Path-Goal Theory

What Is The Path-Goal Theory Of Leadership?

Path-Goal theory is half leadership, half motivational theory. It was developed to explain how leaders motivate their followers toward a determined end. It is derived from expectancy theory, which argued that employees will be motivated if they believe that a) putting in more effort will yield better job performance, b) better job performance will lead to rewards, such as an increase in salary or benefits, and c) these rewards are valued by the employee in question.

According to path-goal theory, leaders help followers by selecting a style of leadership (directive, supportive, participative, or achievement-oriented) that motivates followers and helps them move toward the desired reward. In essence, followers are on a path toward a goal, and leaders are there to help followers reach that goal through guidance, coaching, and direction. Path-goal theory is a contingency theory, in that it predicts how a leader’s style will interact with a follower’s needs and the nature of the task. It argues directive leadership for ambiguous tasks, supportive leadership for repetitive tasks, participative leadership for unclear, autonomous tasks, and achievement-oriented leadership for challenging tasks.

Path-goal theory provides leaders with a practical yet theoretical foundation for discerning which leadership style to select. It also builds on a motivational theory as its foundation. However, path-goal theory is difficult to apply to organizations because it utilizes so many, interconnected assumptions. Despite building upon a motivational theory, path-goal theory does not fully explain how leadership styles affect follower motivation, which is one of many reasons why it lacks a strong research supporting its claims.


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David Burkus is an organizational psychologist, keynote speaker, and bestselling author of five books on leadership and teamwork.

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