Establishing Situational Leadership at Your Business

Situational leadership is a common approach to motivating employees based on their mindset and characteristics. Implementing situational leadership encourages your staff to be more productive and overcome challenges. Read more about situational leadership and its importance for your business.



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What is situational leadership?

Situational leadership is a management theory that takes a holistic view of leading others in the workplace. Instead of identifying certain leadership methods as best practices across the board, situational leadership involves factoring in personal disposition, motivation, workplace environment and company culture to individualize management methods to each unique situation. 

Related: Leadership Coaching: A Guide for Managers


Assessing employee preparedness for situational leadership

The situational leadership model emphasizes that the success of leadership methods depends on how prepared a team is to execute a task. A strong situational leader should be able to lead a team to success, even if individuals have different readiness levels and willingness to participate. To help leaders assess employee’s preparedness, the situational leadership models identify four maturity levels that indicate the type of guidance an employee needs:

  • Low competence, high commitment (D1): D1 employees are coachable but uninformed. They don’t have the skills and knowledge to complete a task, but are willing and excited to learn.
  • Some competence, low commitment (D2): At D2, employees have a basic understanding of how to complete a project, but lack commitment and motivation.
  • High competence, mixed commitment (D3): D3 employees have a high level of expertise but don’t have the desire and motivation to achieve goals on their own.
  • High competence, high commitment (D4): D4 employees are skilled, educated and passionate. They have the ability to carry a project to completion with minimal outside input.

Some employees may be in multiple categories depending on the task they are working on. For example, a graphic designer may be a D4 employee when interpreting ideas into concept sketches, but a D2 employee when communicating with clients. Understanding where each of your employees falls on the situational leadership maturity scale for each of their key functions allows you to motivate them more effectively at each stage of a project.


Situational leadership categories

Situational leadership models have developed over the years, but most versions identify four main leadership styles that should be used in different situations:

  • Telling (S1): The telling technique involves giving specific instructions for how to complete tasks and providing consistent supervision and feedback throughout the project. Telling leaders set objectives and determine how to reach goals by assigning responsibilities to employees and enforcing specific benchmarks. 
  • Selling (S2): Selling leadership uses persuasion and communication to motivate employees to meet goals. Managers that use the selling technique focus on inspiring their team, encouraging discussion and employee cooperation to improve productivity.
  • Participating (S3): Managers use the participating style to empower employees to make decisions on their own. They offer overall guidance and mentorship while seeking regular input from their team. Participating leaders aim to give their team the support they need to use their skills effectively and make good strategic choices. 
  • Delegating (S4): The delegating method is a hands-off leadership strategy that puts a high amount of trust in employees. Team members take ownership and responsibility for their work, while the manager helps coordinate and connect employees with support and resources if necessary. 


How to identify the right leadership method

Each leadership style corresponds to the same number of maturity level. D4 employees are most likely to excel with the delegating strategy whereas D3 employees work best with the participating strategy. You can determine an employee’s maturity level by assessing their key skills during a performance review and comparing their knowledge and motivation to other personnel on your team.


When working with a large team, you’ll likely have many different maturity levels. Once you identify your most mature employees, use their motivation and skill to help inspire or teach less mature employees.

Related: Creating Programs For Leadership Development


Benefits of situational leadership

Situational leadership empowers both leaders and employees to leverage their current abilities to become more efficient. It creates long-lasting benefits for companies that are willing to be strategic about how they train and develop employees. Here are some of the best parts of situational leadership:

  • Flexibility: Situational leadership empowers managers to adapt to new situations and meet employees at their skill and motivation levels to produce the best possible result. Different personalities thrive with different levels of accountability and oversight. 
  • Professional development: Situational leadership techniques assess employee competencies and implement leadership techniques that help employees grow their skills and maturity. By outlining the type of guidance each category of employee needs, situational leadership sets up opportunities for effective career mentorship.
  • Culture building: Adaptable leaders set a good example for employees by taking an analytical and individualized approach to project management. When managers put effort into supporting their employees, they contribute to a supportive and positive company culture.


Characteristics of strong situational managers

Situational leaders need to have certain qualities to efficiently adapt their management techniques in the workplace. Some of the key characteristics of an excellent situational manager include:


Analytical thinking

The core of situational leadership is categorizing employees and leadership styles, which requires the ability to quickly and accurately analyze employee abilities. Great situational managers find consistent methods for assessing employees and applying leadership methods to unique situations.



Situational managers regularly communicate with employees about their expectations. If a manager wants an employee to self-regulate and maintain personal accountability without regular check-ins, they need to be clear about this boundary with their employees. Hands-on S1 management requires the ability to provide clear, direct instructions and explanations.



Organizing employees with different leadership needs requires strong organization and planning skills. Situational managers track employee performance, manage schedules and help employees coordinate their efforts.


Frequently asked questions about situational leadership


What are the four leadership styles of situational leadership?

Telling, selling, participating and delegating are the four key situational leadership styles. They can also be referred to as directing, coaching, supporting and guiding.


How do you use situational leadership?

Small businesses use situational leadership by observing employees and responding to their behavior with different levels of guidance and support.


What is an example of situational leadership?

Employee mentorship programs that pair new employees with experienced staff are an example of a situational leadership program because mentor-mentee pairs are highly individualized and develop methods for meeting employee performance goals.


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