What is the Contingency Approach?

Emma G.

The contingency approach is a form of business management in which the manager does not follow any single school of thought. Instead, he or she allows the situation to dictate managerial choices. The contingency approach may combine elements from the three major traditional schools of management thought. These are the classical, behavioral, and management science schools of management.

The contingency approach may combine elements from the three major traditional schools of management thought: classical, behavioral, and management science.
The contingency approach may combine elements from the three major traditional schools of management thought: classical, behavioral, and management science.

The contingency approach to management should not be misunderstood as a way of avoiding the use or knowledge of the traditional schools of management. Managers who use the contingency approach must study all three thought schools in order to effectively use elements of them to respond to situations as they arise. Other, more recent movements in management may also be integrated into the contingency approach.

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, the classical school of management evolved. This school encompasses two areas of thought: scientific management, which should not be confused with the management science school that developed later, and administrative theory. Scientific management focused on the productivity of each worker. It stressed job specialization, worker selection, and training and standardized wages. Meanwhile administrative theory was concerned with the organization as a whole, stressing authority, discipline, and unity of thought and mission.

The behavioral school of thought recognized that workers are not just automatons, but people who had thoughts, feelings, and needs. This school declared that the way people are treated impacts performance. Being aware of employee needs and rewarding employees for a job well done were integral parts of this school of thought. It assumed that people will more willingly be swayed by pressure from their fellow workers than by management incentive or punishment.

Finally, management science evolved during and after World War II. This management school applied the scientific method to problems facing managers in the workplace. It stressed efficiency and used mathematical models to find solutions to common problems.

Each of these classical schools assumes that it is possible to find a single best way to manage any and all types of business. The contingency approach rejects this idea. It accepts that the overall effectiveness of management style does not depend on following a particular school of thought, but on how well the chosen action fits the situation at hand. When choosing which action to take, a manager may take into account the needs of the company, the desires of the clients, and the ability and temperament of the employees.

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Discussion Comments


@allenJo - I took a course on management once and it dealt with organizational theory. This is basically the theory behind what we do in groups.

It dealt with things like personality types, motivations, roles and group culture. Mainly what it aims to do is to explain how people can become more productive in their work settings. That is after all what leaders and managers are most concerned with, not figuring out your little personality quirks and idiosyncrasies.

My take on organizational theory goes back to the time I spent as a K-12 teacher. I found it fascinating to watch how kids assembled when I announced that we were doing “group assignments.”

It was easy to see who the group leaders were, who the assistants were and who the followers were.

As a teacher I pretty much gave them all the same grade, but I learned a lot about group dynamics.


@SkyWhisperer - Reading this article reminds me of some other stuff I’ve read about leadership in the past.

I remember having to read the One Minute Manager when it first came out. It was a hot little book packed with insights on how a leader could quickly set goals, praise his employees and reprimand them, without wasting too much time (hence, the “one minute”).

One of these authors went on to come up with this idea of situational leadership theory, which is very similar to what the article talks about. In situational leadership, you lead based on the circumstance, not on any particular school of thought or methodology.

You take into account things like the nature of the task, the maturity of the individual and other factors, to determine how best to lead.

Personally I like what you call these more relativistic approaches to leadership and management, because they all acknowledge the fact that people are different.


@SkyWhisperer - Leadership theory and practice is an interesting discipline of study. It’s enlightening to read case histories from the business world of people who had leadership skills, and those who didn’t, and the difference between the two.

One of the stories that I like is that of McDonald’s. The story goes that the original owners of the McDonald’s franchise opened up a few stores, thought they hit it big, and just settled on their laurels. Later however they sold it to Ray Kroc, who had a bigger vision.

With his leadership, he was able to impart that vision to others – a vision of nationwide franchises, all selling the same stuff, with those signature all beef patties as the main dish.


It seems that contingency theory sounds somewhat relativistic in my opinion. It states that no one school of thought dictates how to manage - it “just depends.”

I can’t vouch for that being true or not (although in general I dislike relativism) but I can tell you that in my case, I prefer the encouragement of fellow workers than I do a harsh, angry boss who threatens me with punishment.

That doesn’t boost morale. It’s like that comical poster seen in some workplaces, “The beatings will continue until morale improves.”

Those approaches don’t inspire me; they just encourage me to submit my resume elsewhere. But since it appears that the contingency approach would take all approaches into consideration, depending on the circumstances, I guess a shrewd manager would figure out just the right way to handle someone like me.

At any rate, I could never be a manager myself; it seems that it requires too much finesse, and patience.

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