The Tannenbaum & Schmidt Continuum.

The Tannenbaum and Schmidt Continuum is a leadership model that explains how different leadership styles can be used in different situations. The model is based on the idea that there are two main leadership styles: task-oriented leadership and relationship-oriented leadership.

Task-oriented leadership is focused on getting the job done. Leaders who use this style are typically more concerned with results than with people. They tend to be very direct and often give clear instructions.

Relationship-oriented leadership is focused on building relationships. Leaders who use this style are typically more concerned with people than results. They tend to be more supportive and often provide encouragement.

The Tannenbaum and Schmidt Continuum is a leadership model that helps leaders choose the right leadership style for a given situation.

On an initial view, it may appear that a relationship-oriented leader is better than a task-oriented leader — i.e. the dreaded taskmaster!

But, it really depends on the situation and context. There is no universal right type of leadership, and great leaders are able to switch their style based on the situation.

For instance, imagine a local hospital’s senior surgeon, who has helped set up a triage center during a natural disaster. In this type of emergency, a triage center is vital  for saving as many lives as possible by processing as many people as possible, understanding their injuries, and quickly stabilizing them. It’s all about results. In all likelihood, the senior surgeon is working with untrained volunteers that he has managed to group together. So, in this case, a task-oriented leadership style would be the most effective — there is no time or requirement to develop people in this scenario.

But, the same surgeon, under normal circumstances will have a stable medical team that supports him when treating patients, and he may want to emphasize the relationship-oriented facet of leadership.

The following illustrates the differences in each section of the continuum very well:

To simplify, we can break the continuum into seven key tools available for a leader, starting from the left, where the leader has the most authority, to the right, where the leader’s authority decreases.

So the seven ways to approach decision-making as a leader to a team:

  1. Tells — This is where the leader just says what they want to happen, and they expect team members to execute.
  2. Sells — Similar to tells, but the leader makes an effort to explain and sell the decision to the team to ensure that they are on board. For reference, it is worth reading Disagree & Commit for another viewpoint.
  3. Consults — The leader asks the team their opinions and ideas, and then makes the decision after considering
  4. Suggests — The leader suggests potential decisions, and let’s the team make the decision from one of the options.
  5. Joins — This is where the leader joins the team in the decision-making process between various options that have been suggested by themselves or within the team — often this is done by a series of workshops akin to a design sprint.
  6. Delegates — The leader sets key boundaries but lets the team make the decisions within those boundaries based on their knowledge of the situation.
  7. Abdicates — This is where the leader steps back, giving the team full decision-making freedom. I find that this is rare, but certain organizations such as Valve, with their famous employee handbook, have apparently successfully implemented this strategy.

The key point to remember with any of the above, is that regardless of which part of the continuum a leader decides to operate in, they still have final accountability for the results of the team and the decisions which are taken.

And this is quite interesting, and perhaps paradoxical. How can a leader completely abdicate authority and let a team make all the decisions but still have final accountability for the results? Well, this is where having a strong culture and picking the right people comes into play.

This leadership philosophy states that if you have the right people, everything else will be taken care of.

I’ll leave you with a quote from Valve:

Boss Free since 1996. We believe that the best product decisions are made by the people who are actually doing the work. We take great pride in hiring top talent from a variety of disciplines and bringing people together with one simple directive: Collaborate and create.

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