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The Path Goal Theory of Leadership

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The term path-goal is derived from the belief that effective leaders clarify the path to help their followers get from where they are to the achievement of their work goals and make the journey along the path easier by reducing roadblocks and pitfalls (Robbins 2001, p. 229).

The path-goal theory developed by Robert House is based on the expectancy theory of motivation. The leader’s job is viewed as coaching or guiding workers to choose the best paths for reaching their goals. “Best” is judged by the accompanying achievement of organizational goals. It is based on the precepts of goal setting theory and argues that leaders will have to engage in different types of leadership behavior depending on the nature and demands of the particular situation. It’s the leader’s job to assist followers in attaining goals and to provide direction and support needed to ensure that their goals are compatible with the organizations.

A leader’s behavior is acceptable to subordinates when viewed as a source of satisfaction and motivational when need satisfaction is contingent on performance, and the leader facilitates, coaches and rewards effective performance. Path goal theory identifies achievement-oriented, directive, participative and supportive leadership styles.

In achievement-oriented leadership: Achievement- oriented leader sets challenging goals for followers, expects them to perform at their highest level, and shows confidence in their ability to meet this expectation. This style is appropriate when the follower suffers from a lack of job challenge. Achievement-oriented leaders express confidence that subordinates can reach these goals.

In directive leadership: Directive leaders let followers know what is expected of them and tells them how to perform their tasks. This style is appropriate when the follower has an ambiguous job. Directive leaders let subordinates know what is expected of them.

Participative leadership: Involves leaders consulting with followers and asking for their suggestions before making a decision. This style is
appropriate when the follower is using improper procedures or is making poor decisions. Participative leaders consult with subordinates about work-related matters and consider their opinions.

Supportive leadership: The leader is friendly and approachable. He or she shows concern for followers’ psychological well being. This style is appropriate when the followers lack confidence. Supportive leaders are friendly and approachable.

Path-Goal theory assumes that leaders are flexible and that they can change their style, as situations require. The theory proposes two contingency variables (environment and follower characteristics) that moderate the leader behavior-outcome relationship. Environment is outside the control of followers-task structure, authority system, and work group. Environmental factors determine the type of leader behavior required if follower outcomes are to be maximized. Follower characteristics are the locus of control, experience, and perceived ability. Personal characteristics of subordinates determine how the environment and leader are interpreted. Effective leaders clarify the path to help their followers achieve their goals and make the journey easier by reducing roadblocks and pitfalls. Research demonstrates that employee performance and satisfaction are positively influenced when the leader compensates for the shortcomings in either the employee or the work setting.

The Path Goal Leadership Theory was developed as another contingency approach to leadership. The Path Goal theory focuses on situation and leader behavior than the fixed traits of the leader. The theory attempts to explain the impact that leader behavior has on subordinates’ performance by clarifying behaviors that lead to desired rewards (goals).

The leader behavior influences the subordinate satisfaction with respect to the personal characteristics of the subordinate and also the characteristics of the environment. As mentioned earlier the two personal characteristics of subordinates are the locus of control and perceived ability. Locus of control refers to the individual perception of attribution of reasons to outcomes as internal (one’s own behavior) or external. For subordinates with internal locus of control a participative leader may be better suited because they feel that their own efforts make a difference. A directive leader is better for subordinates with an external locus of control (since they perceive their efforts to be of little consequence).

Perceived ability pertains to how individuals view their own ability with respect to the task. Subordinates who rate themselves as having high ability are less likely to need directive leadership.

The environmental characteristics are task structure, the formal authority system and the primary work group. The path-goal theory will motivate subordinates if it helps them cope with environmental uncertainty created by the environmental characteristics. In certain environments certain kinds of leadership becomes redundant like when working on a task that has a high structure, directive leadership tends to be redundant and hence less effective. Similarly, when subordinates are in a team environment that offers great social support, the supportive leadership style becomes less necessary. The subordinates’ motivation to perform will be influenced by the extent to which the leader behavior matches the people and the environment in a situation.

The path goal theory says that the behavior of leaders is used to stimulate the behavior of those below them. Leaders must be supportive and influential to be effective. They must teach, adapt and be supportive. They will do this by teaching their employees the competencies they will need to perform successfully and gain rewards, giving rewards to enforce their employees and support employee’s efforts.

What are the three challenges facing leaders today?The three challenges are leadership throughout an organization, leadership and rapid response, and leadership and tough decisions. Leadership throughout an organization should be maintained at every level. Each goal has its own goal and leader. Leaders must encourage leadership from everyone to empower individuals at all layers. Leadership and rapid response focuses on doing work at a fast amount of time. Leaders must train, share their authority and hire employees selectively. This will ensure rapid response to changes and opportunities. Leadership and tough decisions means leaders must not be afraid to make unpleasant decisions and do what is needed. They must do what is right for the company as well as following their personal morals and ethics.

Unlike the trait theories, path-goal theory focuses on the leader’s behavior instead of the specific traits of the leader. This theory draws on expectancy motivation theory, leadership behavior theory, and contingency factors. In order for a leader to be effective, he/she must “identify desirable rewards and make them contingent on performance, facilitate subordinate performance by using the appropriate leader behavior, and reduce frustrating barriers” (House, 1971, p. 1).

The basic tenet of the path-goal theory is that a subordinate’s motivation, satisfaction, and work performance are dependent on the leadership style chosen by their superior. (Frey, 2001) For example, if a leader is too autocratic and doesn’t allow his/her employees to participate in the decision-making process, they may be less likely to be motivated than if the leader allowed them some control.

House (1971) breaks these leadership styles into four categories: directive, supportive, participative, and achievement-oriented. According to Robbins (2001), directive leaders let employees know what is expected of them, schedule work to be done, and give specific guidance on how to accomplish tasks.” (p. 229-30). The supportive leader “is friendly and shows concern for the needs of employees.” (Robbins 2001, p. 230). The participative leader “consults with employees and uses their suggestions before making a decision.” (Robbins 2001, p. 230). Finally, according to Robbins (2001), the achievement-oriented leader “sets challenging goals and expects employees to perform at their highest level” (p. 230).

As previously mentioned, for the path-goal theory to be successful, the leader must tailor their behavior to the employee and the situation. A leader may exhibit any or all of these leadership styles depending on the employees’ personality and the situation being faced. For example, some employees may not work well under an autocratic (directive) leader, thus the leader may modify his or her behavior to fit the employee’s personality. Also, if the task has a short deadline, a leader may tend to use the directive style of leadership in order to get his/her employees to stay focused and on the task.

In relation to the Path-Goal Theory, communication issues can arise by utilizing the wrong leadership behavior. According to Robbins (2001), “Directive leadership is likely to be redundant among subordinates with high ability or with considerable experience” (p. 231). Therefore, if the leadership communicates in a directive style to employees who have twenty years of experience, they run the risk of insulting those employees. Communicating in the wrong way can greatly reduce motivation and increase resistance to the transition.

Leader Member Exchange TheoryLeader-member exchange deals with the way leaders treat subordinates. Most people have noticed that all subordinates are not treated equally. The theory states that leaders tend to divide their subordinates into an “in” group and an “out” group. Some of the characteristics of what determines which group you fall into are similarities in gender, age, or attitudes. The quality of the leader-member exchange or relationship was based on two things: similarity of the leader and follower extroversion. The findings suggest two things. One, that because those in the “in” group tend to perform better, then the leader makes the group more inclusive. The emphasis of the importance to be in the leader’s group is important for the followers. And this is accomplished by emphasizing your similarities not your differences.

According to Atkinson leader-member exchange (LMX) theory describes the role making process between a leader and an individual follower. It describes how leaders develop specific relationships over time with different followers. The basic premise behind the theory is that leaders and followers mutually define the follower’s role and, as they do so, leaders develop a separate exchange relationship with each individual follower. The exchange relationship usually takes one of two forms. According to the theory most leaders establish a special exchange relationship with a small number of trusted followers who function as assistants, lieutenants or advisors. These followers are then classified as being in the ‘in-group’. In the exchange relationship with the remaining followers, who are thought of as being in the ‘out-group’, there is relatively little mutual influence. The Key to the LMX theory is that there is a dyadic relationship between the leader and each individual follower (Beam, 1999).

For followers in the ‘out-group’ the main source of leader influence is legitimate authority in combination with coercive power and, to an extent, reward power. Leaders behave in a very ‘transactional’ way with followers in the ‘out group’. The basis for establishing a deeper exchange relationship with ‘in-group’ followers is the leader’s control over desirable outcomes for followers such as: assignment to interesting and desirable tasks, delegation of greater responsibility and authority, more sharing of information, participation in decision making, pay increase, special benefits, personal support and approval, and increased career opportunities. In return, however, ‘in-group’ members are expected to work harder than ‘out-group’ members and be more committed to the leader and to the task. Again there is a similarity with transactional leadership;Transactional leadership is based on an exchange between leaders and followers. It is effective because it is in the best interest of followers to do what the leader wants. There are four types of behaviors that are associated with transactional leadership: contingent reward, active management by exception, passive management by exception, and laissez-faire leadership.

Contingent reward behavior includes the clarification of what is expected of followers in order to receive rewards. Rewards, such as money and time-off, are used as incentives to motivate followers to perform. Management by exception refers to leadership that utilizes corrective criticism, negative feedback, and negative reinforcement. It can either be active or passive. A leader employing the active form of management by exception is always on the lookout for problems and takes corrective actions immediately following a minor mistake or rule violation by a follower. Such a leader is always acutely aware of what his/her followers are doing. A leader using the passive form does not monitor followers as closely, and only reacts to problems once they have occurred. Mistakes are only noticed and addressed once they become obvious obstacles to goal attainment. Laissez-faire leadership is descriptive of a leader who acts indifferently to followers and who is not concerned with the mission. This type of leader abdicates all leadership roles and responsibilities. Laissez-faire is often considered a non-leadership factor.

Although transactional leadership is effective in certain situations, there is increasing evidence that it is not an effective leadership model for achieving long-term objectives. Followers are motivated to perform certain tasks, contingent on rewards, but transactional leadership fails to motivate followers to perform beyond their basic job requirements. It is essential to understand that human behavior is often based on a series of exchanges, yet the transactional leadership model is too simplistic and offers no explanation for intrinsic motivation. Furthermore, although transactional leadership focuses on the exchange between leaders and followers, it is the leader who has the power and who controls the terms of the relationship. However in LMX, as an ‘in-group’ member become committed to the leader and the task, their motivation transcends an exchange of benefits.

The development of the leader-follower relationship has been described in terms of a ‘life cycle’ that progresses through three stages. The relationship commences with a testing phase in which the leader and the follower evaluate each others’ potential resources, and mutual role expectations are determined. Relationships that never progress beyond this level are those of ‘out-group’ members. During the second stage the mutual exchange arrangement is developed, and mutual trust, loyalty and respect are established. At the third stage, the ‘mature’ stage, mutual commitment to the mission replaces exchanges based on self-interests.

Relationships expanding beyond the first stage are considered those of ‘in-group’ members. Recent research on LMX theory has emphasized that leaders should try to establish high quality exchanges with all of their followers, not just with a few favorites. This does not mean that the leader has to treat all followers the same, simply that each follower should be made to feel as though he/she is an important and unique member of the team.

The leader-member exchange (LMX) theory depicts the relationships that exist between a leader and his/her followers. These relationships may result in creating either an in-group (who the leader empowers and involve in decision making) or an out-group (who are not in the leader’s confidence). The LMX theory, however, places the burden of responsibility of maintaining the leader-member relationship solely on the leader and does not take into considerations hidden agendas followers sometimes bring to the relationship. It is obvious that followers make a significant contribution to the leader-member relationship and as such leaders and followers both need to work to understand the good and bad about themselves and each other to improve the quality of leader-member relationships.


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Robbins, S.P. (2001). Organizational Behavior 9th ed. Prentice Hall: Upper Saddle River, N.J. p.229-231.

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