Directive and Supportive Leadership: Which One to Use and When

There are many types of leadership styles out there. Which one is right for you? Here, we’ll discuss two specific styles: directive and supportive leadership. One is not objectively better than the other—it all depends on your work culture, the people you manage, and the situations you encounter.

Let’s take a moment to discuss what directive and supportive leadership are and the specific circumstances that merit each style.

Directive Leadership

Directive leadership focuses on providing direction to team members. It takes an instructional and task-oriented approach where the leader actively directs the work of the team:

  • Assigns responsibilities to each team member
  • Establishes deadlines
  • Defines each task
  • Communicates firm rules and boundaries
  • Supervises the team closely rather than giving them autonomy

Supportive Leadership

When individuals take on a supportive leadership role, they provide their team members with high levels of autonomy and offer further guidance when necessary. Team members are encouraged to take initiative, foster positive team morale, and focus on their professional development.

Supportive leaders ensure everyone has the tools and resources they need to:

  • Work independently.
  • Make their own decisions.
  • Achieve the desired quality for a given project.
  • Work collaboratively with others and form positive relationships.

Here are some examples of supportive-leadership tactics:

  • Facilitating discussions rather than taking charge of them
  • Inviting team members to take a central role when making decisions
  • Offering guidance rather than dictating how something should be done
  • Initiating candid but caring discussions around one’s professional growth

manager and employee walking down hall with folder

Directive vs. Supportive Leadership

Directive and supportive leadership differ in three main ways:

Directive leaders focus more on developing their team members’ competencies, while supportive leaders focus on developing relationships.
Directive leaders focus on work tasks and responsibilities, while supportive leaders focus on professional development.
Directive leaders manage interactions, while supportive leaders facilitate interactions.

When to Use Directive Leadership

Leaders should use directive leadership under the following conditions:

1. Working with Unskilled Team Members

Unskilled members can be anyone new to the team or a given task. Since they may require more direction on what to do and how to fulfill responsibilities, taking a directive approach is ideal in this situation. Leaders can define the task and supervise the team to ensure that everyone achieves the desired results.

2. An Urgent Situation Arises

Emergencies come up in the workplace that need to be dealt with quickly. Including all team members in the decision-making process can prolong workflow, which is not ideal in an urgent situation. 

To speed up the process and help achieve the desired results within the desired timeframe, directive leaders make decisions for the team and assign tasks to each person. 

3. There is No Room for Error

When high-priority initiatives arise and there can be no errors, directive leadership can help team members complete the project effectively and efficiently. Leaders may also outline strict rules to safeguard the team from the risk of making mistakes. 

When to Use Supportive Leadership

Leaders should tap into a supportive leadership style in situations like the following:

1. Working with Competent or Experienced Team Members

Competent or experienced team members already understand how to perform their jobs and what is expected of them. Therefore, with supportive leadership, leaders can take a hands-off approach and instead be available to offer guidance and insight when individuals need it.

2. Working with Disengaged Team Members

Some team members might be capable of performing a task but lack the motivation to do so. This might be due to low team morale, a mismatch in values, or a lack of self-efficacy. This is where supportive leadership can be especially impactful.

Supportive leaders take an empathetic approach, having open, honest, and caring conversations with team members. These discussions can help leaders assess what their team members need to succeed.

3. Decisions Don’t Have to Be Made Quickly

If individuals are working on a long-term project where decisions do not need to be made quickly, you have the time to employ a supportive leadership style. Supportive leaders can

  • Foster collaboration to help bolster the quality of work.
  • Invite team members to take part in the decision-making process.
  • Give individual contributors the freedom to take the reins on the project.

In the event that issues arise, workforce members can approach supportive leaders for further guidance and resources.

Strengthen Your Leadership Skills with CMOE

It takes time to master various leadership styles to drive your team in the right direction. At CMOE, we’re here to help leaders like you navigate leadership challenges with confidence and ease. We encourage you to explore our Flexible Leadership Workshop to become experts in applying the right leadership style to any given situation.

Related Services:

About the Author

CMOE Team

CMOE’s Design Team is comprised of individuals with diverse and complementary strengths, talents, education, and experience who have come together to bring a unique service to CMOE’s clients. Our team has a rich depth of knowledge, holding advanced degrees in areas such as business management, psychology, communication, human resource management, organizational development, and sociology.