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Understanding and Leveraging Your Optimal Management Style

By December 20, 2023February 8th, 2024No Comments
Management styles MBS

People don’t leave bad companies. They leave bad managers.

They leave mediocre communication, poor decision-making, micromanagement, favoritism, narcissism, and chasms of empathy.

Nobody wants to be that manager. But in the humdrum of the busy workplace, it’s all too easy to slip into the bad habits of a poor manager.

What’s the remedy to that? How can you unlock your greatness to be the best manager you can be?

By understanding your management style to bring a whole new level of intentionality to how you engage with others.

Let me explain what I mean in more detail below.

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What Is a Management Style?

A management style refers to your approach to managing people and projects within your organization.

It’s your mental framework for decision-making, exerting your authority, workplace planning, and getting the best out of your team.

Great leaders realize that they need to rely upon more than just one management style to be effective and empower their team. While one management style will work excellently in one scenario, it will fall flat in another.

So, being able to chameleon-shift between styles, depending on the needs and goals of the situation, is vital if you want to rally your team and keep people motivated.

Management Style vs Leadership Style

It’s easy to get confused between management styles and leadership styles, but there are a few crucial differences.

Peter Drucker outlined this brilliantly in his book, The Effective Executive, when he said, “Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things.”

While honing on your leadership style centers around thinking about how you’ll articulate your company vision and cultivate inspiration among your people, finessing your management style is about helping your people unlock their greatness and succeed within the context of your company’s goals.

The Different Types of Management Styles

Now that we know what a management style is, let’s take a look at the 10 most prolific management styles out there.

“10!?” I hear you gawp. Don’t worry. I’m not expecting you to become an expert in every single one of these management styles. What’s more helpful is to look through this list while keeping the following questions in mind:

  • Which styles might solve the most significant workplace challenges for me?
  • What will help me bring the best out of my team?
  • What styles will help me to become a better leader?

While I certainly have my personal preferences out of the below, all of these styles have their prizes and punishments. Put simply, there’s no one way to manage all people all of the time. Life and humans are too messy, complex, and wonderful to be boxed that simply.

So, find the styles that best fit your organization right now, and get good at them. But, don’t forget that, at some point or another, you may be called forth to expand again and try out a new management style altogether.

1. Democratic Management

Democratic management does what it says on the tin – it’s all about opening up the decision-making parlor to the majority.

Democratic management certainly has its place and can be wonderful for boosting team motivation. As Dan Pink explores in his book, Drive, people are motivated when they feel like they have autonomy, mastery, and purpose.

Naturally, a democratic management style works wonders for autonomy – you’re showing your people you care about their thoughts and ideas, rather than ruling with an iron fist.

When done well, democratic management also helps you push your people towards mastery and purpose.

By listening intently to your team, you can uncover what intrinsically motivates them. You can give people a sense of a purpose and then challenge them to stretch and grow so they move toward mastery.

On the downside, I’m sure you’ll have heard the saying that too many cooks spoil the broth.

Sometimes, your team needs decisive instruction. If you’re always looking to others to have the answer for you, you may stumble and falter at the crossroads when you need to put your foot on the accelerator in one direction.

2. Autocracy

Occasionally, in high-stress situations, autocratic management is the way to go. But, honestly, I believe most managers lean on the autocratic style way too much.

It’s not anyone’s fault. Most of us have had a whole lot of practice being rewarded, encouraged, promoted, and paid for knowing the answers. We have deep habits that are established in school as much as anything else about being rewarded for knowing the answer.

In modern organizations, this plays out as people go to their manager with a problem, and the manager rushes in to take control and save the day.

But ironically, leaning on autocratic management as your default response is, firstly, exhausting and, secondly, ineffective.

You see, the problem someone first presents is rarely ever the actual problem that needs solving. So, if autocracy is your go-to, you’re probably spending a heck of a lot of time trying to solve the wrong challenges, while the real issue goes unnoticed.

On top of that, telling people how to fix things has the opposite impact. You don’t end up helping your people. You disempower them. Every time you take over, you tell your people (at least subconsciously): “You can’t figure this out by yourself.”

Over time, this creates a cycle of overdependence that stifles creativity, courage, and competence. Lean too much on this style and your people won’t grow – they’ll shrink.

3. Coaching

So, what should you do instead of rushing to give advice? One essential leadership skill everyone who wants to become a manager should cultivate is coaching.

Now, I know coaching gets a bit of a bad rap, which is why I’m on a mission to unweird it. Often, managers and leaders are concerned about how much time coaching employees takes. They also resist the idea because they don’t want to be coaches, they just want to do their job well.

But the thing is, you can have a coaching conversation in ten minutes or less. Plus, the coaching management style isn’t about turning you into a coach. It’s about becoming more coach-like.

In practice, this is all about staying curious a little longer and slowing down the rush to give advice.

Put it this way. If my book, The Coaching Habit, were a haiku, it would be this:

Tell less and ask more.

Your advice is not as good

As you think it is.

Keeping this in mind, here are some of my favorite questions for effective coaching:

  • What is on your mind?
  • What is the real challenge here for you?
  • If you’re saying yes to this, what must you say no to?

4. Laissez-faire

The laissez-faire management style complements the coaching style in that it helps you nurture a self-sufficient, effective team. In The Coaching Habit, I call this the principle of being lazy.

It sounds counterintuitive, but being lazy is one of the best ways to increase your impact and that of your team. It reminds you to stop doing the work for your direct reports, to encourage them to come up with their own solutions.

The simplest way to be a little bit more lazy is to ask, “How can I help?”

Now, I realize that sounds like the worst possible question to ask to be laissez-faire. Because surely it invites someone to give you a long, detailed list of activities they’d like your help to complete.

But, paradoxically, there are two reasons why asking how you can help can have you working less hard.

  1. It forces the other person to state what they want from you. This means they need to know what that is, and this in turn will make their request all the more clear. And that way, nobody rushes off to fix the wrong problem altogether.
  2. It keeps you from immediately bounding in with advice. Instead of jumping in to solve the issue, you’re asking what exactly your employee needs from you to be able to solve it themselves. The difference is subtle, and yet the result will be completely different. Instead of taking over, you empower your employee and encourage their capacity to learn.

One thing to note about the laissez-faire management style is that it won’t work for every person or project. While some people like to be pushed, provoked, and given free reigns, others need more guidance and direction.

To decide whether this style is right for your employees, I recommend you have the Keystone Conversation, a concept I developed in my latest book, How To Work With (Almost) Anyone.

In the Keystone Conversation, you sit across from the other person to set the stage for the best possible working relationship. The conversation is all about how you’ll work together, rather than what you’re working on, and it’s a wonderful, radical way to nurture empathy, boost workplace trust, and ensure you’re managing your people in a way that unlocks their greatness.

5. Transformational

If you’ve read How To Work With (Almost) Anyone, you’ll know of the three qualities workplace relationships need to thrive: a balance of psychological safety, vitality, and repairability.

Transformational managers are experts in vitality. They believe in constantly pushing the status quo, challenging their people, and stretching their comfort zones. This is the essence of vitality: stimulating people to think bigger, take more risks, and push boundaries.

While transformational management certainly sounds bold and cool, I hasten to add that vitality without safety and repairability can turn out dangerous and reckless. Everyone needs boundaries within which to operate; to know that, if things go awry, they can bounce back from failure without punishment.

So, if you want to embrace a transformational management style, make sure to keep the trifecta of safe, vital, and repairable in mind.

This means cultivating psychological safety, challenging your people at the right time, and committing to repairing your working relationships when they inevitably get dented and fractured.

6. Performance Management

Performance management is one of those HR buzz phrases we’ve come to know. And for a long time, performance management went hand-in-hand with performance reviews and appraisals.

But, let’s face it, most managers and their team members find that performance reviews are painful and time-consuming. Box of Crayons research showed that in almost 75% of organizations, managers feel that the process is burdensome and offers little value.

That’s likely because the reviews are few and far between and often too closely tied to salary expectations. And, to rub salt into the wound, the consensus is that performance management reviews rarely improve employee development as they are backward-looking and frequently focused on the negative.

A better way to approach performance management is to shift from formal, annual sessions to more informal, frequent feedback and coaching for performance, rather than long-winded bureaucratic and formal discussions.

7. Persuasion

Want to learn how to get your way all the time? Then persuasive management might be for you. A bit tongue-in-cheek, perhaps, but that’s the essence of persuasion – influencing people so that they come on board with your vision and ideas.

Persuasive management is useful in situations where you’re 100% sure your way is the right way to go. But like the authoritarian management style, the punishments often outweigh the prizes. And that’s because of your advice monster – a concept I explore in detail in my book The Advice Trap.

You know your advice monster. Somebody starts telling you about something. Even though you don’t really know the situation or the people involved and you certainly don’t have the full context, after about 10 seconds your advice monster is like, “Oh, oh, oh, I’ve got something to say here.”

The problem isn’t with persuasion. Instead, the problem is when persuasion becomes our default response. There are three ways that this goes bad.

The first issue with this is that we’re often solving the wrong problem. We get seduced into thinking the first challenge that shows up is the real challenge — but it rarely is.

The second issue is that our ideas and advice are not nearly as good as we think they are. If you’re thinking to yourself, “No, no. My ideas are magnificent,” I suggest you watch a video on cognitive bias. It will explain why we think we’re amazing at things even though we aren’t.

The third issue with persuasion cuts a little deeper. It’s the fact that persuasion presents the illusion that you’re adding value to a conversation and holding control of the interaction.

Choosing curiosity and asking questions instead means relinquishing some of that power and, in doing so, empowering the other person in the conversation. Although it can feel uncomfortable to do at first, this changes the dynamic between you and your report – almost always resulting in a positive exchange and better communication.

8. Collaboration

Collaboration-focused managers excel in building I-Thou relationships, to quote Martin Buber.

They believe that to get the best out of their people, they need to see them for the whole of who they are and help them find deeper purpose and fulfillment in their work.

This is in stark contrast to autocratic management, which embodies I-It relationships. In the latter, the manager sees their employee as a cog in a machine. The relationship is transactional and mechanical. There’s no humanity, empathy, or connection.

With collaborative I-thou relationships, on the other hand, the manager rediscovers the human behind the task at hand. They understand that the other person is layered, complex, and probably trying their best.

They seek to help the other person flourish, realizing that, when people feel appreciated and respected, they bring the best of who they are to the workplace.

9. Bureaucracy

Bureaucratic managers are sticklers for the rules. They believe that the best outcome is achieved by following well-defined policies and processes, and they’re champions of workplace hierarchies.

But the thing is, while bureaucracy has good intentions, it often results in what I call Bad Work: too many pointless emails, long-winded meetings, and time-consuming spreadsheets. This is waste-of-time, life-sucking, heart-sinking work.

For more success and impact, what you want your people to be doing is good work and (better still) great work.

Good work is your people’s job description. It’s productive and useful, but it doesn’t break the mold or spark innovation. That’s Great Work. The kind of work that stretches you, inspires you, and lights you up.

To be a great leader and help your people thrive, you’ll want to locate the sweet spot between your direct reports’ ideas of Great Work and what your organization wants your team to do.

For a helping hand with that, my book, Do More Great Work, offers brilliantly simple, visual tools that help you find, start, and sustain Great Work.

10. Servant Leadership

I’m a huge fan of Robert Greenleaf’s book The Servant as a Leader. It’s 40 years old now, but the concept is so powerful. He writes that every leader and manager’s primary job is to be of service to those who follow them.

When servant leadership is at its best, those being served both expand their potential and fulfill it and in turn become servant leaders themselves.

The best way to figure out if you’re adopting this style? Ask yourself if people are better off after you’ve worked with them. Do you help your direct reports become better, smarter, bolder, and more courageous in the work they do? Do you support them as they try, fail, learn and grow? Are you committed to helping people become the next best version of themselves?

This is the essence of servant leadership, and it goes hand in hand with honing your coaching skills: unlocking a person’s greatness and maximizing their potential by helping them to learn for themselves, instead of teaching them.

By Unlocking Their Greatness, You Unlock Yours

While there are many different managerial styles out there, some shine brighter than others.

There will always be times when directive instructions are needed but, more often than not, leaning into coaching and servant leadership will help you and your people bring out the best in each other.

Want to learn more about building great relationships with your direct reports and colleagues?

Then check out my latest book –How to Work With (Almost) Anyone.

Michael Bungay Stanier

Michael Bungay Stanier

I'm the author of five books that have collectively sold more than a million copies. I'm the founder of Box of Crayons, a learning and development company that helps organizations move from advice-driven to curiosity-led. I'm the host of the *2 Pages with MBS* podcast.