Behavioral Approach to Leadership

Cite this article as:"Behavioral Approach to Leadership," in The Business Professor, updated April 9, 2020, last accessed October 21, 2020,


What is the Behavioral Approach to Leadership?

The behavioral approach, as the name states, focuses on how leaders behave in the execution of their responsibilities. This field of leadership study also focused on how leaders make decisions.

Leader Behaviors

Leader behavior is generally grouped into two broad categories:

  • Task-Oriented Behaviors (often referred to as “initiating structure”) – Task-oriented leaders are more controlling and provide detailed structure, rules, directives, and instruction to subordinates to define their roles and control their tasks in furtherance of organizational goals.
  • People-Oriented Behaviors (often referred to as “consideration”) – People-oriented leaders focus on the well-being of the individual subordinate – their feels and sense of respect. This focus is evident in the leader’s decision making and actions.

Each of these orientations is effective or beneficial to the organization in specific contexts and organizational purposes. For example, task orientation is generally more effective in small or startup companies, while a people-orientation is generally more effective in larger organizations.

Leader Decision Making

Behavioral research also focuses on the leader decision-making process and how the decision-making style relates to leadership effectiveness and employee response.

A key concept in this regard is subordinate empowerment. Empowerment concerns the extent to which a leader delegates or relegates power or decision-making authority to a subordinate. Empowerment allows employees to take part in decision making at all levels of the organization. Empowering employees extensively is known as “Participative Management”.

Empowerment is thought to affect several behavioral aspects of subordinates, including aligning personal goals with company goals, ownership of performance and results, and attachment of performance to rewards. The organizational effects are tending toward creativity, responsiveness, and increased productivity.

Negative attributes of empowerment include a lack of coordination among organizational units, the tension between levels of authority, and the potential for misuse of the authority granted.

The primary leadership styles are primarily characterized by the level of empowerment of subordinates.

Researchers generally group decision-making styles as follows:

  • Authoritarian (Autocratic, Directive, Monotheistic) – Leaders make a decision without involving employees. The leader provides express directives to subordinates. Subordinates lack any voice in decision making and are largely unable to question the decisions of the leader. This style is commonly effective in very difficult situations or when the leader has unique knowledge or ability to resolve a problem or address a situation. This style, however, makes subordinates feel insecure, intimidated, demoralized, and not valued. Further, it tends to stifle creativity and may hurt individual performance.
  • Participative (Democratic) – Leaders allow employees to participate in the decision-making process. Subordinates also contribute towards the development of goals and objectives and share in the responsibility for the results. While decision-making authority remains with the leader, subordinates become involved and vested in the process. This style is most effective when decisions are complex and require unique perspectives, or it requires extensive subordinate buy-in. The downside is that it takes time and can delay decisions. Types of participating leadership include:
    • Collective Decision Making – Groups collaborate to make decisions and accept responsibility for the results.
    • Democratic or Participative Decision Making – The leader surveys group opinions before making the decision and communicating her decision to subordinates. The decision process is highly informed, slower, and people-oriented.
    • Autocratic Participative Decision Making: The leader collects information from subordinates and makes a decision. The decision is generally informed, but it is quicker and more task or result-oriented.
    • Consensus Decision Making: The leader relinquishes decision-making authority to subordinates – either through consensus or some level of majority vote.
  • Laissez-faire (Hands Off) – Leaders leave employees to make decisions with little or no involvement or guidance. This generally comes after defining the goals, policies, rules, and limitations. Subordinates carry out the decision-making process on their own. The leader continues to communicate information to the team and retains ultimate responsibility for the decision. This style really works when subordinates are highly motivated and adequately skilled to deal with the situation.

The effectiveness of each of these leader decision-making styles depends on the circumstances. The behavioral approach was criticized for failing to explore the environment in which the behaviors occur.

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