The path-goal theory was first introduced by organizational behavior expert Martin G. Evans in 1970. Evans based his work on Victor Vroom’s expectancy theory, which suggests individuals are motivated to perform if they know their performance will be recognized and rewarded. Path-goal theory argues leadership is responsible for providing subordinates with the information and support required to achieve their goals.
Understanding path-goal theory
The path-goal theory states that the behavior of a leader is related to the satisfaction, motivation, and performance of his or her subordinates. The theory was later revised to include a stipulation that the leader must also act in a way that complements subordinate abilities and compensates subordinate deficiencies.
While the leader must exhibit different types of leadership behavior depending on the situation, they must always assist employees in achieving their goals. Perhaps most importantly of all, the leader must ensure employee goals are aligned with organizational goals.
Path-goal theory leadership behavior
Evans identified four types of leadership behavior a senior staff member must display:
- Directive path-goal clarifying leader behavior – describing any instance where the leader verbalizes to subordinates what is expected of them and how to complete their tasks. This form of leadership behavior is intrinsically rewarding for the subordinate when there is a degree of ambiguity around their role and task demands.
- Achievement-oriented leader behavior – where a leader sets high standards for subordinates and encourages these standards to be met by showing faith in their ability. This type of behavior is prevalent in sales, engineering, science, entrepreneurship, and some technical jobs.
- Participative leader behavior – these leaders are characterized by a preference to use a collaborative style of decision-making. That is, they actively solicit the opinions and ideas of the subordinates and incorporate them into strategy.
- Supportive leader behavior – supportive leaders are friendly, approachable, and attend to the well-being of subordinates with empathy and understanding. In so doing, they consider those ranked beneath them to be equals.
Path-goal theory follower behavior
Follower (or subordinate) behavior describes how followers interpret the behavior of their leader in a work context.
In turn, these characteristics determine whether each subordinate considers their leadership satisfying or as a way to reach future satisfaction.
Communication and leadership consultant Peter G. Northouse subsequently defined four follower behaviors:
- Need for affiliation – followers with a strong preference for affiliation prefer friendly and supportive leaders characterized by the fourth type of leadership behavior mentioned earlier.
- Preference for structure – followers who work in uncertain situations naturally prefer leaders who remove that uncertainty with direction, structure, and task clarity. These so-called directive leaders also set clear, unambiguous goals.
- Desire for control – this may be characterized by an internal locus of control where the follower believes they are in control of their own life. But it may also describe an external locus of control, where the individual believes external events or influences largely dictate what happens to them. Followers with an internal locus prefer participative leaders since they prefer to feel in control of decision-making. Followers with an external locus prefer the actions of a directive leader because that style of leadership reinforces their beliefs about how the world operates.
- Self-perceived level of task ability – according to Northouse, the extent to which an individual believes they can complete a task is negatively correlated with directive leadership. In theory, this makes sense, because followers who are given the freedom and autonomy to complete a task do not require a controlling, assertive leader.
- Path-goal theory argues leadership is responsible for providing subordinates with the information and support required to achieve their goals. The theory was developed by Martin G. Evans, who based it on Vroom’s expectancy theory.
- Path-goal theory argues leaders must compensate for employee deficiencies and complement employee abilities depending on the situation. This adaptiveness is facilitated by leadership exhibiting four different styles: directive, participative, supportive, and achievement-oriented.
- Path-goal theory also defines four styles of subordinate behavior which determine the degree to which a follower is satisfied with their superior. These include a need for affiliation, preference for structure, desire for control, and self-perceived level of task ability.
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