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Path Goal theory of leadership


22 April 2015 07:43 am - 0     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}


The Path Goal theory was initially developed by Robert House to explain workplace leadership behaviours. The theory builds on two theories of motivation namely, the Goal Setting theory and Expectancy theory. While the Goal Setting theory suggests that an effective way to motivate people is to set challenging but realistic goals and to offer rewards for goal accomplishment, the Expectancy theory explains why people work hard to attain work goals. People will engage in behaviours that lead to goal attainment if they believe:

(a) Goal attainment leads to something they value (e.g., increase in pay, status, promotion) and
(b) The behaviours they engage in have a high chance (expectancy) of leading to the goal.

If people do not value the reward for goal attainment or believe that the probability of their behaviour leading to goal attainment is less, then they will not be motivated to work hard.


According to the Path Goal theory, leaders need to support team members to achieve work goals and have a responsibility to provide them with the necessary information

According to the Path Goal theory, leaders need to support team members to achieve work goals and have a responsibility to provide them with the necessary information. One way to do this is to make salient the effort reward relationship by linking desirable outcomes to goal attainment (e.g., emphasizing the positive outcomes to the subordinates if they achieve their goals) and/or increasing the belief (expectancy) that their work behaviours can lead to goal attainment (e.g., by emphasizing that certain behaviours are likely to lead to goal attainment). It generally follows three basic steps:

1.    Determine the employee characteristics
2.    Determine environmental characteristics
3.    Appropriate leadership style and motivational factors that will help the employee to succeed

Employee characteristics

Employees prefer to relate to their leader’s behaviour based on their own needs, such as the degree of structure they need, affiliation, perceived level of ability and desire for control. For example, if a leader provides more structure than what they need, employees could become less motivated. Thus, a leader needs to understand their employees so they know how best to motivate them.

Environmental characteristics

Overcoming obstacles is a special focus of the Path Goal theory. If they become too strong, then the leader needs to step in. Some of the more difficult task characteristics that often arise are:
  •     Design of the task - The design of the task might call for the leader’s support. For example, if the task is ambiguous, then the leader might have to give it more structure or for an extremely difficult task might request for leader’s support.
  •     Formal authority system - Depending upon the task authority, the leader can provide clear goals and/or give the employee appropriate level of control.
  •    Work group - If the team is non-supportive, then the leader needs to bring in cohesiveness that provides comradeship, enthusiasm and devotion to all team members.

Leader behaviour or style

The independent variable of the Path Goal theory is the leaders’ behaviour — employee motivation level to excel at their goal or task is increased when the leader adjusts his/her behaviour style to suit employee and task characteristics.

The theory identifies four main types of leadership behaviours.  

Supportive leadership should be most effective when the nature of the work is stressful, boring or dangerous

Directive: The leader informs followers on what is expected of them, such as telling them what to do, how to perform a task and scheduling and coordinating work. It is most effective when people are unsure what tasks they have to do or when there is a lot of uncertainty within their working environment. This occurs primarily because a directive style clarifies what the subordinates need to do and therefore reduces task ambiguity. In addition, the directive style will make clear the relationship between effort and reward and therefore the expectancy that effort will lead to a valued outcome.

Supportive: The leader makes work pleasant for the workers by showing concern for them and by being friendly and approachable. Supportive leadership should be most effective when the nature of the work is stressful, boring or dangerous. This is because a supportive style by the leader will increase subordinates’ satisfaction and self-confidence and reduce the negative aspects of the situation. This should lead to an increase in the intrinsic value of the job and the expectation that it will be performed well and lead to the attainment of goals.

Participative: The leaders consult their followers before making a decision on how to proceed. It can be effective in unstructured situations because it can increase role clarity and also be effective for people who have a high need to control their environment. Conversely, this style will be less effective for those who like to be directed at the workplace and do not take on too much responsibility for their outcomes.

Achievement: The leader sets challenging goals for the followers, expects them to perform at their highest level and shows confidence in their ability to meet this expectation. Achievement-oriented style is effective when the work is complex and the environment is uncertain. This is because it can increase subordinates’ self-confidence that they are able to attain the goals.

The Path Goal theory has a great deal of intuitive appeal because it can be applied easily to the workplace. It emphasizes understanding the needs of subordinates within the context of their working situation and using the appropriate style of leadership to help subordinates achieve their work goals. One implication of this approach is that leaders need to adopt multiple leadership styles and be able to tailor these styles to the characteristics of the subordinate and the situation. Because of the emphasis on the role of leaders’ behaviours rather than their traits, this theory has many practical applications for leadership training programmes.

(This is the tenth column of the leadership series by Eng. Gamini Nanda Gunawardana [BSc Eng (Hons), MBA, CEng, FIE (SL), MCS (SL), MIDPM (UK), FIAP (UK), MBCS (UK)], a Management, HR, OD and ICT Consultant, Corporate Trainer, Consultant - HRD - Goodhope Asia Holdings Ltd. He can be contacted at, Skype: gamini7147)

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