House’s Path Goal Theory

PSYCH-105 Industrial Psychology

Chapter 7: Leadership

Unit 1

Unit 2

Unit 3

Unit 4


House’s Path-Goal Theory

Robert House (1971)

The theory states that leaders can increase their subordinates motivation satisfaction and job performance by administering rewards that depends on the achievement of particular goals. In other words, effective leaders will help employees reach personal and organizational goals by pointing out the paths they should follow and by providing them with the means to do so. 

The path-goal theory of leadership was developed by Robert House (1971) and was based on the expectancy theory of Victor Vroom. According to House, the essence of the theory is “the meta proposition that 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”. The theory identifies four leader behaviors, achievement-oriented, directive, participative, and supportive, that is contingent to the environment factors and follower characteristics. In contrast to the Fiedler contingency model, the path-goal model states that the four leadership behaviors are fluid, and that leaders can adopt any of the four depending on what the situation demands. House said that the main role of a leader is to motivate his followers by:

  1. Increasing or clarifying the (group’s/followers’) personal benefits of striving for and reaching the group’s goal.
  2. Clarifying and clearing a path to achieving the group’s goals.

House’s theory matched four ways of behaving to four sets of circumstances, or ‘situations’.

The circumstances in Path-Goal theory are driven by ‘follower characteristics’ and ‘workplace characteristics’.

Follower characteristics include:

  • What they believe about their ability – Do they feel they are capable of fulfilling the task well?
  • Where control resides – Do group members believe they have control over the way they approach the task and the chances of achieving the goal? Or do they see themselves as being controlled by other people and outside events?
  • Attitude to power and those in power – Do members want to be told what to do and how to do it… or not? What do they think of those in the organization who have more official power than they do, especially the leader?

Workplace characteristics include:

  • The kind of task – Is it repetitive? Is it interesting? Is it predictable or structured? Is it unpredictable, creative or unstructured?
  • The leader’s formal authority – Is it well-defined?
  • Group cohesion – Do those working in the group feel a sense of unity?

House took these two external dimensions and matched them with four leadership behavioural styles, as this diagram summarises:

House’s Path-Goal theory diagram- workplace/follower characteristics and four leadership styles

Leadership Style

Leaders’ behaviour

Workplace Characteristics

Follower Characteristics


The leader tells subordinates what they should do and how they should do it.

Unstructured interesting tasks
Clear, formal authority
Good group cohesion

Inexperienced followers
They believe they lack power
They want leader to direct them


The leader shows concern and support for subordinates.

Simpler, more predictable tasks
Unclear or weak formal authority
Poor group cohesion  

Experienced, confident followers
They believe they have power
They reject close control 


The leader allows subordinates to participate in decision that affect their work

Unstructured, complex tasks
Formal authority could be either clear or unclear
Group cohesion could either be good or poor

Experienced, confident followers
They believe they have power
They reject close control, preferring to exercise power over their work


The leader sets challenging goals for subordinates and emphasizes high levels of job performance.

Unstructured, complex or unpredictable tasks
Clear, formal authority
Group cohesion could either be good or poor 

Experienced, confident followers
They think they lack some power
They accept the idea of the leader setting their goals and have a lot of respect for the leader

The path goal theory postulates that the most successful leaders are those who increase subordinate motivation by charting out and clarifying the paths to high performance.

In his path-goal theory, researcher Robert House focused on what leaders can do to motivate their subordinates to achieve group or organizational goals. 

  1. The premise is that effective leaders motivate subordinates to achieve goals by:

a. Clearly identifying the outcomes that subordinates are trying to obtain in the workplace, 

b. Rewarding subordinates with these outcomes for high performance and the attainment of work goals, and 

c. Clarifying for subordinates the paths leading to the attainment of work goals. 

d. Based on the expectancy theory of motivation, path-goal theory provides managers with three guidelines to follow to be effective leaders: 

i. Find out what outcomes your subordinates are trying to obtain from their jobs and the organization. 

ii. Reward subordinates for high performance and goal attainment with the outcomes they desire. 

iii. Clarify the paths to goal attainment for subordinates, remove any obstacles to high performance, and express confidence in subordinates’ capabilities. 

2. Path-goal theory identifies four kinds of behaviours that leaders can engage in to motivate subordinates. Which behaviours managers should use to lead effectively depends upon the nature of the subordinates and the kind of work they do. The behaviours are: 

a. Directive behaviours, which are similar to initiating structure and include showing subordinates how to complete tasks, and taking concrete steps to improve performance.

b. Supportive behaviours, which are similar to consideration and include looking out for subordinates’ best interest,

c. Participative behaviours, which give subordinates a say in matters and decisions that affect them, and

d. Achievement-oriented behaviours, which motivate subordinates to perform at the highest level possible by setting very challenging goals and believing in subordinates’ capabilities.

The path-goal model can be classified both as a contingency theory, as it depends on the circumstances, and as a transactional leadership theory, as the theory emphasizes the reciprocity behavior between the leader and the followers.

The leadership styles that will be most effective depends on characteristics of the situation and the attributes of the subordinates.

Author – Dr. Niyati Garg

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