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Task-Oriented vs People-Oriented Leaders: What's The Difference? - HRDQ

Task-Oriented vs People-Oriented Leaders: What's The Difference?

In business, leadership is a complicated role to fill. You have to strike the right balance between encouragement and management. You have to ensure that company objectives are met while maintaining productivity and much more. There are often multiple, exclusive pressures trying to push you in different directions simultaneously.

For example: are you more concerned with the successful completion of business objectives or with the overall well-being of your team? Which one falls by the wayside when a tight deadline rolls around?

To be sure, each kind of leadership has pros and cons. Neither style is inherently better than the other, for business or employees. It's all about the context, about using the variables you control to your advantage and creating a productive environment.

What is Task-Oriented Leadership?

Imagine a situation in business where you're working on a long-term objective. Suddenly, the objective changes, perhaps due to outside pressures. This new objective has a tight deadline and will stress your employees to push to reach it. However, you believe you can make it through tight management and a succession of concrete objectives.

You demonstrate leadership via assigning specific tasks and steps to achieve those tasks. There's no room for discussion; discussion wastes time. Deadlines are tight but achievable. There will be time to rest once the objective is complete; indeed, the company has sponsored a week-long vacation following the successful completion of the project.

Assigning Specific Tasks

Along the way, problems arise. Unexpected illness sets back a component of the overall objective, forcing others to work overtime to achieve it. People burn out and quit. Still, somehow, the objective is completed. Everyone involved is given time to relax and rest before the next deadline starts to loom and the next project kicks off.

This example is task-oriented leadership. As the name implies, task-oriented leadership is focused on the tasks at hand. There are deadlines, there are objectives, there are tight timelines.  

Task-oriented leadership is also often described as autocratic leadership. The team doesn't get a say in the overall objectives because there's no time and no room for discussion. It has to happen, it has to happen in a specific way and by a specific time. What room is there to talk about it? Getting it done is the important part.  

What is People-Oriented Leadership?

Imagine a situation in business where you're working on a long-term objective. Suddenly, the objective changes, perhaps due to outside pressures. The new objective has a tight deadline, and you're unsure how to handle it.

So, you call a meeting. Your team discusses the new objective and deadline, recognizing the tight timetable necessary to get it done. Through discussion, your team concludes that it isn't possible but that a Minimum Viable Product can be developed by that time, and certain non-essential elements of the objective can be met shortly after that.  

Additionally, your team members offer ideas on how to achieve the objective, which streamline, cut, and rearrange some elements of the task to make them more achievable. By shuffling tasks around, you can better take advantage of the specialties and interests of your staff, keeping them tightly engaged and involved in the project.  

People Oriented Leader

Throughout the project, many unexpected events crop up. An unexpected illness takes a key player out of work for a week, leaving others to pick up the slack. During this process, you notice an employee taking on added responsibility and handling it swimmingly; you note their potential as leadership material.  

Another employee's life circumstances change, and they ask for special treatment to work from home for a month. You grant it and find that their productivity rises, so you allow them to continue working remotely and allow others to request the same benefit. It requires a mid-project shift and investment in new technology, but somehow, it all works out.

By carefully managing time and workload burdens – and shuffling deadlines around as necessary – you manage to achieve the objective slightly ahead of schedule. The team is exhilarated, tired, but satisfied. By the end of the project, your business and your team look pretty different than they had before, but everyone is engaged, happy, and ready to get started on the next phase of the project.

This example is people-oriented leadership. Also known as democratic leadership, this leadership style is characterized by the leader heavily involving their team members in decision-making, gaining input, and considering feedback for each decision. It can be an extremely compelling and engaging leadership style when handled effectively.

What Are the Differences Between Each Style?

While the above descriptions paint a solid picture of each leadership style, it can be worth examining the specific details more closely.

  • Task-oriented leaders focus on the objectives and what they need to accomplish them. People-oriented leaders focus on the well-being of the people performing those tasks, with the tasks taking a back seat. People-oriented leaders typically recognize that a burned-out and disenfranchised workforce is much less capable of achieving tasks.
  • Task-oriented leaders build a structure and impose rules on their workforce, while people-oriented leaders discuss how each objective is best completed and distribute tasks accordingly.
  • Task-oriented leaders are typically resistant to change without the backing of studies and proof, while people-oriented leaders are more open to experimentation (and the failure that comes with it.)
  • As the name implies, task-oriented leaders place the completion of the tasks over all else. The business is nothing if it can't do what it's there to do, after all. People-oriented leaders, meanwhile, consider the relationships and functionality of a team to be more critical.
  • Task-oriented leaders typically have a stronger hierarchy, with more strongly defined boundaries between worker and leader. People-oriented leaders often act as "one of the group" with little or no autocratic decision-making.
  • A task-oriented leader is agile and quick to adjust to new pressures because they have a keen understanding of their team and situation and can make immediate decisions. A people-oriented leader typically requires discussion with the team to determine the correct adjustment to new pressures.

Depending on your perspective, the above might make a task-oriented leader sound like an ineffective petty dictator. Conversely, it can make a people-oriented leader look like an ineffectual and waffly non-leader.  

Task Oriented Leader

The truth is, both styles have their pros and cons. Task-oriented leaders are more agile and quick to respond to changing circumstances. People-oriented leaders build more engaged teams that can work together through tough times. Task-oriented leaders prize meeting objectives and deadlines without fail, while people-oriented leaders prize having a team that works well together and has extremely low turnover.

Moreover, both kinds of leaders can take their style "too far" and end up compromising their staff, their objectives, or their business if not properly managed. A task-oriented leader might become an overbearing micro-manager, looming over the shoulders of their workers to ensure that every trivial task is done to exacting perfection, so much so that the employee feels like stepping aside and telling the manager to do it themselves.

Conversely, a people-oriented leader can become so mired in discussions and feedback, and be so concerned with their employees' feelings that they encounter decision paralysis. No matter what they choose, someone will feel hurt or overlooked, and they want to find a secret third option that doesn't produce such a negative outcome; they can't make those hard decisions.  

Which Leadership Style is Best?

In truth, neither leadership style is inherently better than the other.  

Task-oriented leadership can be better for agile decision-making and meeting tight, rigid objectives. It also works best with a staff made up of people who prefer to be guided and given instruction on what to do, rather than those who like being handed a task and allowed the freedom to achieve it in any means possible. Task-oriented leaders focus on the process that, when refined, can make a business into a highly efficient, well-oiled machine.

  • No one is ever left floundering and without guidance. New employees can get up to speed quickly and work within an established framework. New projects have immediate sets of steps to accomplish.
  • Projects have strict deadlines, which allows for equally strict sub-task deadlines to ensure even distribution of work and productivity to achieve overall goals.
  • Because of the framework, it's easy to see when an employee is struggling or failing to meet objectives, which becomes an opportunity for leadership training or adjustment to ensure that they can get up to speed.
  • Much like for tasks, there is often a framework for rewards upon completing objectives. It can be anything from an extra day off to a pizza party to a fully-comped vacation at the end of a significant milestone. The micro and macro-reward system can be very motivating for some people.

On the other hand, people-oriented leadership is excellent for flexible objectives where the creativity and uniqueness of the business's response are more important than the deadlines. It's also better for creative and engaged employees who want to feel like they're contributing to being part of a greater whole. These leaders often have more flexible teams with low turnover and a high degree of communication.

Company Project Meeting

Another way of looking at it is that task-oriented leaders, teams, and businesses usually focus on the product and the company. In contrast, people-oriented companies focus on the company culture and the overall message.  

  • No one is ever left feeling like a cog in a machine. Everyone has a voice and an opportunity to contribute, making them feel much more engaged in the overall business process. Often, these additional ideas and perspectives can be of tangible benefit to the team or company.
  • There's no rigid adherence to a framework. People change, lives change, circumstances change; an understanding people-oriented leader can adapt to these changing circumstances and work to keep everyone happy and productive as necessary.
  • People-oriented leadership fosters an inclusive and engaged community within the business, which, in turn, increases overall thought diversity, boosts company culture, and reduces turnover.

Under the leadership of Tim Cook and Bill Gates, companies like Apple and Microsoft have famously been task-oriented for much of their history. Companies like Google and Adobe, on the other hand, famously give a lot of leeway to their employees to lead development in directions that inspire them. All of these companies are wildly successful. There truly is no singular best leadership style.

What is Your Leadership Style?

The key to a good company and management style is understanding. Both task-oriented and people-oriented leadership styles are functional and practical when leveraged correctly, but neither can be adequately utilized without an awareness of what you're trying to do. Working at odds with yourself and your team will increase the disconnect between employees and management, reducing overall business effectiveness.

Thus, one of the best things you can do to encourage appropriate leadership is to understand your leadership style. An assessment like What's My Leadership Style is an excellent way to do this. This assessment assigns points on a spectrum across 20 paired action questions and can analyze your leadership style across two axes. Are you more spirited or more systematic? Are you direct or considerate? Where do you fall in the overall task- versus people-oriented leadership spectrum?

Leader of Company

Most people will not fall neatly into one or the other. However, understanding which direction your proclivities lie will help you adjust and either lean into or away from one style and towards the other. Combined with other forms of training and leadership reinforcement, you can develop a management style that works for your team, business, and yourself.

It all starts with understanding. Now that you know the ins and outs of task-oriented and people-oriented leadership, you can identify the next steps to improve your leadership and the leadership of the management you have working for your company.

Do you have any questions about task-oriented or people-oriented leaders? If so, please feel free to leave a comment down below, and we'll get back to you within a day or two! We make it a point to reply to every message we receive and would be more than happy to explain the leadership types further into detail for you or your company.

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About our author

Bradford R. Glaser

Brad is President and CEO of HRDQ, a publisher of soft-skills learning solutions, and HRDQ-U, an online community for learning professionals hosting webinars, workshops, and podcasts. His 35+ years of experience in adult learning and development have fostered his passion for improving the performance of organizations, teams, and individuals.