to factor into your decisions. For example, each of your employees has:

  • A unique personality
  • An ego
  • A personal history
  • A different experience on the job market
  • A unique way of working and learning
  • Motivating or demotivating factors

By adopting situational leadership, you’ll be able to adapt your management to these variables. In other words, your actions will differ depending on the situation or task, in order to meet your team’s needs.

Understanding situational leadership

Managers who demonstrate situational leadership are able to better adapt to their work environment and the people they manage. This is an asset that every manager should strive to acquire as part of their skill development.

The situational leadership model takes into account an employee’s comfort level in performing a given task, or their ability and willingness to do so. This can vary according to how challenging the task is, for example. Consideration is also given to the degree of support, instruction, direction and guidance the manager must provide to enable the employee to accomplish the task.

Chart that explains the situational leadership curve

In turn, this flexibility enables the manager to address each situation using a leadership style that empowers team members. And each individual is able to realize their full potential.


Imagine you are the manager of an employee who has just been hired as a supermarket clerk. Given that they have little experience at the supermarket, you adapt your leadership style accordingly.

Before delegating the task of stocking displays to them, you take the time to show them how it’s done. For example, they have to remove the products on the shelves, add the new ones, and then finish up by putting the removed products back at the front.

During their first shifts, you’ll probably be supervising this employee more closely to make sure they’re getting along alright.

After a while, you will start to tweak your leadership style to match their comfort level with the task. Most likely, after a few weeks, you’ll stop paying attention when they are stocking shelves.

You might say that this is a trivial example, but it aptly illustrates how a manager can adapt to:

  1. The situation
  2. The task at hand
  3. The employee’s needs

What are the advantages of situational leadership?

Situational leadership has several advantages, including:

  • Enabling leaders to help along behavioral change
  • Improving and accelerating employee development
  • Teaching leaders how to interpret their environment and respond to it more effectively
  • Taking everyone’s influence into account

The 4 types of situational leadership

According to the Center for Leadership Studies, there are 4 types of situational leadership.

1. Telling (directive leadership)

When a manager uses this style, they mainly provide direction and clear instructions to the employee. The manager is the one who makes the decisions and oversees the process.

This type of leadership is useful when a team member requires close supervision.

👉 The leader provides a high level of direction and a low level of support to get the job done.

The supermarket employee mentioned above is a good example. Taking charge during an emergency or busy, complicated situation would be another.

2. Selling (persuasive leadership)

In persuasive leadership, the manager still makes the decisions, but provides their team with context and explanations. The aim is to get them to buy into the idea and to make sure that employees continue to develop.

This type of leadership is useful when a team member is ready to take on a task but doesn’t yet have all the skills required.

👉 The leader provides a high level of direction and a high level of support to get the job done.

By promoting two-way communication and highlighting small wins, the manager stimulates participation. This method also enables employees to develop and even improve their skills.

3. Participating (participating leadership)

A leader who demonstrates participating leadership helps a team member establish the next steps, thereby sharing in the decision-making process. It’s the employee who makes the decision, with the support of their manager. The aim here is to give an employee the autonomy to complete a given task.

This management method is particularly useful when an employee has the knowledge and skills to perform a task but is either reluctant or lacks the confidence to do so.

👉 The leader provides a low level of direction and a high level of support to get the job done.

Team members express their ideas and share their expertise, while the manager acknowledges good work to build trust.

4. Delegating (delegating leadership)

This type of leadership gives team members the most freedom; the manager delegates everything and the employee makes the decisions pertaining to the task at hand. Employees are even encouraged to suggest improvements to work processes and to help establish best practices.

Whether this leadership style is used with a team or an individual employee who demonstrates a high level of comfort and motivation, it is optimal for people who are already autonomous.

👉 The leader provides a low level of direction and a low level of support to get the job done.

The manager explains their vision and the results they expect, gives the team the means to achieve them, and then steps back.

The qualities of managers who demonstrate situational leadership

Unsurprisingly, each manager has their own comfort zone and will naturally gravitate toward one of the above management styles more than the others. This trend can even extend to the organization at large, since leadership style is an integral part of a company’s values.

In this context, becoming a leader who can adapt to situations effectively can be a challenge for managers. But you have everything to gain by working on it!

You’ll get the best results by adapting to your team.

You probably wouldn’t want your hairdresser to use the same dye or haircut for all their customers, would you? So don’t make the mistake of using the same leadership style with every member of your team. 💇‍♀️

It does take some effort to build these skills, but here are the 5 qualities to develop to become an outstanding situational leader.

1. Be flexible

Keep a close eye on changes within your team, in terms of tasks and throughout the organization. Adapt as things evolve, and you’ll be able to bring out the best in your employees. Your success is assured!

🎯 Putting it into practice: Mary seems to enjoy training new employees on your punch clock system and its many aspects. During your next one-on-one meeting with her, you tell her so. She confirms that she loves this training since it enables her to quickly help her new colleagues get up to speed. You suggest that she draw up a training plan that can be used by the entire team.

2. Practice active listening

Active listening is a golden quality for any manager. So, it’s not surprising that it’s a hallmark of situational leaders! Learn to be patient with your team and take the time to get to know your employees and their needs.

🎯 Putting it into practice: Imagine that there are no rooms for individual meetings in your restaurant, meaning you’re often interrupted during one-on-ones. You opt for one-on-one meetings outside the restaurant, in the form of a 30-minute walk. Goodbye distractions.

3. Provide clear direction

To support the needs of the company and your team, you need to know which direction everyone needs to go in, and the next steps required to move forward. Nothing is more uninspiring than a leader who gives vague, fuzzy instructions or who doesn’t seem to know what lies ahead.

So, be proactive and share information with your team on a regular basis. Some HR management software even lets you poll employees to make sure everything is clear to them.

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🎯 Putting it into practice: your franchise’s parent company is making changes to its dress code for the summer season. Take the time to read through it all, collect the clothes you’ve received and call your team together for a meeting. You’ll be able to explain what’s new, and employees will be able to ask questions, rather than having to find out about any changes from their colleagues.

4. Encourage participation

Creating a work environment where all employees feel comfortable contributing is paramount to situational leadership. Offer moments when they can share their ideas and experiences, and give you feedback.

Learn to delegate certain tasks, depending on your employee’s needs, level of autonomy and desire to develop their skills.

🎯 Putting it into practice: Your team meets every morning to draw up a game plan for the day’s tasks at your retail store. A certain recurring task is particularly boring and nobody ever volunteers to do it. Why not take advantage of the meeting to ask your employees how they think it could be made more enjoyable for everyone?

5. Hone your coaching skills

All good situational leaders need strong coaching skills that they can apply at different levels and to different roles at their company. These skills enable you to offer training to all members of your team, regardless of their needs or experience. You’ll be able to offer the right support for everyone.

🎯 Putting it into practice: Imagine that you own a pharmacy with a dozen employees. One of your clerks, a student, aspires to become an evening and weekend shift manager. Seeing their potential, you take some time with them every week to show them tasks that require greater responsibility.

Knowing how to adapt to help your team grow: a recipe for success

I hope this post will inspire you to become a leader who is able to effectively adapt both to your team and to the diverse situations that can arise at work. If there’s one thing I’d like you to take away from this, it’s that leadership is a skill that can be developed, no matter where you are in your career.

If you’d like to learn more about situational leadership, the Center for Leadership Studies is the go-to resource!

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