Michigan Leadership Studies: History and Criticism

What Are the Michigan Leadership Studies?

The Michigan Leadership Studies was a well-known series of leadership studies that commenced at the University of Michigan in the 1950s, intending to identify the principles and types of leadership styles that led to greater productivity and enhanced job satisfaction among workers. The studies identified two broad leadership styles: an employee orientation and a production orientation. They also identified three critical characteristics of effective leaders: task-oriented behavior, relationship-oriented behavior, and participative leadership.

Key Takeaways

  • The Michigan Leadership Studies identified the leadership styles that produced the highest employee satisfaction and productivity.
  • The studies categorized leadership styles as either employee orientation, which emphasizes human relations, or production orientation, which focuses on task-oriented activities.
  • The research identified that employee orientation with general supervision produced more favorable results compared to production orientation and direct supervision.
  • Critics contend that the study is limiting as it does not consider all circumstances and types of organizations, leaders, and employees.

Understanding Michigan Leadership Studies

The studies concluded that an employee orientation coupled with general, rather than close or direct, supervision led to better results. Employee orientation focuses on the human element of employment, stressing that employees have needs that employers should address and care for.

In contrast, production orientation focuses on the technical elements of employment and employees are a means to complete production. The Michigan leadership studies, along with the Ohio State University studies that took place in the 1940s, are two of the best-known behavioral leadership studies and continue to be cited to this day.

Criticisms of the Michigan Leadership Studies

The overarching assertion of the studies was that less direct pressure and control allows employees to be more productive and engaged with their tasks. However, there have been critiques and questions about the methodology and results of the studies. One such critique is that the context of the employees, leadership, and task was not taken into consideration, which raises the possibility that the situation at the organization might warrant one leadership style over another.

Furthermore, the disposition of the workers can be a factor in the leadership approach. The way employees perform may influence a leader to be more hands-on if more direction is needed due to the complexities of the task. Likewise, if employees prove themselves to be capable and handle their tasks fluidly on their own, there is little need for more overt control. A team of veteran workers who have studied and worked on a task for many years might not require a direct manager to issue directives; thus, in that context, it is more likely for the leader to afford them more autonomy.

The narrow options of the studies also do not consider that one size does not fit all organizations or circumstances. Using the same leadership at two different companies can still result in failure or success due to other elements at play. It is common for leaders to adapt their styles over time and as needed, rather than remain committed to a fixed pattern.

Although the Michigan Leadership Studies remain notable, other theories and studies on leadership approaches have developed in more recent years that take into account different dynamics, such as the servant leadership philosophy.