Everything you need to know about the contingency approach to management. Contingency approach integrates the various other approaches to the management developed earlier.

This is also called the “Situational” approach. According to it, the major premise is that there is no one best way to handle any of the management problems.

In any situation, the principles and practices of management should be rather contingent upon the existing circumstances or the situations.

Learn about:- 1. Elements of Contingency Approach 2. Features of Contingency Approach 3. Contributions 4. Implications 5. Merits 6. System Theory Vs Contingency Theory.

Contingency Approach to Management

Contingency Approach to Management – With Contributions of Contingency Approach

Contingency approach advocates that managerial actions and organisational design must be appropriate to the given situation and a particular action is valid only under certain conditions. It advocates that the managers should develop situation sensitivity and practical selectivity.


In fact, contingency approach has been termed as a common sense approach. Adoption of this approach can be useful in the formulation of strategies, design of effective organisations, planning information systems, establishing communication and control systems, shaping motivational and leadership approaches, resolving conflicts, managing change, etc.

Kast and Rosenzweig have described the contingency views of organisation in the following words – “The contingency approach suggests that an organisation is a system composed of subsystems and delineated by identifiable boundaries from its environmental supra system. The contingency view seeks to understand the interrelationship within and among subsystems as well as between the organisation and its environment and to define patterns of relationships or configurations of variable.”

It emphasises the multivariate nature of organisations and attempts to understand how organisations operate under varying conditions and in specific circumstances. Contingency views are ultimately directed toward suggesting organisational designs and managerial actions most appropriate for specific situations.


Congruence between Organisation and Environment:

An underlying assumption of the contingency view is this there should be a congruence between the organisation and environment and among the various subsystems. The primary managerial role is to maximize this congruence. The appropriate fit between the organisation and its environment and the appropriate internal organisational design will lead to greater effectiveness, efficiency, and participant satisfaction. Kast and Rosenzweig have analysed the appropriateness of two kinds of structures under different circumstances.

Firstly, the stable-mechanistic structure is more appropriate when the following conditions are fulfilled:

(i) The environment is relatively stable and certain.


(ii) The goals of the organisation are well defined and enduring.

(iii) The technology is relatively uniform and stable.

(iv) There are routine activities; and productivity is the major objective.

(v) Decision making is programmable and coordination and control processes tend to make a tightly structured, hierarchical system possible.

Secondly, the adaptive-organic structure is more appropriate when the following conditions are fulfilled:

(i) The environment is relatively uncertain and turbulent.

(ii) The goals are diverse and changing.

(iii) The technology is complex and dynamic.

(iv) There are many non-routine activities in which creativity and innovation are important.


(v) Heuristic decision-making processes are utilised and coordination and control occur through reciprocal adjustments. The system is less hierarchical and more flexible.

Contributions of Contingency Approach:

Contingency approach is an extension of the systems approach. The basic theme of contingency approach is that organisations have to cope with different situations in different ways. There is no single best way of managing applicable to all situations. In order to be effective, the internal functioning of an organisation must be consistent with the demands of the external environment. The managers must keep the functioning of an organisation in harmony with the needs of its members and the external forces.

Contingency approach highlights the multivariate nature of organisations and explains how organisations operate under varying conditions. With its help, managers can design structures which are highly appropriate to the respective situations.

If an organisation is operating in a stable environment, it can have a mechanistic structure characterised by high degree of differentiation, centralisation of authority, rigid hierarchical relationships, rules and regulations, etc.


But if the environment is dynamic, organic structure would be more appropriate. Organic structure is characterised by decentralised decision-making, collaborative relationships, open communication, scope for innovative decision-making, etc.

Based on the above discussion, we can highlight the following contributions of contingency approach:

(i) Contingency approach is action-oriented as it is directed towards the application of systems concepts and the knowledge gained from other approaches. The contingency approach builds upon this perspective by following in detail on the nature of relationships existing between these parts.

(ii) Contingency theory attempts to determine the predictable relationships between situations, actions and outcomes.


(iii) Management should match or ‘fit’ its approach to the requirements of the particular situation.

(iv) Contingency approach provides significant contribution in organisational design. It suggests that no organisational design may be suitable for all situations, rather, the suitable design is one determined, keeping in view the requirements of environment, technology, risk and people.

Contingency Approach to Management – With Features and Merits

This approach integrates the various other approaches to the management developed earlier. This is also called the “Situational” approach. According to it, the major premise is that there is no one best way to handle any of the management problems. In any situation, the principles and practices of management should be rather contingent upon the existing circumstances or the situations. So functional, behavioural, quantitative (management science) and also systems’ approach should all be applied together.

According to this contingency approach, there can be one best method or style of leadership which can be fitted into every situation. This approach actually guides the managers to be adaptive to the particular situations or environment variables. Managers are, therefore, required to be pragmatic and also open-minded or adaptive. This approach, therefore, is certainly an improvement over the earlier systems’ approach.

It is based on the detailed examination of the various sub-systems of the organisation and also the relationship of the organisation and the environment. Actually this contingency approach to the management is not law. Pigors and Myers had also talked of it in the area of personnel management as early as 1950. Next to them many more management scientists had advocated this approach in one way or the other.

The main features of the contingency approach are as follows:


1. Different situations require the application of different management techniques.

2. Management should, therefore, match or ‘fit’ its approach to the requirements of the particular situations.

3. There is no “best way to manage.” There is no unique technique to solve every problem because every problem situation is unique in itself.

4. Managers have to devise methods and to learn when and how to apply each one.

5. It emphasizes the need of analysing situation.

Merits or Uses of Contingency Approach:


The contingency approach has great significance. It is helpful to the managers in performing their functions of planning, organising, direction and control. It helps the managers to broad-base their approach in solving day-to-day management problems. It widens the manager’s horizons beyond the theory of management, principles and techniques.

This approach rejects universality of management concept. It requires the ability to analyse and diagnose a managerial situation correctly. This approach is action oriented as it is directed towards the application of system concepts and the knowledge gained from other approaches.

Contingency Approach to Management – Important Elements, Implications and System Theory Vs Contingency Theory

The problem with universal principles of management, as advocated by early the­orists, is that few principles are universal. Research has shown that management methods used in one circumstance seldom work the same way in others. Parents find this out quickly when they realise that spanking one child may yield good re­sults while spanking another can be emotionally disturbing and disastrous.

Some employees are most often motivated by economic gains while others have greater need for challenging work. Still others care only about protecting their egos. The same individual may be motivated by different things in a variety of situations.


Contingency theory is based on the premise that situations dictate managerial action; that is, different situations call for different approaches. No single way of solving problems is best for all situations. Because tasks and people in organisations differ, the contingency theorists (Selznik, Burns and Stalker, Woodward, Lawrence and Lorsch, James Thompson and others) argue that the method of managing them must also differ.

The choice of a particular method of managing largely depends on the nature of the job, the people involved and the situation. According to contingency theory, effective management varies with the organisa­tion and its environment.


Contingency theory attempts to analyse and understand these interrelationships with a view towards taking the specific managerial actions necessary to deal with the issue. This approach is both analytical and situational, with the purpose of developing a practical answer to the question at hand.

Important Elements of Contingency Theory:

(a) Managerial actions are contingent on certain actions outside the system or sub-system as the case may be.

(b) Organisational efforts should be based on the behaviour of actions outside the system so that the organisation gets smoothly integrated with the en­vironment.

(c) Managerial actions and organisational design must be appropriate to the given situation. A particular action is valid only under certain conditions. There is no one best approach to management. It varies from situation to situation.

Implications of Contingency Approach:

According to the contingency approach, there are no plans, organisation struc­tures, leadership styles, or controls that will fit all situations. There are few, if any, universal truths, concepts, and principles that can be applied under all conditions. Instead, every management situation must be approached with the ‘it all depends’ attitude.

Managers must find different ways that fit different situations. They must continually address themselves with the question- which method will work best here? For example, in order to improve productivity, classical theorist may pre­scribe work simplification and additional incentives; the behavioural scientist may recommend job enrichment and democratic participation of the employees in the decision-making process.


Instead, a manager trained in the contingency approach may offer a solution that is responsive to the characteristics of the total situation being faced. Organisations characterised by limited resources, unskilled labour force, limited training opportunities, limited products offered to local markets— work simplification would be the ideal solution.

Job enrichment programme would work better if the organisation employs skilled labour force. Managerial action, thus, depends upon circumstances within a given situation. No one best approach will work in all situations. Applying a contingency/situational approach requires that managers diagnose a given situation and adapt to meet the conditions present.

According to Robert Albanese, the strength of contingency approach rests on two points:

(i) First, it focuses attention on specific situational factors that influence the appropriateness of one managerial strategy over another,

(ii) Second, it highlights the importance to managers of developing skills in situational analysis. Such skills will help managers find out important contingency factors that influence their approach to managing.

The major implications of contingency theory may be summarized thus: management is entirely situational; managerial actions are contingent on internal and external factors; managerial actions must be consistent with the requirements of internal as well as external factors.


The contingency approach is a useful instructional device in the sense that it compels us to be aware of the complexity in every situation and forces us to take an active and dynamic role in trying to determine that would work best in each case. Combining the mechanistic (Taylor) and humanistic approaches (Mayo) the contingency theory suggests that different conditions and situations require the application of different management techniques.

It helps in fitting the classical and behavioural theories in a proper framework. It is an improvement over the systems theory in the sense that it only examines the relationships between sub-systems of a specific organisation in a given environment, but also offers solutions to particular organisational problems.

The systems approach takes a general view of organisational variables, i.e., technical, social, personal, structural and external variables. The contingency theory, on the other hand, is concerned with achieving a ‘fit’ between organisation and its environment. Practising managers, however, seem to find this theory tenuous because it does not provide any specific set of principles to use.

Systems vs. Contingency Theory:

Systems Theory:

(1) Organisation-environment rela­tionship not explained clearly.

(2) Takes a general view of organiza­tional variables (technical, social, personal, structural, external)

(3) Considers all organisations to be similar.

(4) Vague and complex.

(5) Emphasises the synergistic effect of organisations and recognises the external inputs.

(6) Merely outlines interdependencies among systems and sub-systems.

Contingency Theory:

(1) Spells out the relationship of organisation to its environment clearly.

(2) Takes a specific view of how the organisation adjusts to its environmental demands. Mainly concerned with structural adap­tations of organisation to its task environment.

(3) Each organisation is unique.

(4) More pragmatic and action-oriented.

(5) Relates environments to specific organisation structure and design. It integrates theory with practise in a systems framework.

(6) Tries to identify nature of inter-de­pendencies between various parts of an organisation, and their im­pact on various other things.

Contingency theory is attacked by several theorists on the following grounds:

I. Paucity of Literature:

Contingency theory suffers from inadequacy of liter­ature. It has not developed to such an extent where it can offer meaningful solutions to different managerial problems in a specific way. It is too simplistic to say that ‘managerial actions depend on situations’. Instead, it must offer, in precise terms, what a manager should do in a given situation.

II. Complex:

Contingency theory is theoretically complex. Even a simple problem involves analysing a number of organisational components, each of which have innumerable dimensions. Often, managers may find this to be a difficult and taxing exercise.

III. Defies Empirical Testing:

The precepts advanced by contingency theorists cannot be put to empirical testing in a concrete way. There are multifarious situational factors to be taken into account while testing the contingency theory.

For example, a proposition that unless the various parts in an organisation move in close coordination, the behaviour at various organisational levels would not be effective-seems to be a sound one. But when put to empirical testing, several problems crop up almost instantaneously.

IV. Reactive Not Proactive:

Contingency theory is also criticised on the ground that it suggests a reactive strategy in coping with environmental complexity. Instead, a proactive strategy is needed where managers would be able to steer the organisation through complex environments with their creative and innovative efforts.

V. Incomplete:

Critics argue that the contingency approach does not incorporate all aspects of systems theory, and they hold that it has yet not developed to the point at which it can be considered a true theory.

Further, the goal of inte­grating functional, quantitative, behavioural, and systems approaches in the form of a contingency model may prove to be too difficult to realise because of the incomplete development of the earlier approaches.

Critics also argue that there is really not much that is new about the contingency approach. For example, they point out that even classical theorists like Fayol cautioned that management principles require flexible application.

In spite of these valid critical expressions, contingency theory holds good at the micro-level, where managers are forced to look into internal as well as external requirements while managing their organisations. It is small wonder, contingency theory is welcomed as a refreshing breeze in management literature that clears away the humanistic and general systems ‘fog’.

The systems theory takes a gen­eral view of organisation variables, i.e., technical, social, personal, structural and external variables. The contingency theory, on the other hand, is concerned with achieving a ‘fit’ between organisation and its environment. Kast and Rosenzweig have, therefore, rightly pointed out that the contingency theory ‘falls somewhere between simplistic, specific principles and complex, vague notions’.

The contingency theory, like the systems theory recognizes that an organisation is the product of interactions between its various constituent parts (sub-systems) and the environment. In addition, as a sort of refinement, it seeks to identify the exact nature of interrelationships and interactions.

In contrast to the vague systems termi­nology and perspective, the contingency approach allows us to specifically identify the internal and external variables that typically influence managerial actions and organisational performance. Accordingly, what constitutes effective management varies with the organisation’s internal as well as external environment and the make-up of the organisational sub-systems.

Thus, the contingency approach falls somewhere between simplistic, specific principles (classical theory) and complex, vague notions (systems theory). This approach provides a long sought synthesis and brings together the best of all segments of what Prof. Koontz has termed ‘man­agement theory jungle’.

The classical ideas and behavioural modifications are not rejected, but they are viewed as incomplete and not suited for all organisations. Similarly, the ideas of systems theory that emphasize the interrelationship between parts also have not been rejected but they are viewed as vague and unspecific.

As a way of correction, the contingency approach provides a pragmatic method of analysing organisation sub-systems and tries to integrate these with the environment. Contingency views are ultimately directed towards—suggesting organisational designs and managerial actions more suitable for specific situations.

Contingency Approach to Management – Explained!

It was found that behavioural approaches worked in some situation, but not in all. The same was true for quantitative approaches. Neither of these approaches could claim universal applications in the real world situations. This was more appa­rent since 1970. Many management experts now believe that a systems-based theory could solve the quantitative/behaviour dilemma.

Open and adaptable systems approach is called Con­tingency Approach. A business organisation is now regarded as an open and adaptive system which alone can cope with the increasing complexity and changing environmental influences. Contingency or situational approach seems better suited to lead management out of the present management theory jungle.

Contingency Theory:

Systems approach emphasizes that all subsystems of an organisation along with the suprasystem of environment are interconnected and interrelated. Contin­gency approach analyses and understands these interrelation­ships so that managerial actions can be adjusted to demands of specific situations or circumstances.

Thus contingency ap­proach enables us to evolve practical answers to the problems demanding solutions. Organisation design and managerial actions most appropriate to specific situations will have to be adopted in order to achieve best possible result under the given situation. The performance of each managerial functions is closely connected to an analysis of the total situation.

For instance appropriate rewards leading to high productivity must be based on the analysis of the situation. Similarly effective leadership style is expected to match a given set of circum­stances. Effective motivation and leadership are the best examples of the contingency approach to management. Mana­gement variables such as management process, organisation structure, organisational behaviour, management style, mana­gement control are dependent variables. All environmental variables are independent variables.

Hence, we cannot have universal principles of organisation and management appropriate to all situations-and in all envi­ronments. In other words, there is no one best way (as advo­cated by Taylorism) to organise and manage. Decentralisation as well as centralisation can work under a given set of situa­tions. Even bureaucracy can work under certain circumstances and it has not totally outlived its utility.

Similarly, democra­tic or participative managerial style may not be fit in certain situations and we may have to adopt tight control under cer­tain circumstances. Leadership style to be adopted always depends on the situation and not merely on leadership quali­ties and characteristics of the followers. Motivation through financial incentives can work wonder if the environment is favourable. We cannot say that non-financial incentives can work in any situation or environment.

In short, ‘it all depends’ on a number of interrelated inter­nal and external variable factors. If the condition is A, the action X may be considered most effective. However, if the condition is B, then Action Y should be used. Contingency approach should be a realistic view in management and orga­nisation.

Thus, patterns of management and organisation operating in matured economies may not deliver rich dividend when adopted in developing countries like India. They will need reorientation in the light of ‘local circumstances and peculiar local factors. Wholesale import of Western philosophy and practice of management is not welcome. Management in India should learn this simple truth.

The Systems Approach in the Future:

Open Man-machine System:

Organisations are open, dyna­mic, man-machine (socio-technological) systems. They are constantly interacting with their environment. Business orga­nisations will use systems approach more and more to co-ordinate and integrate their operations, if they are to survive in a dynamic environment.

Man and Environment:

Systems approach recognises close interrelations between man, his organisation and his environ­ment. Man is just a subsystem of the universe and his actions may have adverse effects on his environment, e.g., problem of pollution and deterioration of natural environment.

Social Costs:

We used to think in terms of closed and static systems. We looked at limited and partial views of inputs and outputs of our systems. For example, in business we have used profit as an indicator of economic efficiency of the organisa­tion. We have failed to recognise that many costs, e.g., pollu­tion, employee dissatisfaction, consumer disappointment, social frustrations, are social costs which are not accounted in our balance sheet and profit-and-loss accounts.

The open-systems approach gives us better model to deal with our environmental relationships. It provides a better way to evaluate organisational and social performance. National social indicators and a pro­gramme of social accounting and auditing will be developed.

Flexible and Generalised Management:

Manager will be a supergeneralist. He will be a problem-solver and not merely a specialist. Managerial task will be to integrate diverse specia­lists, professionals, and scientists into an effective organisation. We will have a flexible managerial system to meet easily chan­ges in environment. Innovation and creativity will be given special emphasis by managers.

Situational Approach:

Systems approach provides a basic frame of reference for the new situational or contingency view of management. Management cannot have ready-made univer­sally applicable and patent principles to be applied in all situa­tions as everlasting truths.

Modern management will have to recognise the nature of technology, the variations in human participants, and the wide diversity in environmental relation­ships. Management of each organisation will be somewhat unique. All managerial actions will depend upon particular prevailing circumstances and-situational factors.

Management will have to adapt continuously in a changing environment. Systems approach as a way of thinking will become more popu­lar in the managerial process, i.e., in performing primary functions of planning, organising, leading and controlling opera­tions. Organisation structures will be designed not around functional specialisation but around projects and information decision systems in future.

A mechanistic or bureaucratic ap­proach to management is appropriate when:

(1) Environment is unchanging,

(2) Emphasis is on efficiency,

(3) Emphasis is on routine jobs, many rules and procedures.

An organic or behavioural managerial approach is preferred when:

(1) We have fast changing environment,

(2) We want flexibility,

(3) Emphasis is on less specialised jobs, fewer rules, procedures, etc. and

(4) Employees can exercise self-control and self-discip­line.

Contingency Approach to Management

Another milestone in management theory was the development of contingency theory in the 1960s by Tom Burns and G. M. Stalker in the United Kingdom and Paul Lawrence and Jay Lorsch in the United States. The crucial message of contingency theory is that there is no one best way to organize. The organisational structures and the control systems that managers choose depend on—are contingent on—characteristics of the external environment in which the organisation operates.

According to contingency theory, the characteristics of the environment affect an organisation’s ability to obtain resources. To maximize the likelihood of gaining access to resources, managers must allow an organisation’s departments to organize and control their activities in ways most likely to allow them to obtain resources, given the constraints of the particular environment they face.

In other words, how managers design-the organisational hierarchy, choose a control system, and lead and motivate their employees is contingent on the characteristics of the organisational environment.

An important characteristic of the external environment that affects an organisation’s ability to obtain resources is the degree to which the environment is changing. Changes in the organisational environment include – changes in technology, which can lead to the creation of new products (such as compact discs) and result in the obsolescence of existing products (eight-track tapes); the entry of new competitors (such as foreign organisations that compete for available resources); and unstable economic conditions.

In general, the more quickly the organisational environment is changing, the greater are the problems associated with gaining access to resources and the greater is the manager’s need to find ways to coordinate the activities of people in different departments in order to respond to the environment quickly and effectively.

The basic idea behind contingency theory—that there is no one best way to design or lead an organisation—has been incorporated into other areas of management theory, including leadership theories.

Mechanistic and Organic Structures:

The two basic ways in which managers can organize and control an organisation’s activities to respond to characteristics of its external environment – They can use a mechanistic structure or an organic structure. A mechanistic structure typically rests on Theory X assumptions, and an organic structure typically rests on Theory Y assumptions.

When the environment surrounding an organisation is stable, managers tend to choose a mechanistic structure to organize and control activities and make employee behaviour predictable. In a mechanistic structure, authority is centralized at the top of the managerial hierarchy, and the vertical hierarchy of authority is the main means used to control subordinates’ behaviour.

Tasks and roles are clearly specified, subordinates are closely supervised, and the emphasis is on strict discipline and order. Everyone knows his or her place, and there is a place for everyone. A mechanistic structure provides the most efficient way to operate in a stable environment because it allows managers to obtain inputs at the lowest cost, giving an organisation the most control over its conversion processes and enabling the most efficient production of goods and services with the smallest expenditure of resources.

McDonald’s restaurants operate with a mechanistic structure. Supervisors make all important decisions; employees are closely supervised and follow well defined rules and standard operating procedures. In contrast, when the environment is changing rapidly, it is difficult to obtain access to resources, and managers need to organize their activities in a way that allows them to cooperate, to act quickly to acquire resources (such as new types of inputs to produce new kinds of products), and to respond effectively to the unexpected.

In an organic structure, authority is decentralized to middle and first-line managers to encourage them to take responsibility and act quickly to pursue scarce resources. Departments are encouraged to take a cross-departmental or functional perspective, and, as in Mary Parker Follett’s model, authority rests with the individuals and departments best positioned to control the current problems the organisation is facing.

Managers in an organic structure can react more quickly to a changing environment than can managers in a mechanistic structure. However, an organic structure is generally more expensive to operate, so it is used only when needed—when the organisational environment is unstable and rapidly changing.

Contingency School of Management:

Contingency School of Management is a trend of management thought, which is based on the premises that there is no single best way to manage because every situation and every manager is different. Therefore, there are only a few universal management principles, and an appropriate management style depends on the demands of a particular situation. See also classical school of management, quantitative school of management, and systems school of management.

The contingency school of management can be summarized as an ‘it all depends’ approach. The appropriate management actions and approaches depend on the situation. Managers with a contingency view use a flexible approach, draw on a variety of theories and experiences, and evaluate many options as they solve problems.

Contingency management recognizes that there is no one best way to manage. In the contingency perspective, managers are faced with the task of determining which managerial approach is likely to be most effective in a given situation. For example, the approach used to manage a group of teenagers working in a fast-food restaurant would be very different from the approach used to manage a medical research team trying to find a cure for a disease.

Contingency thinking avoids the classical ‘one best way’ arguments and recognizes the need to understand situational differences and respond appropriately to them. It does not apply certain management principles to any situation. Contingency theory is a recognition of the extreme importance of individual manager performance in any given situation. The contingency approach is highly dependent on the experience and judgment of the manager in a given organisational environment.

Contingency theory refers to any of a number of management theories. Several contingency approaches were developed concurrently in the late 1960s. They suggested that previous theories such as Weber’s bureaucracy and Taylor’s scientific management had failed because they neglected that management style and organisational structure were influenced by various aspects of the environment-the contingency factors. There could not be “one best way” for leadership or organisation.

Historically, contingency theory has sought to formulate broad generalizations about the formal structures that are typically associated with or best fit the use of different technologies. The perspective originated with the work of Joan Woodward (1958), who argued that technologies directly determine differences in such organisational attributes as span of control, centralization of authority, and the formalization of rules and procedures.

Fred Fiedler’s contingency model focused on individual leadership.

Other researchers including Paul Lawrence, Jay Lorsch, and James D. Thompson were more interested in the impact of contingency factors on organisational structure. Their structural contingency theory was the dominant paradigm of organisational structural theories for most of the 1970s. A major empirical test was furnished by Johannes M. Pennings who examined the interaction between environmental uncertainty, organisation structure and various aspects of performance.

Contingency School began in 1960s. The contingency school focused on applying management principles and processes primarily dictated by each unique situation. In the contingency theory, a leader’s ability to lead is contingent upon various situational factors. Its application has been on management issues such as organisational design, job design, motivation, and leadership style.

A few of the major contributors are Fred Fiedler, Joan Woodward, and Paul Lawrence. The Contingency Theory states that the leader’s ability to lead is contingent upon various situational factors.

Contingency School of Management made a significant contribution to modern day management, and these early results provide a blueprint for the current leadership paradigms in organisations. The contingency school of management is based on the idea that there is no one best way to manage and that to be effective, planning, organising, leading, and controlling must be tailored to the particular circumstances faced by an organisation.

Managers have always asked questions such as “What is the right thing to do? Should we have a mechanistic or an organic structure? A functional or divisional structure? Wide or narrow spans of management? Tall or flat organisational structures? Simple or complex control and coordination mechanisms? Should we be centralized or decentralized? Should we use task or people oriented leadership styles? What motivational approaches and incentive programs should we use?”

The contingency approach to management (also called the situational approach) assumes that there is no universal answer to such questions because organisations, people, and situations vary and change over time. Thus, the right thing to do depends on a complex variety of critical environmental and internal contingencies.

Contingency Approach to Management – Recognition, Contributions and Limitations

In the mid-1960s, the contingency view of management or situational approach emerged. The contingency approach assumes that managerial behaviour is dependent on a wide variety of elements. It provides a framework for integrating the knowledge of management thought.

According to the contingency approach, the task of managers is to identify which technique will, in a particular situation, under particular circumstances, and at a particular time, best contribute to the attainment of management goals. For example- where workers need to be encouraged to increase productivity, the classical theorist may prescribe a new work simplification scheme.

The behavioural scientist may seek to create a psychologically motivating climate and recommend the opposite- work enrich­ment. But the manager trained in the contingency approach will ask – Which method will work best here? If the workers are unskilled and training opportunities and resources are limited, work simplification might be the best solution. With skilled workers driven by pride in their abilities, a job enrichment program might be more effective.

The contingency view of management lead to – (1) Recognition of situational nature of management (2) Response to particular characteristics of situation.

Recognition of Situational Nature of Management:

This theory argues that there is no ‘one best way’ of doing things. The management will face a range of choices when determining how a particular function is to be performed.

For example- the continuing effort to identify the best leadership or management style might now conclude that the best style depends on the situation. If one is leading troops in the Persian Gulf, an autocratic style is probably best (of course, many might argue here, too). If one is leading a hospital or university, a more participative and facilitative leadership style is probably best.

Response to Particular Characteristics of Situation:

Contingency theory asserts that when managers make a decision, they must take into account all aspects of the current situation and act on those aspects that are key to the situation at hand. Basically, it’s the approach that “it depends.” First there would be a need to identify the situational factors, and then the appropriate management principle would be applied.

For example- if an organisation structure has to be decided, there should be an appropriate response to a number of variables, or contingencies, which influence both the needs of the organisation and how it works. These may be-

1. Its size

2. The technology it uses

3. Its operating environment.

Thus, if it is a small organisation, a centralised structure would do, but if it is a big organisation, a decentralised structure would be more appropriate. Likewise other factors would have their role in determining the organisation structure.


A contingency approach to management is logical. Since organizations are diverse – in size, objectives, tasks being done and the like- it would be surprising to find universally applicable principles that would work in all situations. For this reason, contingency approach is seen as the leading branch of management thought today. This approach is the long-sought synthesis that brings together the best of all segments of what Harold Koontz has called the “management theory jungle.”


In its present state the contingency approach really stands for little more than a loosely organized set of propositions, which in principle are committed to an open systems view of organization.