Path goal theory is a leadership style that can help leaders motivate their employees and team members. Choosing the right leadership approach based on the particular situation and end goal is critical for succeeding. The wrong approach can result in failure of the project or other task at hand. Continue reading for a deeper explanation on what path goal theory is, who uses path goal theory, how to implement it, and how it can help your business.

What Is Path Goal Theory?

It is a theory that revolves around on adapting the right leadership style that is most suitable for a situation and the subordinates in question. Robert House of Ohio State University made up this theory in 1971 and revised it in 1996 under “The Leadership Quarterly”. According to path goal theory, a leader’s behavior is contingent to the performance, motivation, and satisfaction of their subordinates. In the revised version, House noted that a leader should compensate for deficiencies in subordinates and complement the abilities of subordinates.

Who Uses Path Goal Theory?

Any person in a leadership position can use path goal theory. This theory has been in use by entrepreneurs, coaches, managers, and team leaders. Leaders are responsible for strategic directing, communicating effectively, and making important decisions for the organization or team. A lot of responsibility rests on the leader’s shoulders for ensuring the organization or team reaches their goals.

Leaders who use path goal theory assess their team members, company goals, the goals of their team members, and what work needs doing. After the analysis, they select which of the four leadership styles in path goal theory is best for the situation. Sometimes, a leader implements a combination of more than one style.

How to Implement Path Goal Theory

You can implement the path goal theory in three steps. First, you must determine what the employee characteristics and task and environmental characteristics are. Then, you pick the right leadership style based on your assessment: directive, supportive, participative, or achievement. Lastly, you utilize motivational factors that will help the employees or team members succeed.

To define employee characteristics, you must consider experience, ability, and locus of control. Task and environmental characteristics outline the obstacles standing in the way of achieving the goal. To determine what the task and environmental characteristics are, look at design of the task, formal authority system, and work group. Extremely difficult tasks may involve more of your assistance. If the team isn’t supportive, then you’ll have to spark comradeship and encourage cohesiveness.

A directive leadership approach is most suitable for tasks that are ambiguous and employees that need structure. If the subordinates are against structure and have high-perceived-ability, then another leadership style is usually better. Supportive leadership works best when the team members aren’t cohesive or supportive. You must fill that gap by encouraging better team work and supporting the members.

When the subordinates are highly-skilled and willing to share their opinions, opt for a participative approach. With an achievement leadership approach, you set challenging goals for subordinates and reward them for accomplishment. In order to effectively motivate subordinates during the third step of implementing path goal theory, you must define clear goals, clarify path, remove obstacles, and provide support.

arrows at a target drawing

Ways in Which Path Goal Theory Can Help Your Business

  1. Inexperienced subordinates appreciate directive leader behavior. They want to know clearly what the leader expects of them and how they should perform their tasks. This helps reassure them in situations when tasks are ambiguous or new to them.
  2. Achievement-oriented leader behavior usually works well among scientists, engineers, salespeople, and those in technical careers. By setting challenging goals for these high achievers, you can help bring out the best in them. When they perform at their best, the company or organization benefits too.
  3. A participative leadership style helps your business when the subordinates involved are highly skilled and great at what they do. They will feel more valued when you give them a chance to express their opinions and participate in the decision-making process. If you make decisions without discussing it with them first and take a directive approach, they will likely feel suppressed.
  4. Path goal theory can improve employee performance and satisfaction. Research has shown that when leaders compensate for the shortcomings of employees or work settings, subordinate satisfaction and performance improve. Path goal theory, as Peter Northouse pointed out in “Leadership: Theory and Practice”, reminds leaders that one of their responsibilities is to help subordinates define and reach goals as efficiently as possible.
  5. When tasks are repetitive or the work is very stressful, supportive leadership behavior is often a good choice. Supportive leadership helps employees handle the stress better and prevents them from feeling drained. A simple “keep up the good work” can refuel an employee to continue working productively on repetitive tasks. Nurturing relationships is necessary under the supportive style. You must also show sensitivity to the needs of your subordinates and keep their best interests in mind.


Keeping your people motivated and empowered is easier when you implement path goal theory. This simple theory reminds you to analyze the situation and subordinates involved before choosing an appropriate leadership approach. In order to implement effectively, you must also motivate employees in the right ways. Following the three steps of path goal theory will help you successfully guide subordinates through a project or task.

Looking back on previous projects and interactions with subordinates, which leadership style do you usually use? Do you think it was the best approach based on the situation and employee? How can you use path goal theory to improve your next company project?

Images taken from