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.
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 chapter 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, manager, 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 manager establishes goals, assigns responsibilities, sets standards, and defines expectations. The directing style is appropriate when employees lack experience and don’t know what to do. It’s also appropriate when there is a mandate from senior management that describes what must be done and how it must be done. The leader is the “commander-in-charge,” simply carrying out the orders. The directing style is also appropriate in emergency situations. Good direction also includes specifics around non-negotiable items such as safety and ethics.
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 discussing style is effective when employees have ideas and are willing to speak up. After a productive discussion, specific goals need to be established. The goals may be reached through consensus—both manager and employee agree on the goal. Or goals may be established by the manager after the discussion. If employees are involved in establishing the goals they are generally more committed to achieving them.
The delegating style promotes learning through empowerment. With this style, the manager assigns tasks that employees work on independently, either individually or in groups. The delegating style is appropriate when people have the experience, skills, and motivation to get the job done. Experienced employees don’t need a manager telling them how to do it. They want freedom to take action and solve problems on their own.
Using an appropriate management style helps the employee learn, grow, and become more independent.
Managers need to consider how much experience their employee has had in doing a particular task. Does the employee have the required knowledge and skills to do the task? If the employee has little or no experience, a directing style is appropriate. (See diagram above) As employees gain experience and know-how, managers need to move to a discussing style and then a delegating style. The goal is to use a management style that fits the needs of the employee relative to the task he or she is assigned.
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
Start with the big picture. Provide the context before launching into specifics. State clearly what you expect, how you expect it to be done, and when it’s due. Wordy and poorly organized directions confuse, overwhelm, and frustrate employees. It’s important to provide the right amount of detail. Communication breakdowns occur when important details are omitted.
- 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?” There are times when managers need to be very direct and candid to get through to their employee.
- Coaching occurs as the manager tells the employees what they need to do or 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 praises employees 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.
Being clear and direct is a good thing. The employee knows what’s expected and what he needs to get done. It’s also important for managers to hold their employees accountable for completing the assigned tasks. Some of the additional points to remember when using the directing style include:
- Give people the straight scoop. Don’t sugarcoat the message.
- Operate from an “adult-to-adult” framework. Always treat people with respect.
- Provide written instructions if the directions are complex or lengthy.
- Get feedback—test the transfer. Ask the employee to explain his understanding of the directions.
 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.
Know your objective. Why are you having this discussion? Prepare questions in advance. Great discussions don’t just happen. Ask one question at a time. Be open, curious, and interested in learning what your employees think and why they think that way.
- 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 require employees 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.
The discussing style is appropriate when there is adequate time for meetings and participation. Effective managers know that asking the right question at the right time engages people and increases their commitment. Some of the additional points to remember when using the discussing style include:
- Don’t allow one or two employees to dominate the discussion.
- Solicit everyone’s ideas and opinions. 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.”
- After a good discussion, it’s important to get closure on who is going to do what tasks by when.
 The Delegating Style
When using the delegating style, managers direct or discuss what needs to be accomplished and when it must be completed. However the how-to-do-it part of the equation is left up to the employee. It is expected that the employee will take action and make decisions as to how the task will be accomplished. Responsibility and authority are given to the employee to make it happen.
Assign tasks 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 each employee by expressing confidence in his ability to get the job done. Make sure your employees know exactly what they need to do and by when.
- 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. Establish check-in dates. Managers need to get periodic updates from employees to insure appropriate progress is being made.
- 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 like the following: “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 10:00 a.m. to hear what you come up with.”
- Decision making happens as employees establish 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.
As employees grow and develop, they want the freedom to make their own decisions and solve their own problems. Such independence promotes maturity and increases motivation. Some of the additional points to remember when using the delegating style include:
- Don’t over-delegate to the same one or two “star” performers.
- When delegating a long-term project, establish specific checkpoints to get updates on progress and problems.
- Avoid “reverse delegation.” Don’t allow employees to give work back to you. The consistent act of reverse delegation trains the employee to know the manager will always finish the job.
- Never delegate the responsibility for administering discipline or dealing with an employee’s personal issues.
 Blending Styles
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
In general, managers need to move from directing to discussing to delegating. As employees gain experience and know-how, it’s best to engage them through discussion and delegation. Using the appropriate management style helps employees learn, grow, change, and get the job done.
At the end of each week, managers should assess their own performance with questions like the following:
- Did I use the most appropriate management style for each task?
- Am I asking the right questions?
- What else can I delegate?
- Who’s ready to take on a bigger task?
- Are employees becoming more capable and independent?
The one thing you need to remember…
Use a management style that fits the needs of the situation.
 Related Best Practices
- "Leadership:Best Advice I Ever Got", Paul B. Thornton, 2006. Based on interviews of CEOs, presidents, professors, politicians and religious leaders the book describes the best advice they received that most helped them become effective leaders.
The author of this page is Paul B. Thornton
Paul B. Thornton is speaker, trainer, and professor of business administration at Springfield Technical Community College. He teaches principles of management, organizational behavior, and principles of leadership. Paul has designed and conducted management and leadership programs for Palmer Foundry, UMASS Medical School, Mercy Health Systems, and Kuwait Oil Corporation. His articles have appeared in The Leader-to-Leader Journal, Management Review, Leadership Excellence, The Toastmaster, and USA Today. He is the author of "Leadership—Off the Wall" and twelve other books on management and leadership.