One way to answer this question is to simply ask yourself, which kind of leader would you prefer working for? Of course, your answer might change based on your situation – if you are entering the workforce for the first time and haven’t got a clue about how to go about your job, perhaps a task-oriented manager would be just what the doctor ordered for you! If, however, you are a mid-career professional, looking to grow and develop your own sphere of influence and lead others, you might resent a completely task-oriented leader and see him/her as a ‘micro-manager’ who doesn’t trust you or empower you to get work done. So surely, context matters – but research is showing also that to a large extent, we do have some answers to this question of “what’s better”, although they’re not straightforward answers.
From the time psychologists and other social scientists have been studying leadership systematically, theories of leadership have evolved in their focus. Some of the earliest theories of leadership fall under the category of the ‘Great Person Theory’1. This theory (which has found support in the recent past from personality research) holds that there are a few characteristics that make someone likely to be a good leader – intelligence, charisma, dominance over others, extraversion and so on. The next step in the evolution of leadership scholarship was to focus on leader behaviours – what leaders actually do, as against what their innate traits are – to explain who/what makes for good leadership. The most universal classification of these leader behaviours was into “task-oriented” and “people-oriented”, and this is the dichotomy that is being addressed here.
Almost every identified classification system used by leadership theorists and scholars to describe leader behaviours followed a common theme of being categorized into one of these two categories (Fleishman et al., 1991)2. Broadly speaking:
- Task-focused or task-oriented behaviours deal with task accomplishment, facilitating the understanding of task requirements, operating procedures and acquiring task information;
- Person-focused, relationship-oriented or people-oriented behaviours facilitate team interaction and/or development, by facilitating behavioural interactions, thinking and attitudes required to have people to work effectively together. (Salas, Dickinson, Converse, & Tannenbaum, 1992)3
Several popular leadership theories (e.g. initiating structure versus consideration, directive versus participative leadership, etc.) can be described under this broad umbrella. But – describing something is not sufficient to understand it, much less, apply it! So – that still leaves us with the question of which is better? Much like many answers in social and organizational science, the answer turns out to be – “it depends”!
Some research has addressed this (e.g. Burke et al., 2006)4 and found that depending on the outcome, both task- and people-oriented leadership behaviours are almost equally important. Interestingly, while task-focused leadership predicted team effectiveness and productivity (arguably very ‘task-oriented’ outcomes), people-focused leadership predicted these even better! Moreover, people-focused leadership even predicted team learning, which is becoming a very important factor in building an adaptive learning organization. So these behaviours independently contribute to important outcomes – but people-focused behaviours might have a slight edge over merely task-focused behaviours.
Another perspective that might be useful here is the classic distinction between ‘management’ and ‘leadership’ (e.g. Zalesnik, 1977)5. To the extent that ‘managers’ focus more on the process, with little emotional or personal involvement in people, they might be relying more on a task-focused style than ‘leaders’, for whom relationships and ideas are important and thus, a people-focused or a relational style would work better. Moreover, as one climbs the career ladder, one is required to take on more of a strategic relational role, directing others to work as opposed to directing others’ work.
Of course, organizational culture becomes a critical consideration here – especially the idea that what gets rewarded and evaluated is what becomes the preferred workstyle. For instance, if task performance (i.e. merely meeting goals, driving for results, achieving targets) were the focus, people-focused leadership might actually be a distraction and may be de-emphasized. It may be seen as contextual performance (e.g. Borman & Motowidlo, 1997)6 which contributes more to the social and psychological core of the organization than tangible task outcomes. Contextual performance usually demands going above and beyond one’s defined role, and perform ‘organizational citizenship behaviours’ – often directed at others. Many organizations do value such behaviours – that contribute to the overall employee morale, job satisfaction and organizational commitment, and even tie indirectly to task performance itself. Thus, often, what is needed is a people-oriented style, under the rubric of contextual performance – even if that is not explicitly required in the job description or called out as such in performance ratings forms.
Thus, one might conclude that while focusing on the task is necessary for good management, it may not be sufficient for good leadership, where focusing on people and contextual performance can become critical. In other words, to mirror the name of this publication, people-oriented leadership matters!
1 Earlier called the ‘Great Man Theory’, with good reason – there were even fewer women leaders in the early 1900s than there are today!
2 Fleishman, E. A., Mumford, M. D., Zaccaro, S. J., Levin, K. Y., Korotkin, A. L., & Hein, M. B. (1991). Taxonomic efforts in the description of leader behavior: A synthesis and functional interpretation. Leadership Quarterly, 4, 245–287.
3 Salas, E., Dickinson, T. L., Converse, S. A., & Tannenbaum, S. I. (1992). Toward an understanding of team performance and training. In R. W. Swezey, & E. Salas (Eds.), Teams: Their training and performance (pp. 3–29). Norwood, NJ: ABLEX.
4 Burke, C. S., Stagl, K. C., Klein, C., Goodwin, G. F., Salas, E., & Halpin, S. M. (2006). What type of leadership behaviors are functional in teams? A meta-analysis. Leadership Quarterly, 17, 288–307.
5 Zaleznik, A. A., (1977). Managers and Leaders: Are They Different? Harvard Business Review, May–June 1977.
6 Borman, W., & Motowildo, S. (1997). Task performance and contextual performance: The meaning for personnel selection research. Human Performance, 10(2), 99-109.