In 1958, Robert Tannenbaum and Warren Schmidt published a model of leadership explaining the different ways that leaders interact with their followers. The model is a continuum that showed that, at one end of the spectrum, a leader can have nearly total freedom to decide while, at the other end of the spectrum, the team can have nearly total freedom to decide. In-between these two extremes, Tannenbaum and Schmidt identified 7 types of leadership style. Knowing these style options and being able to apply them to a workplace situation correctly is a useful skill in effective leadership.
What are the 7 approaches on the Tannenbaum and Schmidt Continuum?
Here are the 7 different leadership approaches, starting with the far left end of the spectrum.
1. The Leader Tells. This approach is typified when a leader says: “The problem I face is.. I want you to…” This is the autocratic style of leadership. While unfashionable today, it is often needed when teams are new, inexperienced, or weak. As the team gain in cohesion and commitment, it becomes less and less appropriate.
2. The Leader Sells. This approach is typified when a leader says: “The problem I face is.. I want you to… because…” In the selling approach, it’s still the leader in the driving seat but there is the need to get others to understand why they are doing what he or she wants.
3. The Leader Tests. This approach is typified when a leader says: “The problem I face is.. I want you to… What do you think…?” Notice now how the leader explains the problem, comes up with an idea but checks it out with the team. If they’re not ready for more responsibility, they’ll go along with what the boss wants; if they are ready, then he or she leaves the door open for them to discuss their thoughts.
4. The Leader Consults. This approach is typified when a leader says: “The problem we face is.. What ideas do you have for solving it…?” Notice now how the leader drops the word “I” in exchange for the word “we”. Notice also how he or she no longer feels the need to have an answer ready. The leader is effectively inviting the team to problem-solve with him or her.
5. The Leader Joins. This approach is typified when a leader says: “What is the problem we face? How can we solve it? Any ideas?” Now comes a turning-point. The leader no longer owns the problem and solution alone. By asking the team to consider the problem as well as the solution, he or she is nudging them into outright ownership themselves.
6. The Leader Delegates. This approach is typified when a leader says: “Problems keep cropping up… Can you see what’s going on, come up with some ideas and get back to me…” Now the leader knows that there are problems in certain areas of the job but, in moving from the word “we” to the word “you”, gives the team the green light to find answers. The decision may still be the leader’s but the team can have a high level of influence over the final outcome.
7. The Leader Abdicates. This approach is typified when a leader says: “Sort out any problems that crop up. I’m here if you need me but only if you really need me.” Here the language of the leader is coded. What he or she is really saying to the team is that they have full responsibility for identifying, analysing, and resolving the problem but accountability still rests with the leader.
How to Use the Tannenbaum and Schmidt Continuum
Tannenbaum and Schmidt’s 7 levels of control and freedom correspond broadly to a team’s level of development. When a team is immature, ie unmotivated and unskilled, the styles will be on the left-hand side of the spectrum. When a team is motivated and skilled, the styles will be on the right. Tannenbaum and Schmidt thought that there were two other main factors to be taken into account when selecting a style. One was the demands of the situation. For example, is the problem urgent or high-risk? Does the organisation’s culture allow for delegating styles? The other issue was whether the leader had the skills and willingness to manage a full range of styles across the spectrum.
What do you think?
Tannenbaum, A.S. and Schmitt, W.H. (1958). “How to choose a leadership pattern”. Harvard Business Review, 36, March-April, 95-101.