How to Adapt Your Management Style

Managerial Style Is Situational Depending on Employee Involvement

Supervisor listening to workers in factory
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There are many different styles of leadership championed across academia. It can be difficult to decide which one to use for your personality, industry, experience or types of employees. One theory that can work in multiple situations is the Leadership Continuum Theory developed by Robert Tannenbaum and Warren Schmidt in 1958.

There are four management styles traditionally defined by this theory. One has been added over time (Delegate) with further interpretation of the ideas. These styles are Tell, Sell, Consult and Join and Delegate.

Another theory is the Situational Leadership Theory, developed by Paul Hersey and Kenneth Blanchardin 1969. This approach is generally interpreted (or modernly interpreted) to have four basic styles for a leader to choose from while accounting for the maturity levels of the employees. This approach defines Directing, Coaching, Supporting and Delegating as it's four situational managment styles.

Leadership Continuum Model

Your management style is situational depending on a number of factors. The management style you choose to use at any particular moment depends on these factors:

  • The experience, seniority, and the longevity of the employee involved
  • Your trust level with the employees involved
  • Your relationship with the employees responsible for the work
  • Prior practices of the department or organization in which you work
  • The prevailing culture of your organization and whether you fit the culture
  • Employee policies and procedures published by the Human Resources department
  • Your own experience and level of comfort in applying various management styles to different projects and in different settings

This model provides a linear approach for management and employee involvement that includes an increasing role for employees and a decreasing role for managers in the decision-making process. The theory is that you are able to adapt your style for the factors in your workforce and work.

The Tell style represents top-down, dictatorial decision making with little employee input. This is the manner in which traditional, hierarchical organizations manage employees.

Similar to the autocratic style of leadership, the manager makes the decision and tells employees what they are going to do. The Tell style is a useful management style when there isn't much room for employee input, or used with new employees being trained.

Tell is used less frequently in the quickly changing work environment of today’s offices. Technology and the availability of information in organizations have changed the balance of power that favored management decision making.

In the Sell style of leadership, similar to the persuasive leadership style, the manager has made the decision and then attempts to persuade employees that the decision is correct.

The Sell management style is used when employee commitment and support is needed, but the decision is not open to very much employee influence. Employees may be able to influence how the decision is carried out.

The Consult management style is one in which the manager requests employee input into a decision but retains the authority to make the final decision. The key to using the consult management style successfully is to inform employees that their input is needed, but that the manager will make the final decision.

If you choose to ask for employee input when making a decision, give them an explanation of the reasoning for your decision when you make it, if there is time. This lets them know that their input was valuable, and whether it influenced the decision or not.

It is important that employee input is treated as valuable when asked for. If they are continuously asked for input, but never see it used, they will cease to give constructive input.

In the Join management style, the manager invites employees to join him or her in making the decision. The manager considers his or her voice equal to the employees in the decision-making process. You sit together around the same table and every voice is key in the decision.

The Join management style is effective when the manager truly builds agreement and commitment around a decision. The manager must also be willing to keep his or her influence equal to the degree of influence that other employees who provide input exert. The join management style can be effective when a manager is willing to share authority.

Once you use the join management style, you should be aware that your team will come to expect it. This is not necessarily a bad development, as long as you instill the fact that you are the leader and do not need a group session to make decisions.

While not part of the traditional continuum of leadership, Delegation is at the far right of the continuum where the manager turns the decision over to the group. The key to successful delegation is to share a critical path with the employees that have designated points at which you need feedback and updating from the employees. 

Always build this critical path feedback loop and a timeline into the process. To make delegation successful, the manager must also share any "preconceived picture" he has of the anticipated outcome of the process.

As your team members progress in proficiency and competency, you are able to move to different leadership styles depending on the situation and projects.

Situational Leadership Model

The situational leadership model basically matches different leadership style with different employee maturity and job maturity levels. Generally, there are four types of employee phases.

Directing is the phase usually reserved for newer employees, or those that may not have the knowledge, skills, abilities (KSAs) and drive for the work.

The Coaching phase is where the employees have developed necessary basic skills for the work but still have room for development into fully productive employees.

After an employee or group has received enough coaching for them to be productive, the Supporting phase is entered. In this phase, some employees may or may not be driven to excel, have the KSAs, but need extra motivation and support to work towards the overall goals.

Once the group has reached a state in which they are fully committed and competent, they are in the Delegation phase of this model. They are able to receive instructions and complete tasks on their own, creating an environment where the leader becomes freer to focus on strategy and team nurturing.

As employees or team members transition from one phase to another, the leader is able to adapt their leadership style to match the phase each one is in. The desired result would be to have all the team members reach the delegation phase. This not only frees up the leader somewhat, but it gives employees a sense of contribution, value, and respect.