Task-Oriented vs. Relationship-Oriented Leadership Styles



“People are more easily led than driven.” — David Harold Fink

When you lead other people, you tend to have a natural preference to either focus on the task at hand (task-oriented) or to focus on the people that will be doing the work (relationship-oriented.)

Knowing this can help you lead more effectively in any scenario.

You can first read a situation, and then you can either adapt your leadership style for the situation, or you find a situation that better suits your style.

When to Use Task-Oriented vs. Relationship-Oriented Styles

According to Fiedler’s Contingency Model, there are three key factors to evaluate for a scenario:

  1. Leader-Member Relationship – This is whether group members are supportive, respective, and loyal to the leader.
  2. Task Structure – This is whether the task has a lot of clarity or ambiguity.  If the task is clear, it can be structured.  If the task has a lot of ambiguity, meaning you’re not exactly sure how to go about the work or what good will look like, then it will tend to be unstructured.
  3. Leadership Position Power – This is the degree of power in terms of rewards and punishment the leader is able to control.

8 Scenarios and Their Matching Successful Leadership Style
This table summarizes the scenarios and whether task-oriented or relationship-oriented tends to be more successful:

IDLeader-Member RelationshipTask StructureLeadership Position PowerSuccessful Leadership Style

Here are some key take aways:

  • You can use the chart to help you see what scenarios your style is well-suited for.
  • A relationship-oriented style tends to work well for three out of the eight scenarios.
  • A task-oriented style tends to work well for five out of the eight scenarios.

While leadership is often more art than science, I think this lens is helpful for thinking through whether to adapt your style because of the nature of the work in front of you (structured vs. unstructured) or because your relationship with the people (good or poor), or because of your leadership position power (strong or weak.)

Photo by bfhoyt.

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  1. I think my strength as a leader comes from intuiting the folks assigned to the project or task. If I attempt to analyze the situation or break it down into components I just get lots of resistance because it is not something I can do well…I could probably win the folks over sooner to my style if I could learn to do this…but when most people meet me in person – they really do not take me seriously or as being a competent person. At the last meeting where I was training 36 younger people to go out and share information about the new health care programs, I heard one person in the hall at break say – “why did we get her? She should be home making cookies.” After I led the first public meeting and took care of the hecklers and noisy folks within the first few minutes…that particularly fellow said – “that was amazing to watch”

    If I have to be interviewed for the job, I never get the job….If I am doing the job and I can model my leadership to the folks, I then get an opportunity presented…

  2. J.D.

    I wish I had known about this distinction many years ago:

    Task-Oriented vs. Relationship-Oriented Leadership Styles

    It would have saved a lot of headaches!

  3. @ Ayub — Thank you.

    @ Patricia — It sounds like your strength is dealing with ambiguous situations and seeing the patterns and vision for the end in mind. Here’s the good news … in project management, one of the tools we use is Work Breakdown Structures (WBS) and they help turn ideas into actionable components.

    The best book I know on WBS is “How to Run Successful Projects III: The Silver Bullet.”

    @ Sandra — I know what you mean. Even just having the lens helps. The trick is to look at the situation and to know your own strengths … then adapt, adjust or avoid accordingly.

  4. Hi JD,
    I really like how this post reaffirmed some areas for me today.
    In the past I have been more task-oriented. I tend to put my passion there. I also have been more reserved in the past. Lately, I feel that I am aligning more with BEing and more heart doing, relationship focus (building skills here is a stretch outside of my inner circle since I am usually a very private individual) and recognizing that I must engage others in order to make even the best ideas fly! I am learning to slow way down and pour more quality in the skill-building areas underneath my strengths zone. Certainly, I am in the practice grounds – It feels like Hospitality school, which surprisingly I just started over on our site today! 😉 Thank you for the inspiration here! You, and your skill-building topics are always appreciated. take care, and enjoy your week! ~Jenn

  5. @ Jenn — It’s your self-awareness that will take you far. One of the simplest ways to bring folks in is to think of a pie. It’s a useful metaphor for thinking of the bigger picture and how everybody plays a role. Slice the pie up into slices. Each slice represents what’s in it for somebody that you engage with. The whole pie should feel like more than the sum of the slices. Knowing your pie helps you balance the task-based goals with the realities of the relationships and the drivers why folks are involved. Periodically, you’ll have to show folks and remind folks of the bigger pie.

  6. Hi J.D This comes in helpful for me now that Kelly has about an hour of homework a night. I can drive her to her books, or lead her, with structure, a winning combo for sure!

    Very interesting model here, new ideas to me, thanks.


  7. Hi JD .. Interesting and as Sandra says … I wish I’d known this sort of thing years ago .. & I probably need it now .. so I’ll take Jannie’s example .. of driving v leading ..

    Thanks always helpful .. I’m just not very good at applying them .. Hilary

  8. Hi JD .. I just thought of something else .. presumably we can lead by example – that example needs to be constant, persistent and always there .. Thanks Hilary

  9. @ Hilary — The secret is that behavior flows from our internal mental model. Whenever it’s tough to change behavior, it’s either because we don’t have a good model to model from, or we’re fighting against our own internal model in some way. The beauty of behavior change is that if you know the secret, you can change it instantly for immediate success.

  10. Can I have more info why with the situation like below?

    Power Successful Leadership Style
    #1 Good Structured Strong Task-Oriented
    #2 Good Structured Weak Task-Oriented
    #3 Good Unstructured Strong Task-Oriented
    #4 Good Unstructured Weak Relationship-Oriented
    #5 Poor Structured Strong Relationship-Oriented
    #6 Poor Structured Weak Relationship-Oriented
    #7 Poor Unstructured Strong Task-Oriented
    #8 Poor Unstructured Weak Task-Oriented

    Thank You.

  11. […] on the blend of task and relationship.  Those theories evolved to say that leadership is “situational” and is based on what followers […]

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