Contingency School

Contingency School of Management is a trend of management thought, which is based on the premises that there is no single best way to manage because every situation and every manager is different. Therefore, there are only a few universal management principles, and an appropriate management style depends on the demands of a particular situation. See also classical school of management, quantitative school of management, and systems school of management.


The contingency school of management can be summarized as an "it all depends" approach. The appropriate management actions and approaches depend on the situation. Managers with a contingency view use a flexible approach, draw on a variety of theories and experiences, and evaluate many options as they solve problems.


Contingency management recognizes that there is no one best way to manage. In the contingency perspective, managers are faced with the task of determining which managerial approach is likely to be most effective in a given situation. For example, the approach used to manage a group of teenagers working in a fast-food restaurant would be very different from the approach used to manage a medical research team trying to find a cure for a disease.


Contingency thinking avoids the classical "one best way" arguments and recognizes the need to understand situational differences and respond appropriately to them. It does not apply certain management principles to any situation. Contingency theory is a recognition of the extreme importance of individual manager performance in any given situation. The contingency approach is highly dependent on the experience and judgment of the manager in a given organizational environment.


Contingency theory refers to any of a number of management theories. Several contingency approaches were developed concurrently in the late 1960s.


They suggested that previous theories such as Weber's bureaucracy and Taylor's scientific management had failed because they neglected that management style and organizational structure were influenced by various aspects of the environment: the contingency factors. There could not be "one best way" for leadership or organization.


Historically, contingency theory has sought to formulate broad generalizations about the formal structures that are typically associated with or best fit the use of different technologies. The perspective originated with the work of Joan Woodward (1958), who argued that technologies directly determine differences in such organizational attributes as span of control, centralization of authority, and the formalization of rules and procedures.


Fred Fiedler's contingency model focused on individual leadership. Other researchers including Paul Lawrence, Jay Lorsch, and James D. Thompson were more interested in the impact of contingency factors on organizational structure. Their structural contingency theory was the dominant paradigm of organizational structural theories for most of the 1970s. A major empirical test was furnished by Johannes M. Pennings who examined the interaction between environmental uncertainty, organization structure and various aspects of performance.


Contingency School began in 1960s. The contingency school focused on applying management principles and processes primarily dictated by each unique situation. In the contingency theory, a leader's ability to lead is contingent upon various situational factors. Its application has been on management issues such as organizational design, job design, motivation, and leadership style.


A few of the major contributors are Fred Fiedler, Joan Woodward, and Paul Lawrence. The Contingency Theory states that the leader's ability to lead is contingent upon various situational factors.


Contingency School of Management

Obviously, these schools made a significant contribution to modern day management, and these early results provide a blueprint for the current leadership paradigms in organizations.


The contingency school of management is based on the idea that there is no one best way to manage and that to be effective, planning, organizing, leading, and controlling must be tailored to the particular circumstances faced by an organization. Managers have always asked questions such as "What is the right thing to do? Should we have a mechanistic or an organic structure? A functional or divisional structure? Wide or narrow spans of management? Tall or flat organizational structures? Simple or complex control and coordination mechanisms? Should we be centralized or decentralized? Should we use task or people oriented leadership styles? What motivational approaches and incentive programs should we use?" The contingency approach to management (also called the situational approach) assumes that there is no universal answer to such questions because organizations, people, and situations vary and change over time. Thus, the right thing to do depends on a complex variety of critical environmental and internal contingencies.


Historical Overview of Contingency School

Classical management theorists such as Henri Fayol and Frederick Taylor identified and emphasized management principles that they believed would make companies more successful. However, the classicists came under fire in the 1950s and 1960s from management thinkers who believed that their approach was inflexible and did not consider environmental contingencies. Although the criticisms were largely invalid (both Fayol and Taylor, for example, recognized that situational factors were relevant), they spawned what has come to be called the contingency school of management. Research conducted in the 1960s and 1970s focused on situational factors that affected the appropriate structure of organizations and the appropriate leadership styles for different situations. Although the contingency perspective purports to apply to all aspects of management, and not just organizing and leading, there has been little development of contingency approaches outside organization theory and leadership theory. The following sections provide brief overviews of the contingency perspective as relevant to organization theory and leadership.


Contingency Perspective and Organization Theory

Environmental change and uncertainty, work technology, and the size of a company are all identified as environmental factors impacting the effectiveness of different organizational forms. According to the contingency perspective, stable environments suggest mechanistic structures that emphasize centralization, formalization, standardization, and specialization to achieve efficiency and consistency. Certainty and predictability permit the use of policies, rules, and procedures to guide decision making for routine tasks and problems. Unstable environments suggest organic structures which emphasize decentralization to achieve flexibility and adaptability. Uncertainty and unpredictability require general problem solving methods for nonroutine tasks and problems. Paul Lawrence and Jay Lorsch suggest that organizational units operating in differing environments develop different internal unit characteristics, and that the greater the internal differences, the greater the need for coordination between units.


Joan Woodward found that financially successful manufacturing organizations with different types of work technologies (such as unit or small batch; large-batch or mass-production; or continuous-process) differed in the number of management levels, span of management, and the degree of worker specialization. She linked differences in organization to firm performance and suggested that certain organizational forms were appropriate for certain types of work technologies.


Organizational size is another contingency variable thought to impact the effectiveness of different organizational forms. Small organizations can behave informally while larger organizations tend to become more formalized. The owner of a small organization may directly control most things, but large organizations require more complex and indirect control mechanisms. Large organizations can have more specialized staff, units, and jobs. Hence, a divisional structure is not appropriate for a small organization but may be for a large organization.


In addition to the contingencies identified above, customer diversity and the globalization of business may require product or service diversity, employee diversity, and even the creation of special units or divisions. Organizations operating within the United States may have to adapt to variations in local, state, and federal laws and regulations. Organizations operating internationally may have to adapt their organizational structures, managerial practices, and products or services to differing cultural values, expectations, and preferences. The availability of support institutions and the availability and cost of financial resources may influence an organization's decision to produce or purchase new products. Economic conditions can affect an organization's hiring and layoff practices as well as wage, salary, and incentive structures. Technological change can significantly affect an organization. The use of robotics affects the level and types of skills needed in employees. Modern information technology both permits and requires changes in communication and interaction patterns within and between organizations.


Contingency Perspective and Leadership

Dissatisfaction with trait-based theories of leadership effectiveness led to the development of contingency leadership theories. Fred Fiedler, in the 1960s and 1970s, was an early pioneer in this area. Various aspects of the situation have been identified as impacting the effectiveness of different leadership styles. For example, Fred Fiedler suggests that the degree to which subordinates like or trust the leader, the degree to which the task is structured, and the formal authority possessed by the leader are key determinants of the leadership situation. Task-oriented or relationship oriented leadership should would each work if they fit the characteristics of the situation.


Other contingency leadership theories were developed as well. However, empirical research has been mixed as to the validity of these theories.