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Posted on January 18, 2018
Updated on September 3, 2020

What is Robert House's Path-Goal Theory?

The next significant leadership theory to emerge in the Situational/Contingency category was Robert House's Path-Goal theory, in his 1971 paper: A Path-Goal Theory of Leader Effectiveness, which he refined three years later in cooperation with T R Mitchell.

House said that the main role of a leader is to motivate his followers by:

  1. Increasing or clarifying the (group's/followers') personal benefits of striving for and reaching the group's goal.
  2. Clarifying and clearing a path to achieving the group's goals.

Hence the theory's name: Path-Goal Theory.

House's theory matched four ways of behaving to four sets of circumstances, or 'situations'.

  • The circumstances in Path-Goal theory are driven by 'follower characteristics' and 'workplace characteristics' .

Follower Characteristics

  1. What they believe about their ability - Do they feel they are capable of fulfilling the task well?
  2. Where control resides - Do group members believe they have control over the way they approach the task and the chances of achieving the goal? Or do they see themselves as being controlled by other people and outside events?
  3. Attitude to power and those in power - Do members want to be told what to do and how to do it... or not? What do they think of those in the organisation who have more official power than they do, especially the leader?

Workplace Characteristics

  1. The kind of task - Is it repetitive? Is it interesting? Is it predictable or structured? Is it unpredictable, creative or unstructured?
  2. The leader's formal authority - Is it well-defined?
  3. Group cohesion - Do those working in the group feel a sense of unity?

House took these two external dimensions and matched them with four leadership behavioural styles, as the below table summarises.


Behavioural Styles

Leadership Style

Workplace Characteristics

Follower Characteristics

Directive

Unstructured interesting tasks
Clear, formal authority
Good group cohesion

  • Inexperienced followers
  • They believe they lack power
  • They want the leader to direct them

Supportive

Simpler, more predictable tasks
Unclear or weak formal authority
Poor group cohesion

  • Experienced, confident followers
  • They believe they have power
  • They reject close control

Participative

Unstructured, complex tasks
Formal authority could be either clear or unclear
Group cohesion could either be good or poor

  • Experienced, confident followers
  • They believe they have power
  • They reject close control, preferring to exercise power over their work

Achievement-
orientated

Unstructured, complex or unpredictable tasks
Clear, formal authority
Group cohesion could either be good or poor

  • Experienced, confident followers
  • They think they lack some power
  • They accept the idea of the leader setting their goals and have a lot of respect for the leader


Leadership Styles

Leadership Style

Description

Directive

  • In House's Directive style, the leader clarifies the path to the goal by giving clear direction and guidance on goals, tasks, and performance standards. 
  • The work will normally be complex and unstructured, and followers will usually lack experience and accept a high degree of outside control. 
  • In essence, the leader is telling the followers exactly the required methods and outcomes. 
  • There is little or no emphasis on personal needs (for example emotional or financial) in striving for and achieving the goal because the work is considered (by the leader and organisation) to be sufficiently satisfying and rewarding in its own right.

Supportive

  • House's Supportive style puts more emphasis on improving the working atmosphere (notably making it more friendly and helpful) and safeguarding followers' welfare. 
  • This leadership approach is appropriate where followers can perform their tasks skillfully, and believe they have a high degree of control over the outcome. 
  • Followers don't want close supervision, but they do need protection and care in handling stresses and frustrations arising from repetitive, uninteresting tasks. 
  • In this Supportive style, the leader removes or reduces the effects of emotional obstacles on the path to the goal.

Participative

  • Followers of House's Participative leadership style are similar to followers of the Supportive style: confident and experienced, they believe they largely control the outcome, and they reject close control
  • However, unlike typical Supportive workplace characteristics, here work is much less structured, repetitive and predictable. 
  • The leader consults followers (perhaps more likely here to be called 'colleagues') on decisions concerning goals and methods, and genuinely takes account of followers' opinions and ideas. 
  • Here the Participative leader strengthens the path-goal connection in three ways: 
  1. First, aligning followers' values and concerns with the aims. 
  2. Second, ensuring followers are happy with how they are to achieve the goals. 
  3. Third, giving followers a strong sense of autonomy and satisfaction, so improving motivation to achieve the goal.

Achievement-
orientated

  • House's Achievement-orientated leadership style is based on encouraging followers to achieve personally outstanding results. 
  • Followers are competent and confident, and crucially also accept the principle of the leader setting ambitious goals. 
  • Followers trust and respect the leader, and draw personal motivation and increased confidence from the leader's belief that the individual follower can achieve demanding aims and targets.

In the grid diagrams above Robert House effectively describes four different 'situations' (in this case combinations of 'workplace characteristics' and 'follower characteristics') which he matched to four different leadership styles.


Summary and Comparison with Other Models

Essentially, House's work implies that leaders need to adapt their leadership style based on both the characteristics of the workplace environment and also the characteristics of the team. By implication, Path-Goal theory assumes that a leader can vary his or her mindset and behaviour as needed.

Path-Goal theory is a situational or contingency model that in addition to matching leadership styles to given situations, also advocates switching leadership styles according to changing situations.


Acknowledgements

James Scouller Biography

We are grateful to James Scouller for his help, patience, and expert contribution in producing this leadership guide.

James Scouller is an expert coach and partner at The Scouller Partnership in the UK, which specialises in coaching leaders. He was chief executive of three international companies for eleven years before becoming a professional coach in 2004. He holds two postgraduate coaching qualifications and training in applied psychology at the Institute of Psychosynthesis in London.

James Scouller's book is called "The Three Levels of Leadership: How to Develop Your Leadership Presence, Know-how and Skill" which was published in May 2011.