Leveraging 3 Primary Management Styles

When and how to employ each of these styles—directing, discussing, and delegating—to maximize your effectiveness.

By Paul B. Thornton, Professor, Business Administration, Springfield Technical Community College

Management style greatly affects employees’ motivation and capacity to learn. The most effective managers vary their styles depending on the employee’s knowledge and skills, the nature of the task, time constraints, and other factors. By so doing, they encourage and inspire employees to do their best at all times.

Unfortunately, some managers fail to utilize different management styles, either because they don’t know about them or don’t think to apply them. This article discusses three primary management styles that should be in the tool chest of every manager, along with practical suggestions about when and how to use them.

The basic concepts presented in this article are derived from the “Situational Leadership Theory Model,” developed by Ken Blanchard and Paul Hersey. I was privileged to study with both Professor Hersey and Professor Blanchard at Ohio University. Since then, as a college instructor, coach, consultant, corporate trainer, manger, and facilitator, I have successfully applied the concepts described below with many employees and students in a variety of settings.

The Three Ds

It is helpful to think of management styles according to the three Ds: Directing, Discussing, and Delegating.

The directing style promotes learning through listening and following directions. With this style, the manager tells the employees what to do, how to do it, and when it needs to be done.

The discussing style promotes learning through interaction. In this style, practiced by Socrates, the manager encourages critical thinking and lively discussion by asking employees questions about the problem, opportunity, or issue that must be resolved. The manager is a facilitator guiding the discussion to a logical conclusion.

The delegating style promotes learning through empowerment. With this style, the manager assigns tasks that employees work on independently, either individually or in groups.

Using an appropriate management style helps employees learn, grow, and become more independent.

Below is a brief description of each management style, with suggestions about how to use it for best results. For presentation purposes, I have organized this material according to four key components of all management styles: communication, coaching, decision-making, and recognition.

The Directing Style

Communication in the directing style is predominantly one-way, from manager to employee. The manager imparts information to the employee via verbal or written instructions. The only feedback the manager looks for is “Do you understand the instructions?”

Coaching occurs as the manager tells employees what they need to change. In addition, the manager may demonstrate desired behaviors to the employee, such as rewriting an e-mail to improve clarity or showing how to run an effective meeting.

Decision-making occurs when the manager defines the problem, evaluates options, and makes a decision. Employees learn how to frame problems, evaluate alternatives, and make effective decisions by understanding the process the manager follows.

Recognition happens spontaneously when the manager praisesemployees who follow directions and complete assignments correctly. It can be accomplished on a more formal basis through company reward/recognition programs and feedback provided in private manager-employee conferences.

Suggestions for using the directing style:

  • Start with the big picture. Provide the context before launching into specifics.
  • Be precise. State clearly what you expect, how you expect it to be done, and when it’s due. To increase motivation, tell employees why they will benefit from learning the material. Clear goals, specific deadlines, and concise directions increase employee motivation and eliminate confusion. Wordy, sloppily written, poorly organized directions confuse, overwhelm, and frustrate employees.
  • Provide the right amount of detail. Communication breakdowns can occur when important details are omitted or instructions are ambiguous.
  • Always interact in an adult-to-adult manner. This engenders mutual respect, disarms defensiveness, and facilitates positive change.
  • Don’t sugarcoat the message. There are times when managers need to be direct and candid to get through to employees. For example, I once told an employee, “Stop being a victim and blaming everyone else. Start taking responsibility for your actions.”

The Discussing Style

Communication in the discussing style is two-way (between manager and employee) or multi-way (among employees, or among employees and manager). The manager asks challenging questions and listens carefully to the employees’ comments. Follow-up questions help uncover underlying assumptions, reasoning, and feelings. Employees learn to have opinions and be able to back them up with facts and data.

Coaching occurs when the manager asks questions that requireemployees to evaluate their own performance. Good questions to ask are “How do you think you did? What could you have done better? What steps can you take to improve?” The goal is to encourage employees to examine what they did, why they did it, and what they can do to improve.

Decision-making occurs as the manager and employees collaborate and work together to define problems, identify and evaluate alternative solutions, and make sound decisions. Employees learn as they respond to the manager’s questions, offer their own ideas, and consider the advantages and disadvantages of each option.

Recognition may be given to employees who express their ideas clearly and succinctly. In addition, employees should be praised for thoughtful observations, creative ideas, building on the ideas of others, and helping the group reach a logical conclusion.

Suggestions for using the discussing style:

  • Start by asking general questions. Management guru Tom Peters says the four most important words are “What do you think?” Asking employees for their ideas and opinions increases their engagement in the learning process. “What would you do in this situation?” is more effective at promoting discussion than a question that aims for a single “right” answer. Start with general questions, and then get more specific.
  • Resist the temptation to immediately answer your own questions or give your own opinions. Be willing to wait 20 seconds or more for employees to respond. Silence is a great motivator.
  • Prepare questions in advance. Great discussions don’t just happen. Ask one question at a time. Be open, curious, and interested in learning what each employee thinks.
  • Don’t allow one or two employees to dominate the discussion. Solicit everyone’s ideas and opinions. Gently draw out employees who seem insecure and reticent to participate. Get closure by reviewing the key point or points you want to make.
  • Promote broad participation by asking each employee to comment on a question or topic. For example, I sometimes start my meetings by saying, “I want to give each of you one minute to discuss your views on this topic. Let’s go around the room and hear from everyone.”

The Delegating Style

Communication occurs as the manager assigns tasks for employees to tackle independently or in small groups. Employees listen and ask follow-up questions until they fully understand what they need to deliver.

Coaching is accomplished primarily through self-coaching. Employees gain the most maturity and confidence when they are able to critique their own performance. For example, to my employee I might say something such as: “I want you to think about your performance on this assignment. Identify three things you did well and one area needing improvement. I’d like to meet tomorrow at 10 a.m. to hear what you come up with.”

Decision-making happens as employeesestablish goals, implement plans, and work through issues on their own. They learn by doing.

 Recognition most often takes the form of praise and other rewards given to employees who work well independently, meet deadlines, and produce quality work.

Suggestions for using the delegating style:

  • Assign projects that are challenging, but not overwhelming. When employees are empowered, most are inspired and motivated to show what they can do, but some become anxious. Increase the probability of success for all employees by expressing confidence in their ability to get the job done.
  • Be precise. When delegating a task or project, make sure employees know exactly what they need to do and by when.
  • Establish check-in dates. Managers need to get periodic updates from employees to insure appropriate progress is being made.

Variety Leads to Effectiveness

There is no one best management style. Effective managers use a variety of styles, and they know how and when to choose the most appropriate one for the specific situation. In essence, the three management styles boil down to this:

  • Direct—Tell employees what to do.
  • Discuss—Ask questions and listen.
  • Delegate—Empower employees.

Some managers lean too heavily on the directing style of management. Greater use of the discussing and delegating styles increases employee engagement and enhances the learning experience.

At the end of each week, managers should assess their own performance with questions such as:

  • Did I use the most appropriate management style for each task?
  • Am I overusing any particular style?
  • What changes do I need to make when using each style?
  • Are employees becoming more capable and independent?

Paul B. Thornton is professor of business administration at Springfield Technical Community College, Springfield, MA, where he teaches principles of management, organizational behavior, and principles of leadership. Professor Thornton is the author of “Leadership—Off the Wall” and 12 other books on management and leadership, as well as numerous published articles. He can be contacted at mailto:PThornton@stcc.edu.

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