Assess 3 work environment parameters and apply leadership tendencies

Tom Moriarty says know yourself so that you can lead your team.

By Tom Moriarty

A fellow by the name of Fred Fiedler and his associates developed this thing called the Contingency Theory. The basic premise of the theory is that a leader first must understand leadership style tendencies, assess three work environment parameters, and determine how to best apply those leadership tendencies in the workplace environment.

Within Contingency Theory there are two leadership style tendencies: task-oriented and relations-oriented. Task-oriented folks prefer to have structure and control, whereas relations-oriented people are more permissive, less structured, and more considerate of individual needs. Fred and his associates developed a measurement tool — Least-Preferred Coworker — that allows a leader to self-assess and to determine which style he is biased toward. Rarely is anyone wholly biased toward task or relations; most people have a blend of both but will favor one over the other. Persons that are being led also have these tendencies. Looking at the workplace from this perspective it’s easy to understand why there are often disagreements and misunderstandings among the control freaks and the free spirits.

Once you assess yourself, the next part of the Contingency Theory is to evaluate three criteria about the workplace environment to determine the level of situational control. Leaders who have situational control have a high degree of confidence that directions to team members will be carried out. If a leader is not able to exert control or influence, there’s no confidence that tasking will be carried out.

Fred and his associates identified three components that relate to situational control:

  • position power: the extent to which the leader has legitimate or official power inherent in the leader's organizational position
  • task structure: the extent to which directions or tasks are defined and resourced
  • leader-member relations: the degree of trust, respect and confidence between a leader and subordinates and the motivation level.

Improving situational control is enhanced by knowing your leadership style tendencies (task- or relations-oriented), identifying where the deficiencies are, and managing your tendencies to improve situational control.

I recommend that position power be addressed first. Make sure your team understands that you have and will exert your authority to consistently maintain good order. If you are relations-oriented, know that you need to strengthen this aspect of your leadership. If you have strong position power, then you will have the fortitude to compel compliance. You shouldn’t have to use power all the time, but your team should understand that the power is there, and that it will be used when needed.

Tom Moriarty, PE, CMRP, is a former Coast Guardsman having served for 24 years; an enlisted Machinery Technician for nine years, then earning a commission through Officer Candidate School, retired as a Lt. CommanderTom Moriarty, P.E., CMRP is president of Alidade MER. He is a former Coast Guardsman, having served for 24 years; an enlisted Machinery Technician for nine years; earned a commission through Officer Candidate School; and retired as a Lt. Commander. During his final year of service, 2003, Tom was selected as the U.S. Coast Guard’s Federal Engineer of the Year; an award sponsored by the National Society of Professional Engineers (NSPE). He is a member of the Society of Maintenance and Reliability professionals, the past Chair of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME), Canaveral Florida Section, and a member of the ASME Plant Engineering and Maintenance (PEM) Division. He has a B.S. in Mechanical Engineering from Western New England College, and an MBA from Florida Institute of Technology; Professional Engineer (PE) licensed in Florida and Virginia, Certified Maintenance and Reliability Professional, various credentials in management and reliability fields. He can be reached at

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Once you’re certain that the position power is well established, the next place to focus is on the task structures. People need to know exactly what is expected; they need to know how to meet those expectations; and they need the tools and resources so they can perform to expectations. Again, if you are relations-oriented you will need to focus on developing structure and measuring conformance.

Position power and task structures will allow the team to move from chaos to control; this leads to consistent performance. Consistent performance is necessary, but not sufficient, to achieve high performance.

With position power and task structures in place, the leader can focus on leader-member relations. Leader-member relations are where the control and consistent performance can be leveraged to achieve high performance. If your tendency is a task-oriented style you will need to work on learning and applying “soft skills.” The primary path to improving leader-member relations has to do with establishing and maintaining a motivating environment. Motivating environments happen when trust, empowerment, and development opportunities are present for the team members.

Issues between management and labor can result in reduced or eliminated trust — the result of difficult collective bargaining negotiations, downsizing of the workforce or benefit cuts. Even when leader-member relations were strained by issues above the mid-level manager’s or supervisor’s pay grade, it’s up to these leaders to initiate improvements. The leader typically must assume some amount of risk by taking the first steps to create or improve the motivating environment.

This is very similar to a new business venture. An entrepreneur invests in starting up a business, hoping customers will buy what is being offered. Like an investor in a business venture, leaders should do their homework, understand what they are good and not good at, know their prospective customers, and target their offering to their customer. There’s no assurance that the product or service will sell, but you have to initiate business, see how you do, and make adjustments to stay on top of your customer’s needs.

Read Tom Moriarty's monthly column, Human Capital.