Leadership; is it better to be people or task oriented?

What is most important when managing people? To concentrate first on getting the tasks done and caring for people second? Or, caring for people first and the tasks which need to be done second?

Note, I am not saying concentrate on tasks to the exclusion of people or vice-versa, just a clear hierarchy of importance.

Most of the organisations I have worked with have no clear idea. The decisions, on what to concentrate, are usually determined by individual behaviours of the leaders in the organisation.

It is clear, from research that employees generally are a dissatisfied group. In a 2004 study by TNS it was revealed about employees that:

  • 40% feel disconnected from their jobs
  • 66% of workers do not identify with their employer’s goals and objectives
  • 25% of the workforce is just showing up for work.

More worryingly, in a survey for the Conference Board by TNS in 2007 of 5000 US households, the percentage of workers who were satisfied by year, were revealed as:

  • 61 percent (1987)
  • 59 percent (1995)
  • 51 percent (2000)
  • 52 percent (2005)
  • 47 percent (2006).

My observations are that people become satisfied at work, and often at home as a result, when they feel they have a purpose. The tasks we are set to do reflect our purpose. It does not matter whether we are set the tasks directly by our supervisor or we have been given an overall task to set up our own sub-tasks to achieve an objective. The important element is that we have something to achieve against which we and others can measure ourselves.

Happily, an organisation with a clear goal and well developed strategies and tactics will have clear tasks and measures of success for those tasks. Even better, my personal sense of purpose matches the need of the organisation.

So an organisation with a clear goal, well communicated strategies and tactics should be a very satisfying place to work, should it not?

Once more, my observation is that this is not always so. The emphasis on accommodation of people’s needs over the tasks required to be completed disturbs the clear line between goal, strategy, tactics, task and a sense of purpose. It is also my observation that the concentration on an employee’s individual needs and relationships has increased in preference to task markedly since I started work over thirty years ago.

There is now a predilection for translating looking after employees to building a relationship with them. Not only that, the relationship is defined by “liking” the leader, rather than respect borne from being consistent, persistent and insistent.

In a survey by the Society for Human Resource Management in 2007, the top five “very important” aspects of job satisfaction, according to employees themselves, were:

  1. Compensation
  2. Benefits
  3. Job security
  4. Work/life balance, and
  5. Communication between employees and senior management.

The top five aspects of employee job satisfaction predicted by HR professionals were:

  1. Relationship with immediate supervisor
  2. Compensation
  3. Management recognition of employee job performance
  4. Benefits, and
  5. Communication between employees and senior management.

Note that relationships were most important to the HR fraternity and not important to employees.

Leaders who try to build “relationships” by accommodating one or more employee’s demands separate to the rest of their team signal that relationships are more important than getting the job at hand done. They signal that individual “happiness” is more important than accomplishing the team’s purpose. They can also inadvertently signal elements of bias.

However, if leaders focus on their goal, they can more easily be seen to be consistent and help reduce any perception of bias.

By focusing on tasks whilst maintaining a relationship with subordinates, leaders can maintain a position of authority and still be considered as friendly.

Leaders must be clear about the goal of their department.

They must be clear about the major tasks which individuals need to complete:

  1. Every day
  2. Every week
  3. Every month
  4. Seasonally.

Or they must be clear about the goals that more competent individuals must set for themselves and, thereby, the tasks they must set for themselves.

Differences in leaders’ performance can be explained by the extent to which the leader is task- and or person-oriented

  1. Task-oriented leaders
    • manage/lead by instruction or goal setting
    • are more hands-off with regard to people
  2. Person-oriented leaders
    • show concern for subordinates
    • are warm and supportive
    • are more hands-off with regard to tasks.

The following table illustrates the benefits of focusing on task and the person.

Low task High Task
High person
  • Low performance
  • Low turnover
  • Low grievance rate
  • High performance
  • Low turnover
  • Low grievance rate
Low person
  • Low performance
  • High turnover
  • High grievance rate
  • High performance
  • High turnover
  • High grievance rate

In my view, whilst it is clear that leaders who concentrate on the task and the person is ideal, I would rather have a task-oriented leader who is a little less able to be warm and supportive of subordinates than a leader who is very warm and supportive but cannot set goals and manage tasks.