The Tannenbaum-Schmidt leadership continuum

Seven styles of leadership, ranging from authoritarian to permissive, and the benefits and drawbacks of each.

Leadership basics


The Tannenbaum-Schmidt Leadership Continuum is a model showing the relationship between the amount of authority you exercise as a leader and the freedom you give your team to make decisions.

At one end are leaders who just tell the team what to do, and at the other are leaders who don’t give any guidance whatsoever. As you move from one end of the continuum to the other, your direct use of authority will decrease as you trust your team more and their skills and experience increase.

Tells – the leader makes a decision and announces it

This sort of leader tells the team what to do, without involving them or considering their opinions. The leader identifies the problem, comes up with the solution and instructs the team to implement it. It’s about focusing on the task and getting the task done.

Benefits:

  • Decisions can be made quickly
  • Clear accountability
  • No politics or disputes during the decision making process.

Drawbacks:

  • The leader does not make full use of the team’s skills or knowledge
  • The leader may miss things picked up by other team members
  • Does not develop or grow team members.

Sells – the manager sells their decision to the team

The leader still takes full responsibility for the decision making process, identifying problems and developing solutions without input from the team. However, once the decision has been taken, they make an effort to get the team on board, emphasising its benefits and addressing objections.

The leader is aware that there may be discontent within the group and is making an effort to address it, but is not yet willing to give up control over the decision-making process.

Benefits:

  • The leader still has full control, so decisions can be made quickly with little room for politics or diversion
  • The decision may be more readily accepted if the leader explains the the decision and sells its benefits.

Drawbacks:

  • Team members have no say in the process, leading to frustration about decisions being taken behind closed doors.
  • The leader doesn’t give the team the chance to highlight issues that may not have been considered.

Suggests – the manager presents their decision and invites questions

The leader continues to have control over the decision-making process – they identify the problem and create solutions. However, once this is done the leader invites the team to ask questions, giving a full explanation so they are aware of the context and consequences.

Team members may influence the leader somewhat, as their questions dig into the problem and the leaders’ confidence in the solution. This is the first step in two-way communication between the leader and team.

Benefits:

  • Team members can get background information and clarification on points they’re not sure about
  • The leader may be asked difficult questions that help them think about the problem in more depth.

Drawbacks:

  • Team members were not consulted before the decision was made, so it may be too late to sort out problems with the decision.
  • Team members still lack the ability to influence the decision.

Consults – the leader presents their decision and invites discussion

The leader develops their solution but invites input from the team before the final decision is made. While the leader is making a genuine effort to listen to the team, they still have full control over identifying the problems, developing solutions and making the final decision.

Benefits:

  • The leader gives some agency to the team by asking for their input before making the decision
  • The leader can still manage every aspect of the process, giving them full control.

Drawbacks:

  • Team members are not involved during the process of identifying and solving problems
  • Team members have limited influence and remain on the edge of the decision-making process.

Joins – the leader asks for suggestions before making a decision

Until now, the leader has been the one who develops the solution. However, in this style of leadership, the leader presents the problem to the team instead of the solution, and invites them to help develop solutions.

This gives the team more agency and provides the leader with a much wider range of possible solutions.

Benefits:

  • Develops solutions the leader might not have come up with themselves, leading to better outcomes.
  • Team members may have skills or knowledge the leader does not, again leading to better solutions
  • The team feels valued to be part of the decision making process.

Drawbacks:

  • The process can be slow as it takes time to get everyone together and develop a solution.

Delegates – the leader presents the goals and asks the team to make a decision

Here, the leader is seen as a part of a democratic team and gives up a lot of control over the outcome – they can’t veto the team’s decision.

The leader’s role is to outline the problem, as well as any boundaries, guidelines and expected outcomes. Once done, they can step back and let the team get on with it, or participate with the same say in the process as everyone else.

Benefits:

  • Team members feel they have a genuine say
  • All members have an opportunity to be heard
  • The team can stop the leader from making bad choices.

Drawbacks:

  • The leader must have a lot of trust in their team as while they are responsible, they don’t have control
  • It can take time to reach a decision, especially if people can’t agree.

Abdicates – the leader allows full group choice

The team identifies problems, develops solutions and takes decisions all without input from the leader. The only boundaries might be company policies or expectations set by more senior management than the leader.

Benefits:

  • Team members are in complete control of their work
  • More likely to result in new and innovative solutions as barriers are removed as much as possible.

Drawbacks:

  • The leader has no control over what happens, potentially putting themselves at risk
  • Team members have little or no support
  • The team may lack direction and have problems hitting targets.