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Path-Goal Leadership Theory

What is the Path-Goal Leadership Theory?

A Leadership Theory proposed by the American psychologist Robert House. The Path-Goal Theory contends that the leader must motivate subordinates by: (1) emphasizing the relationship between the subordinates' own needs and the organizational goals; (2) clarifying and facilitating the path subordinates must take to fulfill their own needs as well as the organization's needs. House's theory also attempts to predict the effect that structuring behavior will have under different conditions.

Based on assumptions from Vroom's Expectancy Theory, this model explains how behavior of the leader causes expectancies/motivations in the subordinate that create effort and satisfaction. The rationale is that followers will perform better if they think they are capable, and if they perceive the work will get results and be worth the effort.

In choosing which of the leadership behaviors to use, two variables influence the choice: the subordinate's characteristics, and the characteristics of the task. The leader behavior is contingent on these characteristics, making this a situational leadership theory. No one leadership behavior works for motivating every person and the leader supplies what is missing to motivate the follower. After this initial assessment of the follower and the task, the leader then helps the follower define goals and then reach them in the most efficient way. Leaders may even adapt their styles with an individual during the completion of a task, if one part of the job needs a different motivation from another.

Although it is a complex and sometimes confusing theory, it reminds leaders to continually think of their central purposes as a leader: to help define goals, clarifies paths to get there, remove obstacles that may exist, and provide support and encouragement for achievement of goals. Most of the responsibility is on the leader however, and there is little emphasis identified for the follower. Some argue this kind of leadership may be counterproductive over time, resulting in learned helplessness.

According to House, there are four types of leadership styles depending on the situation.

Four Styles of Leading Subordinates

  1. Directive Leadership. The leader gives specific guidance of performance to subordinates.
  2. Supportive Leadership. The leader is friendly and shows concern for the subordinates.
  3. Participative Leadership. The leader consults with subordinates and considers their suggestions.
  4. Achievement-oriented Leadership. The leader sets high goals and expects subordinates to have high-level performance.

R J House, 'A Path-Goal Theory of Leadership Effectiveness', Administrative Science Quarterly, vol. XVI(1971), 321-38

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