Cognitive Resource Theory

1. Introduction

The Cognitive resource theory is a reinvention of Fiedler contingency theory and concept was given by Fred Fiedler and Joe Garcia in 1987.

This theory relates to a leader’s intelligence and experience with his/her reaction to stressful situations. Like in a more stressful situation one can react without thinking logically. It clears how a leader’s intelligence and experience influence the way he/she may react to stress. This theory is based on the assumption that stress is an unfavorable factor in the logical and analytical thinking of a leader. Stress lower down the rationality. But the effect of stress can be less based on the experience and intelligence of a leader. Intelligence plays a significant role in low-level stress situations and experience in high-level stress situations.

The theory has its origin from the studies of military leadership style and applies to other areas also like defining a link between stressful situations and sports ability. It suggests different leadership styles according to different situations and based on factors like stress level, task structure, and situation. It further indicates that leaders should be trained in stress management so that they can maximum utilize their intelligence.

2. History

The Cognitive Resource theory is originated from the Contingency approach which was introduced by Fiedler. As per the contingency approach, how leaders lead the team much depends on situations that suit their leadership style in the best way. It suggests that the right leader match with the right situation. Leadership styles cannot be changed as per the situation. Task-oriented people view a leader according to the work done by him/ her. Leaders who give more importance to human relations are more favorable to their subordinates. So by this Fiedler argued that different situations demand different leadership styles and leaders, and thus there is no concept of an ideal leader.

There were lots of disagreements of this theory for its inaccuracy and lack of flexibility. Fiedler than re-developed this theory and given the concept of Cognitive Resource Theory (CRT) which includes a leader’s personality, stress, and relationship factor into defining leadership style. Through this Fiedler strongly favored intelligence as an important part of leadership. According to him a leader’s intelligence which helps him/her to make decisions and to communicate with the team effectively is very much affected by the stress level. An unhealthy relationship of a leader with his team may result in more effective stress.

3. Assumptions

Cognitive Resource theory is based on the following assumptions:

  • The success of a leader depends on certain factors like Intelligence, experience, and other cognitive means.
  • Leadership success is not based on cognitive capabilities only.
  • Stress affects decision-making ability.

4. Broader perspective of the theory

As mentioned above, the Cognitive resource theory was suggested by Fred Fiedler in collaboration with Joe Garcia in 1987 by modifying the contingency theory of leadership. This theory denies the concept of an ideal leader and considers stress as an important element in making a negative impact on the effectiveness of a leader’s intelligence. Leaders are categorized as task-oriented leaders and human relation-oriented leaders. It also states that leaders have to manage different situations and stress on regular intervals. Task-oriented leaders view the performance of team members based on work or tasks assigned to them. Human relation-oriented leaders do more favor to their subordinates over tasks.

This theory strongly believes that different types of stress create hindrances in the rationality of leadership. Stress effect can be overcome by much experience in leadership and through the directive approach. Intelligence helps in situations when stress is less. Leadership is more effective when the leadership approach is directive and authority-oriented. Task-complexity is also a factor i.e. the requirement of an intelligent and experienced leader is less when tasks are less complicated.

In the testing phase of the theory, it was found that leaders who were more intelligent spoke much, and less intelligent leaders were comparatively less talkative. Intelligent leaders came under too much pressure of deadlines of work and due to this their team efficiency also suffered and couldn’t produce many creative ideas. This also results in the unprofessional behavior of leaders i.e. they overreacted on small issues and felt upset which ultimately negatively affect their team. So it clearly states that stress is transferrable if one is not able to handle it.

The Cognitive resource theory is mainly based on 4 factors i.e. intelligence, stress, experience, and task-knowledge.

Details of these are mentioned below:

1. Intelligence and directive approach

A leader’s intelligence can only be effective when he/she has a directive approach or command on the team. A leader makes a plan to achieve objectives and for successful implementation of these plans, he/she needs to give directions to the team i.e. what is to be done instead of just assuming that they will agree upon. So in this way, a leader should have better decision-making and planning skills.

Leaders sometimes have to choose a non-directive approach in leadership i.e. when their team can do better than them like selecting and implementing the best idea in an open platform by inviting ideas from the team.

2. Stress affects

Stress has a direct effect on the intelligence and decision-making capability of a leader. When the stress level is low then intelligence has a great impact. In the case of high-stress intelligence has the least and moreover negative impact. It may be due to the hindrance of rationality in the decisions of a leader.

3. Experience factor

The theory says that the experience of a leader improves the quality of decisions taken by him/her in situations when stress is high.

In the case of high-stress situations, having the experience to handle similar situations, the leader can win over the situation without going deeply into it even intelligence level is not that much. So better decisions can be made under high stress with the experience of the leader rather than just rely upon intelligence.

4. Task-knowledge

Tasks or activities that are quite simple don’t require both intelligence and experience. Sometimes the team is efficient enough to handle tasks assigned to them without any direction or support. In that case, the decision-making capability of the leader is not required as a team themselves can easily make decisions without any additional support.

5. Practical implications with the example

From an organizational point of view, Cognitive resource theory has relevancy that can be viewed in the below example of HR Head’s intelligence and experience quality as a leader of the HR department of an organization in stressful situations.

HR Head leadership style under Cognitive resource factors

The above illustration shows the Cognitive resource leadership approach of a leader of the HR department in an organization. For the effective performance of the team, the HR Head as a leader should have both intelligence and directive. For example, he/she will be able to use intelligence in drafting HR strategies and policies beneficial to employees and the organization. Moreover, by providing clear directions, guidance, and instructions to his/her team; he/she can ensure effective communication and support the team in implementing HR policies, strategies.

Through intelligence and experience, the HR Head can cope up with different stress levels. Like in high stress when there is a sudden shut down due to a union strike, the previous experience of HR head helps handle similar situations as compare to intelligence which is less effective in such kind of high-stress situations. Similarly, in low stress like drafting HR policy as a matter of disciplinary issue, the intelligence is more effective i.e. what disciplinary action to be taken and incorporated in the policy matter as per organization’s policy and work culture rather than experience which has minimal effect.

HR Head doesn’t require his/her intelligence and experience if subordinates are well experienced in handling tasks. For example, a recruiter in the HR team who is well versed with using hiring tools like job portals, social networking sites, and other hiring tools then he/she doesn’t require any support in how to use it.

6. Criticism

There are different points on which Cognitive Resource theory of leadership can be criticized like:

  • The theory is criticized due to the inaccuracy in using factor i.e. intelligence. It has ignored different intelligence types based on creativity, emotional intelligence, etc.
  • The theory didn’t define positive, negative stress types and their impact on different leaders and leadership styles separately. A leader can be strong or weak based on different situations. In one situation he/she can demonstrate effective leadership and in another situation his/her leadership style fails to improve performance.
  • The theory states the qualitative aspect of stress and there is no arrangement of the quantitative aspect of measuring stress. A well designed quantified scale to measure stress is missing.
  • This theory couldn’t specify a different type of task and resources needed for task attainment.

7. Significance 

Following advantages are there of Cognitive Resource theory of leadership:

  • Through Cognitive resource theory, one can easily relate the intelligence of a leader and performance factor of an organization in sorting out issues. It also helps in defining high and low-stress situations. Also, it clarifies that on what grounds stress can affect and slow down the effect of intelligence capability of a leader.
  • This theory also explains the difference between an experienced leader and an intelligent leader. It also helps in determining which type of leader will be successful in leading a team under stressful circumstances.
  • It also supports placing the right leaders in the right place as it emphasizes testing a leader on intelligence and the ability to cope up with stress levels as well.

8. Limitations or Disadvantages

Limitations of Cognitive Resource theory are:

  • There is a different type of intelligence that exists i.e. EQ (Emotional Quotient), IQ (Intelligence Quotient), SQ and PQ i.e. Spiritual Quotient and Physical Quotient respectively. But this theory didn’t consider these while defining intelligence.
  • This theory didn’t clear that stress level can be different based on the type and degree of different tasks and so different leadership style is required accordingly.
  • This theory was failed to identify different stress types like stress can be physical or psychological or positive or negative and affects differently on the problem-solving ability of a leader.
  • There is no evaluation of the stress factor in measurable terms. So the authenticity of the theory is difficult to judge.
  • It also ignored a leader having both great intelligence and experience.
  • As per the theory, there is no need for experience and intelligence for easy and simple tasks which is somewhat not correct. For better results and minimizing errors in simple tasks require little experience and intelligence.

9. Conclusion

Though there are different criticisms of Cognitive Resource theory as stated above, still it holds its prominent position in defining leadership in leadership theories. To summarize, leaders contribute to the performance of the organization through his/her intelligence and intellectual abilities in favorable conditions that are stress-free, cooperation from the team, high intelligence level activities. For this, they also need to be directive in their leadership approach. The main philosophy of theory is that intelligence deals better with low-stress situations and experiences produce best results in high-stress situations. So, both have significance according to stress type.

Still, it requires more research and modifications based on different intelligence types, stress levels, and according to different situations. The theory provided a base for the discovery of next-level leadership theories.

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