Using Situational Leadership to Assess Competency

Oct 24, 2008
This article is part of a series called News & Trends.

We’re working with a fast-growing security software company whose CEO is using Blanchard and Hershey’s Situational Leadership model for their management development program.

Our part in this is developing a new method of assessing Managerial Fit when hiring from the outside. We all know that the development skills of the manager are critical in ensuring a new employee’s performance, so this might be something useful to consider whether you’re a recruiter or hiring manager.

In this same vein, using the concept of Managerial Fit and Situational Leadership might also be something to consider if your company is increasing its emphasis on internal mobility. It could help increase the number of top-performing current employees transferred into significantly different roles.

The concept behind Blanchard and Hershey’s leadership model is that the manager needs to adapt their style based on the current skills and developmental needs of the subordinate. The model categorizes management styles into these four levels:

  • S1 – Directing: providing specific guidance for the task with direct and immediate follow-up. This is useful technique for a subordinate who has little skills in the area of need and lacks confidence.
  • S2 – Coaching: providing an appropriate level of training and follow-up, but giving the subordinate some latitude in getting the job done. This is a very interactive two-way approach which is also useful where the subordinate needs external motivation to complete the task as well as some training.
  • S3 – Participating: the manager assigns the tasks, provides some direction, but leaves how the task is done up to the subordinate. This technique is appropriate for a skilled person who might need some support and guidance in getting the job done.
  • S4 – Delegating: in this case the manager assigns the tasks with the expectation that the subordinate will get it done with little follow-up. This is an appropriate technique to use when the person handling the tasks is fully competent and highly motivated.

The Situational Leadership model defines the developmental needs of subordinates into four broad categories based on competence, confidence, and motivation to do the work.

As you’ll see, these classifications are very-task oriented, so a person might vary in ability and motivation from strong to weak across all job needs. This requires a successful manager to adapt to the subordinate’s needs given the specific task.

This is critically important from a hiring perspective, since many candidates are hired without a clear understanding of real job needs.

Here’s a quick description of the four development levels of the subordinate:

  • D1 – Low Competence, but High Motivation. The person wants to do the work, but requires significant direction and training. An S-1 Directing style of management is best for this type of person.
  • D2 – Some Competence, but Lacks Motivation. The person can do the work, but needs external support to complete it successfully. An S-2 Coaching management style is appropriate here.
  • D3 – High Competence, Variable Commitment. The person can do the work, and is highly motivated to do most of it. An S-3 Participating Style is best here, with the manager providing support for tasks the subordinate doesn’t find satisfying or where the person lacks confidence.
  • D4 – High Competency, High Motivation. An S-4 Delegating is required here. The manager needs to provide minimal direction and follow-up. These people are the ideal hires for critical tasks where time is of the essence or where training is not available. However, too much direction and follow-up can be demotivating to the person, so the manager’s style is an important consideration when hiring someone at this level.

In some form, lack of Managerial Fit is often cited as the primary reason why new hires underperform. This is primarily due to the fact that most interviewers emphasize skills, behaviors, and generic competencies rather than motivation and specific competency to do the work. The Situational Leadership model offers a means to address this huge void.

Measuring manager fit can be relatively easy to assess if a performance profile is used when taking the assignment rather than a traditional skills and experience-based job description. A performance profile defines the top six to eight performance objectives required with the tasks classified into levels of importance.

For example, a critical task for a product manager might be to complete the product design spec with engineering and marketing within 90 days after starting. A less critical task might be to upgrade the product launch process within six to nine months. By categorizing tasks this way, candidates can then be assessed based on a competence, confidence, and motivation scale by task. Managers can then determine if their management style fits with the candidate’s development needs.

At the extremes an S-1 Directing style is a terrible fit if the candidate is an extremely competent and motivated D-4. Equally bad is the combination of an S-4 Delegating Style with a D-1 candidate who, while highly motivated, still needs lots of training and support.

Rather than describe each combination, here’s the 1-5 ranking scale we’re starting to use to better assess managerial fit:

  • Level 1 – Bad Fit: on the critical tasks the candidate’s development needs are inconsistent with the manager’s situational leadership style or time needs are too pressing.
  • Level 2 – Adequate Fit: the new employee is competent and motivated on some of the critical tasks and the manager is capable of supporting the new employee on the others.
  • Level 3 – Good Fit: the new employee is competent and motivated on most of the critical tasks at a D-3 or D-4 level and the manager is capable of properly supporting the employee on all of the other and less critical tasks.
  • Level 4 – Very Good Fit: there is a great match between the new employee’s developmental needs on all of the critical and non-critical tasks and the manager’s preferred situational leadership style.
  • Level 5 – Perfect Fit: not only is there a great match between the new employee’s developmental needs and the manager’s situational leadership style, but the fit enhances the capabilities of both from a team standpoint.

Download our sample 10-Factor Candidate Assessment template as a starting point and incorporate Managerial Fit as one of the 10 factors. Here are a few ideas on how you might want to begin assessing managerial fit:

  1. Complete a performance profile for the job and classify each objective as absolutely critical, somewhat critical, and less-critical.
  2. Determine the manager’s preferred or dominant manager situational leadership style for each task and if there is time for much training or coaching. If not, you’ll need to hire someone who can deliver the results with limited management direction. This is a critical issue, so don’t minimize this point.
  3. During the interview, get detailed examples of something comparable the candidate has accomplished for each critical task. This allows you to determine the developmental needs of the candidate for each task. Our two-question Performance-based Interview has been designed with this task focus in mind.
  4. Be very careful about hiring someone to work for a manager who is heavy on the Directing and Coaching style. Highly competent and self-motivated people are turned-off when given too much direction.
  5. Assess managerial fit using the above 1-5 ranking scale.

As a recruiter, I would expect my candidates to be a D3 or D4 on each critical task, unless the job allowed for sufficient training and coaching. In this case I would offset experience and high motivation with high potential and high motivation. I’d be OK recommending someone who was less motivated if the tasks were not critical to ultimate job success.

I’ve used this model in the past to walk away from certain assignments where I knew the lack of managerial fit was a recipe for failure. In this case it had to do with working with very dominant entrepreneurial leaders who were looking for top performers, but weren’t willing to give them the latitude to succeed. This is one of the reasons small companies never become big until the founder leaves.

Email me directly ( if you’d like to participate in a few trials on using Situational Leadership and Managerial Fit as the basis for better assessing competency. This is an important management development area that can be used not only for new hires, but also for increasing the success rate for employees transferred internally.

This article is part of a series called News & Trends.