Charisma and a way with words might propel some people into “leadership” positions, but once there, they have to hone their skills the old-fashioned way — by practicing. Similar to weight lifting, leaders must exercise their management muscles to support their employees.
In many instances, people adapt their management style based on their work-life experiences, says Paul Biwan, associate director for Oregon State University’s (OSU) Center for Learning and Organizational Development. Unfortunately, managers without a guiding framework for complex situations give employees mixed messages.
“When employees and supervisors are not in alignment, uncertainty around expectations prevents everyone from doing good work,” he said.
Biwan introduced farm managers to the “situational leadership” framework at OSU’s 2019 Small Farms Conference. Created by Paul Hersey and Ken Blanchard, the approach comprises two things: leadership style and the developmental stage of the employee. While it provides a matrix for “if an employee is this” then “the leader should do this,” situational leadership is a practice in adaptability. A manager’s ability to assess and select the appropriate leadership style — directing, coaching, supporting or delegating — increases the likelihood an employee will remain connected and engaged. Biwan thinks good managers provide clarity, enabling employees to perform meaningful and productive work.
In getting started, managers must take the time to learn about an employee’s strengths and experience.
“Getting to know an employee’s skills and comfort level with the work allows a manager to apply a leadership style that is a natural fit right from the start,” said Biwan.
Matching situational leadership styles with employee readiness
Hersey and Blanchard rate leadership styles as either supportive or directive behaviors. Supportive behavior is focused on motivational assistance for an employee, while directive behavior emphasizes technical help.
Depending on an employee’s level of experience, the manager picks a suitable leadership style, which is easier said than done. Only 54 percent of leaders are equipped to use one of the situational leadership styles, and less than one percent can use all four styles. Managers must practice how to be a coach or a delegator. It is not an inherent skill. Biwan recommends simple resources like podcasts that farmers can listen to while performing tasks.
“There are so many options available,” he said. “Anything that gets a leader to be more mindful and listening is going to be a big help.”
John K. Whitehead and Associates, a leadership coaching consulting group, provides a primer for matching the four leadership styles based on an employee’s readiness level:
1. Beginner employee situational leadership style: directing
When a direct report cannot do the job because the employee is unknowledgeable, the manager must spend more time offering clear instructions and regular follow-up. It is all about encouraging and motivating at this point: celebrating positive results and offering suggestions for less positive results.
2. Light experience employee situational leadership style: coaching
Coaching is for employees who have developed some competence along with an improved commitment. The manager can expand focus to the developing a relationship with the employee, building trust through encouragement. A significant time is spent listening, while there is less “telling” and more “suggesting.”
3. Moderate experience employee situational leadership style: supporting
Supporting addresses the employee who is now competent at the job, but remains somewhat inconsistent and is not yet fully committed. The manager needs to continue to check in to make sure that the work is being done at the required level, but the focus is now more on the relationships among the employee, the manager and the team.
4. High experience employee situational leadership style: delegating
When an employee feels fully empowered and competent and needs minimal supervision, delegating can occur. As a manager, you can now delegate tasks to the employee and observe with minimal follow-up. There is a low focus on tasks and a low focus on relationships, while continuing to praise for outstanding performance.
Applying leadership styles as a working manager
Biwan acknowledges how this mapping approach overcomplicates things. He prefers to frame situational leadership as a listen-first evaluation about a person’s readiness for a task or responsibility.
“Everything is informed and impacted by the quality of the conversations that take place,” he said. “For the manager, questions and good listening become the most important tools to map out a leadership style that is going to provide the best opportunity to support the employee in the moment.”
Most farm managers and leaders are coparticipators, tackling the long list of tasks that need to be performed. Being a working manager gets in the way of effective supervision by eliminating their most important resource: time. This limits their accessibility and decreases the likelihood of success of meeting the employee’s needs.
In addition, being overwhelmed is a big part of a farm manager’s reality. Biwan recommends setting three focus priorities for the week to ensure employees get the attention and leadership style necessary for the big things that need to be done.
“This helps guide managers back to asking questions that are in service to the priorities at hand,” said Biwan. Eliminating the clutter of a farm’s to-do list enables everyone to be in alignment and for managers to tailor support that is meaningful for their staff.
Perhaps the most important step managers can take in applying situational leadership is making it clear they are open and vulnerable. It is critical to be able to solicit employees for feedback on how to more effectively supervise them. Biwan maintains that managers will not be able to increase their effectiveness if they are unable to ask for feedback on how to be better supervisors.
“For a farmer, someone who’s likely held all of the responsibilities for a long time and has a massive emotional investment in the success of the farm, this can be incredibly hard,” he said.
Situational leadership is a big learning curve. Managers will find it difficult to refrain from micromanaging others, even if they believe they are providing good support. Biwan suggests coming back to asking employees: what am I doing that is getting in your way, and how can I really help you right now? A culture of permission for honest feedback, upward and downward, will provide the best opportunity for everyone to do their best work.