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Thursday, July 25, 2013

Developing Productive Employee Behavior through Path-Goal Theory


Leaders often seek to influence the structures of their organizations in ways that produce specific meaningful activities. In many cases, this induced structure can come through additional definition of which paths/behaviors lead to which type of rewards. Other times it requires an overhaul of the entire system so that the right paths and pressures can be created. Professional and skilled labor level employees often interpret such induced structures differently based upon their current level of role ambiguity. Robert House’s path-goal theory helps define when and where induced leadership structure will be beneficial. 

Path-Goal Theory is derived from the roots of expectancy theory which indicates that actions are determined by a person’s assessment of the possible outcomes and the satisfactions derived from these outcomes. As a person perceives the possible outcomes and sets upon the obtainment of such an outcome they weigh and judge the satisfaction of that possible outcome in order to determine their motivational level and potential behavior. 

Expectancy theory is rooted in a subjective experience based in the persons perception of the possible outcomes and the feelings that person has toward those outcomes. What is important to one person may not be what is important to another. Yet despite these differences, cultures place values on particular outcomes and this can influence what a person sees as the possible outcome and the personal value of its attainment. For example, a worker from China and the U.S. may have different goals based in their cultural vantage points. 

In workplace situations, the leader has influence over both the structure and the job design. When intrinsically motivated behavior results in extrinsic rewards it can lead to greater motivation. Moving up in an organization allows one to master more skills and offers opportunities to expand upon the rewards available. The types of rewards an entry level worker and a senior administrator may receive are inherently defined by the organizational structure and the leader’s perception of comparative worth of their actions. 

This level of influence, and potential rewards, are based within the trust the employee has earned in terms of their abilities, position, and authority. Those employees who have mastered certain skills over their lifetimes have higher comparative worth thereby putting them into a position where they can have more selection over worthwhile rewards. The gaining of position and its possibilities is an external motivating force that when matched with intrinsic motivation can be a potent mix. 

Robert House’s research hypothesized the following:

  • Leadership induced structure improves path instrumentality by reducing ambiguity.
  • Leaders influence the subjective values groups assign to outcomes.
  • Leadership induced structure will have different impacts on whether or not subordinates see the tasks as positive or negative as well as clear or ambiguous. 

House found a relationship between satisfaction, induced structure and higher level professional jobs. These jobs typically come with ambiguity and it isn’t always clear what employees need to do in order to ensure they receive rewards. When the leader implements a level of structure these ambiguous jobs become more defined and in the end raise the level of effort on defined paths. It is this collective effort that promotes work unit performance.

In the skilled labor realm, findings were more inconclusive. At the blue collar level where jobs are already defined and rewards are associated with particular tasks new structures by leaders were often resented. This may be one of the reasons why clearly defined union jobs have developed a level of resistance and immunity to changes proposed by new leaders. To change the nature of tasks and scope of work could lead to new methods of reward obtainment but would require adjustments in the predefined and often legally protected workplace structure. 

House’s path-goal work does open up some new possibilities for organizations with skilled labor that will require more knowledge based skills to stay competitive. Where jobs become increasingly ambiguous the need for leadership direction and structure will become more important in order to maintain momentum on specific goals. It will be this structure and direction that create paths of least resistance whereby employees will more likely choose those productive paths to reach their personal goals. Leaders will need to define what is expected, provide the path, and continue to adjust the skill requirements of jobs to stay competitive. Where personal expectancies and paths meet one would hope to find organizational success.

House, R. (1971) A path goal theory of leader effectiveness. Administrative science quarterly, 16 (3). 

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