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LEADERSHIP: Situational Leadership – The 4D’s of Your Employees


Some supervisors apply a “one size fits all” approach to supervision. The Situational Leadership II model suggests that a supervisor should vary his or her style of leadership based on the employee’s developmental level. Ken Blanchard, creator of the Situational Leadershi

p II model, believes that all employees pass through a job cycle of development going from a D1 to a D4 as they mature on the job. However, without appropriate supervision, some employees can get stuck.  That can prove to be a challenge, not only for employees, but supervisors a

An employee’s developmental level is based on his or her level of competence at the job and commitment to the job.  Competence is defined as the knowledge and skills from education, training and experience. Commitment is a combination of confidence and motivation.  Confidence is a person’s ability to do a task well; motivation is a person’s interest in doing a task well.  Each development level is comprised of either low or high amounts of each. Let’s look at what we might see for employee performance at each level.s well. Let’s look at his theory and how we might apply it.

Your Staff and Employees


The first of the four developmental styles is called a ‘D1’ for Developmental Level One. This level is characterized by a low level of competence and yet, a high level of commitment. We all typically start here as new employees. But it doesn’t end there. D1s are also older employees with new tasks or jobs. What are typical behaviors for new employees or employees who are excited about a new task or promotion? They are eager to please and do whatever tasks they are asked to do.  They arrive early and stay late, and often commit lots of hours to the task at hand. They want to learn everything they can about the responsibilities of the position. They are like sponges, soaking it all up. Sound perfect? Remember, they have low competence so they may be eager, but they aren’t necessarily skilled or have the knowledge to do the job well.


About six months down the road (sometimes earlier, sometimes later), what happens to our eager beaver new employee? The bloom falls off the rose. The honeymoon period is over and the reality of the job sets in and this D1 becomes a D2. The employee now has gained some competence or skills but his or her commitment takes a nose dive (low commitment), particularly if the job didn’t add up to what he or she thought it should be. Employees at this level typically ask the question, “So this is the job?” and those D1s that arrived early and stayed late are now watching the clock and stretching the boundaries. They typically do the minimums, especially if others do the same. Eager to fit in, your D1 will now look around and adopt some of those disappointing, negative behaviors that you so hopefully wanted to eradicate.  D2s can leave you scratching your head and saying, “what happened?” You may even entertain the thought that you made a huge mistake in hiring this person for the job in the first place.

Blanchard would say, “Rejoice, this is growth.”  Your D1 employee is progressing and you should come to expect that every D1 will become a D2 someday – after all, you don’t want them to stay forever a D1.  There is no set time period. A person can pass quickly through one level to the next or get stuck there. It all depends on the level of competence and commitment.

Sometimes we do a disservice to our D1s – excited to entice good employees to come to work for us, we paint a beautiful, exaggerated picture of the organization or the job.  Then we realize that the greater we played up the job or the organization in the interview or orientation process, the farther the drop to reality for the D2.


D3s have a high level of competence (they know the work); but variable commitment to the job. In other words, they have good and bad days. D3s can leave other staff members wondering, “hmm… I wonder what kind of mood he’ll be in today?” D3s may have experienced disappointments from being passed over for promotions or job assignments.  They may have dashed expectations of where they thought they would be in their career. They could be harboring unresolved issues and lots of “stamps” with others. D3s have roadblocks that are preventing them from having a consistent high level of commitment to the job. This is a typical stopping place for employees and without intervention, can easily become a permanent home.


D4s are our star performers; they have a high level of both competence and commitment. They are ready to take on new challenges, work independently and often are the first ones to be promoted. But guess what? When they get promoted, where do they end up? Yes, back to D1s again and the cycle starts all over.

You as a Manager or Supervisor

Right now you may have suddenly found yourself among the Ds or might have easily identified the level of some of your staff.  So, how do we deal with such vast differences in employees?  How do we, as supervisors and managers, help employees move to the D4 star performer?  Blanchard would argue that your supervision or leadership style needs to change based on the developmental level of the employee  – D1s need a different approach than D4s.

He defines leadership as a combination of directive and supportive behaviors. Directive behavior is defined as telling, and showing people what, when and how to do it and providing frequent feedback. Supportive behavior involves praising, listening, encouraging and involving others in decision-making.  Leadership style is based on the amount of directive and supportive behavior given to the employee by the supervisor. Each level needs a different combination or dose of each.


D1s need a directive approach where the supervisor is highly involved in the assignment of tasks and teaching the employee how to perform the job. The supervisor assists the employee in learning about the organization and its values, as well as helps the employee with goal setting and learning the skills he or she needs to perform the job. It is both highly directive and supportive – it’s a teaching style.


Oh yes, our D2s. At first glance, you may want to hit them over the head with a 2×4 or send them packing, but the D2 needs exactly the opposite. In fact, what they need is a good coach. If you are or were involved in sports teams, think about the characteristics of someone who you saw as a good coach. Perhaps, you coach a team yourself. Think about what your team needs from you.  For me, a good coach quickly corrects problem behaviors and sets the standard for good performance.  At the same time, a good coach sees the potential in an individual and encourages him/her to do the task well. A good coach gives lots of immediate feedback and is quick to both praise and reward good performance and address poor performance. D2s need supervisors who can be good coaches and deal with their problematic behaviors quickly and effectively.


What do you think is most needed by a D3 employee? A D3 doesn’t need much direction, but needs lots of support. A D3 needs to talk about the past issues that have comprised his or her commitment. Most of all, D3s desperately need help to resolve past conflicts and move forward. They may need assistance with crafting new goals and building a new vision for work or place in the organization. This employee needs guidance in order to re-kindle his or her faith in the job and the organization.  Simply, D3s need you to stop and listen.


Finally, our D4s; what do you think they need? They need permission to excel.  They need tasks delegated to them so that they can achieve and succeed. They need room to teach D1s and lead others. D4s want growth opportunities and goals. They want a supervisor who will empower them. They do not want to be micro-managed, have goals set for them or a lot of directive behaviors from their supervisor.

Ironically, often unknown to them, D4s want to know that their supervisor or manager recognizes that when they get that new task or promotion, they are going to be D1s again.   They don’t want a supervisor who assumes that the individual has failed or wasn’t ready for the new promotion when he or she asks for more direction or help. Instead, the supervisor sees it as expected, allowing that staff member to move quickly around the cycle again…and again.

Your Challenge

So, how have you applied the Situational Leadership II model in your own supervision or management of others?  Here’s a challenge for you.  Take the team of employees you oversee and write their names down on a piece of paper.  Next to their name mark down what level you think they’re at (D1, D2, D3, D4) as employees and what level of supervisory skill would work best for them.  Try the supervisory skills we’ve talked about in this post for a month and see what happens.

We think this new year will be the year of the Innovative Leader.  A leader forged in the challenging times of the past few years and yet, still tackles the workplace issues with unwavering optimism and pragmatism.  The Innovative Leader has a backpack full of managerial skill sets, a head full of rapid decision-making and problem-solving talents, and a heart ready to serve others for the sake of the company .  DOWNLOAD our guide on the Innovative Leader to find out how they will transform the workplace.


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  • I have been through MBO and the movie Twelve O’Clock High is a perfect illustration and model of the principles developed through Situational Leadership

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