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The cognitive resource theory is a leadership theory of industrial and organizational psychology developed by Fred Fiedler and Joe Garcia in 1987 as a reconceptualization of the Fiedler contingency model. The theory focuses on the influence of the leader's intelligence and experience on his or her reaction to stress.

The essence of the theory is that stress is the enemy of rationality, damaging leaders' ability to think logically and analytically. However, the leader's experience and intelligence can lessen the influence of stress on his (or her) actions: intelligence is the main factor in low-stress situations, whilst experience counts for more during high-stress moments.

Cognitive resource theory predictions

  1. A leader's cognitive ability contributes to the performance of the team only when the leader's approach is directive. When leaders are better at planning and decision-making, in order for their plans and decisions to be implemented, they need to tell people what to do, rather than hope they agree with them. When they are not better than people on the team, then a non-directive approach is more appropriate, for example where they facilitate an open discussion where the ideas of team can be aired and the best approach identified and implemented.
  2. Stress affects the relationship between intelligence and decision quality. When there is low stress, then intelligence is fully functional and makes an optimal contribution. However, during high stress, a natural intelligence not only makes no difference, but it may also have a negative effect. One reason for this may be that an intelligent person seeks rational solutions, which may not be available (and may be one of the causes of stress). In such situations, a leader who is inexperienced in 'gut feel' decisions is forced to rely on this unfamiliar approach. Another possibility is that the leader retreats within him/herself, to think hard about the problem, leaving the group to their own devices.
  3. Experience is positively related to decision quality under high stress. When there is a high stress situation and intelligence is impaired, experience of the same or similar situations enables the leader to react in appropriate ways without having to think carefully about the situation. Experience of decision-making under stress will also contribute to a better decision than trying to muddle through with brain-power alone.
  4. For simple tasks, leader intelligence and experience is irrelevant. When subordinates are given tasks which do not need direction or support, then it does not matter how good the leader is at making decisions, because they are easy to make, even for subordinates, and hence do not need any further support.


  • Andy Aboagye Isaac. (2010). Organizational Behavior p. 321–322. Prentice Hall, 9th edition.
  • Fiedler, F.E. & Gibson, F.W. (2001). Determinants of Effective Utilization of Leader Abilities.
  • Fiedler, F.E. (1986). The contribution of cognitive resources to leadership performance. In L. Berkowitz (ed), Advances in experimental social psychology. NY: Academic Press
  • Fiedler, F.E. and Garcia, J.E. (1987). New approaches to leadership: Cognitive resources and organizational performance. NY: Wiley.