Robert House’s Path Goal Theory Explained


Robert House’s Path-Goal Theory is a leadership theory that is based on specifying the style of behavior of the leader that best fits their direct reports and their work environment. This allows the style of leadership to be able to achieve a specific goal.

There are several goals that can be pursued when implementing this theory. You may wish to increase the general motivation of each direct report. You may wish to empower direct reports to take on more responsibility. Your goal may even be something as simple as creating a workplace that offers more satisfaction to each employee so that productivity can be maintained.

It is an idea that Robert House based off of the Expectancy Theory. Under the Path-Goal theory, individuals are going to act in a certain way, but based on the expectation that doing do will be followed by a specific outcome. If the outcome is attractive to the person in a leadership role, then they will change their behavior. If not, then their behavior will not change.

There is a Basic 3-Step Process to the Path Goal Theory

Although the Path Goal Theory does not offer a detailed process that can be implemented, each leader who is implementing the theory tends to follow a basic 3-step process in order to obtain an end-goal.

1. The characteristics of the environment and the employees must be determined.
During this step, a leader will look at the design of the task, the formal authority system that is in place, and the structure of the work groups. They will also look at the experience of each employee, the talents and abilities of their direct reports, and where the locus of control happens to be.

2. A leadership style will be selected.
In the Path-Goal Theory, leaders will then choose to be directive, supportive, participative, or achievement-orientated based on the conclusions they’ve made from studying the characteristics in the first step.

3. Motivational factors will then be developed.
Once the leadership style has been implemented, it is up to the leader to determine what motivational factors will help each of their direct reports find the most success. This occurs by defining goals for each employee, clarifying the path forward, and removing obstacles out of the way of productivity.

What tends to get lost during the implementation phase of this theory for leaders is the final component of the third step. Leaders must be able to provide support for their direct reports, even if they are using a directive leadership style. Workers who feel like they are not supported are employees that will not seek to maximize their production.

How to Adjust Leadership Styles After Creating Structure

In Robert House’s Path-Goal Theory, employees are going to interpret their leader’s behavior based on their own needs just as the leader is trying to determine what their behavior is supposed to be. This evaluation includes affiliation, talent, ability, and what they see as a leader’s “desire to control” them. If the interpretation of the employee differs from the evaluation that the leader made, then the team is going to be less effective.

If a leader determines that more structure is needed, but the employee feels like that provides too much structure for them to operate efficiently, then the work will become less motivated. That creates less overall production, which then creates a rift between the leader and the worker.

The benefit of the Path-Goal Theory is that leaders can constantly follow the three steps of evaluation to determine what the best leadership style should be. If a rift forms, it is because the leader has refused to go back and re-evaluate their perceptions of the situation. Rifts are caused by inappropriate leadership styles, goals that do not motivate, or a misunderstanding of the characteristics of a task or an environment.

Can Other Leadership Styles Be Effective?

The first Path-Goal Theory was introduced by Robert House in 1971. In 1996, he refined his theory to include four additional leadership styles that could be used to create results.

  • Value-based leadership.
  • Group networking and/or representation.
  • Group-orientated decision-making.
  • Work facilitation.

The challenge of this theory is that there are variables which are constantly shifting. A leader who attempting to implement this theory as a strategy must be flexible enough to change their style, behavior, or both to accommodate the evolving needs of their direct reports. Each situation may require a unique response.

In other words, it isn’t a one-time evaluation. Robert House’s Path-Goal Theory is a constant evaluation and re-evaluation of its 3-step process.