Path-Goal Theory of Leadership

Leadership and Public Management
  • Mary Jane Kuffner HirtEmail author
Living reference work entry


Transformational Leadership Leadership Style Leader Behavior Contingency Theory Charismatic Leadership 
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The definition of path-goal leadership theory has changed over time. House in 1971 specified that the leader’s motivational function was to increase “personal pay-offs to subordinates for work-goal attainment and make the path to these pay-offs easier to travel by clarifying it, reducing road blocks and pitfalls, and increasing the opportunities for personal satisfaction en route” (p. 324). Citing a need for consistency with existing theory and empirical testing, House reformulated the definition of path-goal leadership theory in 1996 by stating “leaders to be effective engage in behaviors that complement subordinates’ environments and abilities in a manner that compensates for deficiencies and is instrumental to subordinate satisfaction and individual and work unit performance” (p. 323). House’s 1996 definition continues today.


Robert J. House’s 1971 path-goal theory of leadership extended the work of Martin G. Evans and used expectancy theory to describe the interactions between leaders and their followers to answer the question: “How do leaders motivate followers?” The theory is considered a classic in the field of organizational behavior and the earliest leadership theory that convincingly specified multiple leader behaviors (Jermier 1996). The theory is leader centric and focuses on the influence leader behavior has on follower performance and satisfaction. Initially, the theory emphasized the leader’s individualization of behavior choices to meet the capabilities and needs of each subordinate. However, the theory’s complexity and absence of specific measures for empirical testing are often cited as research challenges. In 1996, House, in response to the methodical issues and his belief that all theories change, reformulated the theory to include groups within the workplace and value-based leadership. Support for the application of path-goal theory through the use of models to guide the leader’s choice of behaviors was evident in the late 1980s. Manager and leader as well as follower, subordinate, and employee are used interchangeably in the path-goal leadership theory literature.

Theory Development

House is generally credited with the development of path-goal theory even though it is rooted in the work of Evans (1970) and others including Stodgill and Coons (1957), Vroom (1964), Georgopoulos et al. (1957). House’s theory relies on the same basic assumption as Evans’ expectancy theory where followers in order to attain satisfaction are assumed to make rational choices about where to direct and expend their effort and energy within a limited number of alternatives. Employees will be motivated by leaders if they believe in their ability to perform their assigned work tasks, think their work-related efforts will lead to appropriate outcomes, and consider work related to outcomes will be meaningful. By adding situational moderator variables, House’s path-goal theory embraced Vroom’s belief that managers can learn to become more effective leaders by matching one’s leadership style to the demands of the situation (Vroom 2007) and attempted to resolve inconsistent research findings related to the effects of task versus people-oriented leader behaviors (Lussier 2004).

Path-goal theory assumes leaders work in close proximity to subordinates and are able to accurately assess employee capacities and needs. Effective path-goal leaders will provide or ensure the availability of valued rewards for followers (the goal) and then help them find the best way to get there (the path). They will help their followers identify and remove road blocks and avoid dead ends and supply emotional support when necessary. The leader’s actions should strengthen followers’ beliefs. If followers exert a certain level of effort, then they will be more likely to accomplish a task, and if they accomplish the task, then they will be more likely to achieve some valued outcome (Hughes et al. 2006; Northouse 2015; Rowe and Guerrero 2013).

Leaders are expected to use the appropriate leadership style regardless of their preferred style and be willing to learn new behaviors. Consequently, leaders must be insightful, flexible, and emotionally intelligent in order to adapt their range of leader behaviors to the daily variability of situational factors (Jaffee 2001; McShane and Von Glinow 2003; Lussier 2004). House though cautioned that the motive arousal potential of the leader’s message is bounded by the leader’s personal nature, the followers’ susceptibility to the message, and the appropriateness of the motive to the situation (1971).

Path-Goal Theory Evolved from 1971 to 1996

House revised path-goal theory twice from 1971 to 1996. Regardless of the version, the theory focuses considerable attention on the day-to-day interactions between the leader and the follower and reinforces the leader’s responsibility for helping subordinates find the appropriate path to attain organizational goals in an efficient and effective manner (DuBrin 2009; Northouse 2015). Critical to the process is recognition that different leader behaviors will differentially affect subordinate motivation and their impact will depend on subordinate and task characteristics (Jaffee 2001). In 1971 the theory specified two types of leader behavior: directive and supportive. In 1974 House added two leader behaviors: participative and achievement oriented. In 1996, House reformulated path-goal theory by expanding from a focus on individual subordinates to the leader’s influence to the work group and added four more leader behaviors to the definition: interaction or work facilitation, group-oriented decision process, representation and networking, and value-based leader behavior. Situational factors associated with the environment and subordinate and used to determine leadership style remained constant from 1971 to 1996. The 1996 revision while deemed quite complex (DuBrin 2009) also laid the groundwork for recognition that there may be instances when leader behaviors were of little or no consequence. As Bass noted, the leader “needs to complement only what is missing in a situation to enhance the subordinate’s motivation, satisfaction, and performance” (1990, p. 627).

Path-Goal Theory Components

Eight types of leader behaviors and two situational factors are specified in the current version of path-goal leadership theory. Subordinate and organizational environment factors are used to determine the appropriate leadership style. An effective choice of leadership style will facilitate subordinate goal attainment and satisfaction. The eight leader behaviors are directive, supportive, participative, achievement oriented, work facilitation, interaction facilitation, group-oriented decision process, representation and networking, and value based.

Directive leader behavior is a clarifying behavior where the leader provides high psychological structure and is appropriate when the follower wants an authoritarian leader with an external locus of control, where follower ability is low, the environment is complex or ambiguous, formal authority is strong, and the work group provides job satisfaction. Supportive leader behavior focuses on the satisfaction of subordinates’ needs and preferences by providing high consideration or a highly psychologically supportive environment. The leader creates a friendly and calming atmosphere where stress is alleviated, and subordinates are able to develop self-confidence and attain a sense of significance or equality. This behavior is appropriate when follower ability is high, tasks are simple, formal leadership is weak, and the work group does not provide the follower with job satisfaction. It also appropriate when the followers do not want an autocratic leader and prefer an internal locus of control. Participative leader behavior encourages subordinate influence on decision-making and work unit operations. It is appropriate when follower ability is high and followers want to be involved and prefer an internal locus of control and when the task is complex, authority is either strong or weak, and job satisfaction derived from coworkers is either high or low (Lussier 2004, pp. 149–152). Participative leader behaviors increase individual worker effort and performance and provide opportunities for peer pressure to facilitate and enhance organizational performance (House 1996). Achievement-oriented behavior encourages performance excellence. The leader sets difficult but achievable goals, expects followers to perform at their highest level, and rewards them when goals are met. This behavior is highly directive and structured and high in support and consideration. It is appropriate when followers are high in ability, are open to an autocratic leader, and have an external locus of control and when the task is simple, authority is strong, and job satisfaction from coworkers is high or low (Lussier 2004). Achievement-oriented behavior encourages differentiating the levels of contingent reward and emphasizes self-revitalization of followers through work goals. Work facilitation focuses on leader behaviors that involve planning, scheduling, and organizing work and personally coordinating the work of the subordinates. Through interaction facilitation behavior, the leader focuses on fostering collaborative and positive interactions among work group members, resolving disputes as they arise, facilitating communication within the work group, and encouraging close satisfying relationships among members. Group-oriented decision process behavior concerns how decisions that affect the group are made. In this behavior, the leader poses problems not solutions, searches for and identifies the mutual problem-solving interests among group members, encourages all members of the group to participate in discussion, and ensures that participation is balanced across the group as alternatives are sought and considered. Representation and networking involves the leader’s presentation of the group in a favorable manner and communicating the importance of its work to other members within the organization and networking to seek and maintain positive external relationships. According to House, value-based leader behavior inspires extraordinary follower commitment, identification with leader or organizational goals, and performance above and beyond the call of duty. Such effects are accomplished by appealing to subordinates’ cherished values and nonconscious motives and by engaging their self-perceived identities, enhancing their self-efficacy and sense of consistency, and making their self-worth contingent on their contribution to the leader’s mission and collective. The leader uses symbolic behaviors that emphasize the values inherent in the collective vision and frequent positive evaluations of followers and the collective (1996).

Subordinate situational factors are characterized in terms of authoritarianism, locus of control, and ability. Authoritarianism is the degree to which employees defer to the leader and want to be told what to do and how to perform. Locus of control is the extent to which employees believe they control goal achievement internally or if goal achievement is controlled by others externally. Ability is the extent of the employee’s capacity to perform tasks to achieve goals. The organizational or work environment is described in terms of task structure, the extent of the repetitiveness of the job; formal authority, the extent of the leader’s position power within the organization; and work group, the extent to which coworkers contribute to job satisfaction or the relationship between the followers (Lussier 2004, p. 150).

Links to Other Leadership Theories

House’s path-goal leadership theory gave rise to contingency theory with its shift from universal traits and styles of leadership to the relationships between traits and styles and the situation or context. The effectiveness of a leadership style or trait will depend on the particular situation, problem, or group of people that must be managed (Jaffee 2001). According to McShane and Von Glinow (2003) and Northouse, when leader behaviors or styles adapt to or respond to situations or circumstances as they arise, the leader’s actions demonstrate contingency theory.

Aspects of transactional and transformational leadership theories are also seen in path-goal theory. The link to transactional leadership is found in subordinate motivation rooted in contractual, negotiated exchanges between a leader and a follower reward for high performance and penalties for substandard performance. Path-goal theory reflects transformational leadership when leaders inspire followers to align their own values with those of the leader or organization. (House 1996).

Assessment of Path-Goal Theory

General understanding and study of path-goal theory remain a challenge. A need for reader clarification is apparent when authors routinely follow the definition of path-goal leadership theory with a statement beginning with “in other words.” Although critics generally agree that path-goal leadership theory is complex, research results have been inconsistent, and many variables have not been adequately tested (Lussier 2004; Antonakis et al. 2004; Wofford and Liska 1993; House 1996; Hughes et al. 2006); there is recognition that path-goal theory has been researched more than any other contingency theory and is considered an important contribution to leadership theory for its conceptual framework and the guidance it provides to leaders about motivating followers (Yukl 1989; Lussier 2004; Northouse 2015).

Peak research interest in path-goal theory occurred between 1971 and 1992 when over 120 studies were conducted on varying aspects of the theory (Wofford and Liska 1993; Schriesheim and Neider 1996). Although path-goal theory is still generally found in textbooks on leadership theory or leader effectiveness, scholarly research greatly diminished after 2000. Wofford and Liska and Schriesheim and Neider are the most commonly cited assessments of path-goal theory.

Wofford and Liska’s meta-analysis of over 100 studies concluded that path-goal theory has not been comprehensively tested, that research has produced generally inconsistent findings, and that the reliance on expectancy theory overly complicates the conceptualization of employee motivation. The use of many different instruments makes outcomes difficult to synthesize, and the use of surrogate measures for employee satisfaction and performance, role clarity, and organizational commitment raises questions about whether the surrogate variables could be affected by other variables.

Schriesheim and Neider attributed the decline in research to negative reviews of path-goal theory that make it more difficult for research to be published, the loss of its inherent appeal in the leadership domain, and the absence of serious improvements in path-goal theory since its initial development. They also noted that the easiest relationships have been already tested, including the difficulty of developing meaningful extensions of or modifications to the theory and concerns related to the use of self-reporting and survey research as barriers to research. Schreisheim et al. in 2006 reiterated the above issues in addition to concluding that House’s theory holds for leader behavior and employee performance and satisfaction at the individual rather than the work unit level of analysis.

Other critics have warned that as the path-goal model becomes more representative of the complexity of leadership, it may be more useful to researchers and less appealing for practical use and too unwieldy for training people in leadership styles as few people are able to remember all of the contingencies (McShane and Von Glinow 2003; Yukl 1989; Lussier 2004). Yukl and Van Fleet (1992) also believe that path-goal theory leadership theory ignores the roles leaders play in selecting talented followers, building their skills, and redesigning their work.

Future Research Recommendations

Of the suggestions for future research, two recommendations stand out. Antonakis suggested qualitative field research would provide detail and insight and allow for greater interpretation of the theory, although it would be time and resource intensive. Wofford and Liska recommended research focused on the range and variability of available leader behaviors including adaptability, self-monitoring, environmental sensitivity, cognitive skills, and communications skills and greater emphasis of and sensitivity to motivational variables and the analysis of determinants and effects of short-term leader behavior.

Application to Public Sector

Potential for the application of path-goal theory to public administration increased with House’s reformulation of the theory in 1996. House indicated that the effectiveness of value-based leadership will increase when the leader refrains from the use of extrinsic rewards contingent on subordinate performance. Without extrinsic rewards, workers will look for self-related justifications and satisfaction for their efforts, and leaders will be better able to foster an ideological orientation toward work (House 1996). Toward this end, Schriesheim et al. (2006) reported research results associated with lower-income social service agency employees in highly bureaucratic settings demonstrated the potential for altruism or intrinsic rewards to become a motivator when extrinsic factors such as pay raises, training opportunities, promotions, and improved working conditions were not generally available or alterable. Social service employees motivated to provide services to people in great need may see the service as a valued outcome and derive satisfaction when a positive outcome is achieved.


Path-goal leadership theory initially focused on leaders and their individualized effect on subordinates in the workplace. Over time, House’s definition of path-goal theory changed in response to existing theory and the limited results of empirical research. Today, the focus is still on the leader but considers the leader’s effect on groups and individuals and acknowledges that there may be no need for leadership intervention in some circumstances for followers to attain goals and achieve personal satisfaction.

Path-goal leadership theory research peaked by the early 1990s. Narrowly structured rather than comprehensive studies of the theory predominated. Difficulty associated with determining whether study variables actually measured path-goal theory became a recurring criticism.

Recognizing the limits posed by the absence of measures directly representative of his path-goal theory, House redirected his attention to work groups and the value-based leadership theory that stresses intrinsic rewards for goal attainment and may be more relevant as a leadership theory within public organizations where managers constrained by personnel systems and limited resources generally have few tangible rewards to offer their subordinates. Today, value-based leadership is more commonly known as charismatic leadership.



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© Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Indiana University of PennsylvaniaIndianaUSA