Management Styles

I was prompted to think about management styles by, of all things, a novel.

The book – The Narrow Road to the North, winner of last year’s Man Booker Prize – revolves around the experiences of the Japanese overseers and Australian slave/POWs in Burma during World War II.   One management style, that of fear and intimidation, was presented in its most extreme form.  (Interesting book, by the way, as is almost always the case with winners of this particular prize.)

Anyway, that got me thinking.  Over the course of my career, I’ve had the opportunity, as advisor to CEOs and boards of a number of companies, and as an external critic of many other companies and organizations, to observe different management styles, and the results they achieve.  I don’t claim to be an expert, but I saw what I saw.

For the longest time, I clung to the notion that there were two basic management styles: a good one, and a bad one.

The “bad” management style is based on the raw use of power to intimidate workers.  Under this paradigm, employees are “forced” to produce at a maximum rate because of their fear of the manager and/or CEO.  In philosophical terms, it is the Austinian “orders backed by threats” approach of the sovereign.  The person in power issues a command, and the person receiving the command either obeys, or is punished.  The underlying values – is the command a good one or a bad one – are irrelevant.  I decide.  You obey.

It’s not like this never works.  The world has lots of bullies, and bullies exist in part because bullying sometimes produces results.  There will always be some people – perhaps even a majority of employees – that will back off from the confrontation with the bully, and simply try to make him or her happy by working harder.

The bullying management style has two key flaws, though.

The first and most important is that it operates as a selection system for staff.  Those who are willing to accept being bullied will stay in the bully’s employ.  Those who reject that work environment will leave (or not get recruited in the first place).

This is not insignificant, because many of the employees with the most to contribute are in the latter group.  It stands to reason.  They are the “stars”, and they have the broadest range of career options.  They will tend to be smarter, more creative, and possessed of more individual drive and initiative.  All of the reasons why they will not accept being bullied, are the same reasons they are big-time contributors to the organization.  The “bully” manager selects against this type, and thus necessarily reduces the overall effectiveness of the organization.

The second flaw lies in the nature of bully managers.  Although they project power and strength, they are actually driven by their own weakness.  Their underlying fear and insecurity is in most cases the very reason they are bullies (just as bullies everywhere).  Similarly, while they often use intellectual intimidation as their go-to bullying technique (their “threat” being to make someone who doesn’t comply look stupid), they characteristically lack real intelligence when it comes to understanding how to make things happen.

What that means is that bullies can often get things done in the short term.  Lay on the proverbial whip, and things will happen.  These managers have somewhat less staying power, though.  In the longer term, their underlying personality flaws – insecurity and stupidity – catch up with them.  Rarely will you see them actually achieve a long term vision or strategy.  (When was the last time you saw someone everyone thought of as “a nasty piece of work” actually deliver on a real vision, as opposed to an immediate, near term deliverable?)

At this point, I should probably be saying that some of my best friends are bullies, but that wouldn’t be true.  Like Marty McFly in Back to the Future, I can’t stand bullies.  That’s not likely to change.

On the other side, there is the “good” management style.  This manager or CEO believes in the ultimate goodness of each person, and seeks to empower every employee and bring them to their full potential.

The “peace and love” mantra of this Age of Aquarius manager is very attractive.  We like to think that the manager that nourishes their staff, encouraging them to achieve greatness, will ultimately be the most successful.  They will give people second and third (and eighth) chances, accommodate all eccentricities, and hold any hand that appears to need holding.  Love will conquer all.

It turns out that this management style also has two fundamental flaws.

First, not everyone is willing or able to be “fired up” by management encouragement.  Some people are just doing a job.  They will do whatever is demanded of them, but not more.  They don’t want to have responsibility for setting their goals, and expanding their horizons.  They just want to get the job done, collect their paycheque, and go home to the important parts of their lives.  (Or, in the pithy words of one employee, quoted to me by a frustrated CEO: “Stop asking me to give a shit.”)

For many people, holding their hand means having low expectations of them.   Low expectations = low results.  They need to be pushed.  Standards need to be set, and there have to be consequences for failure to meet those standards.  If you don’t expect them to work hard, or work smart, they won’t.

Second, this loving and empowering manager is often perceived as making a virtue of softness.  By implication, the complementary attribute – toughness – is treated as of no value.

Whether you like it or not, organizations cannot function, either internally or in relation to the rest of the world, without toughness.  “Only the strong survive” is not just a platitude;  it is a basic, animal truth, and one that crushes organizations, and people, who are too soft for the circumstances they are in.  This is especially true in competitive market activities, of course, but it is of great importance elsewhere as well.  Governments, and government agencies, for example, also need toughness, and falter if they can’t find that core strength when it is needed.

Often the basic failing of the touchy-feely manager is that they always want to be nice.  They are too insecure to be tough when toughness is required.  It is good to be nice, sure, but if you are afraid to tell people the hard truths, then you can’t help them grow and improve.

In fact – and perhaps ironically – the pure bullies ultimately fail, and the pure nurturers ultimately fail, and in both cases it is primarily because of their own insecurities.

Over the course of forty-odd years observing management styles and outcomes, my views have thus evolved.  I no longer think that the manager with the smile and the kind word is necessarily the “good” manager, nor that the manager with the sharp tongue and intimidating look is necessarily the “bad” manager.  Neither extreme style actually works reliably.

What appears to be true, instead, is that both of these styles are too centred on the manager, and not on the employees.  Managers often adopt a style, and maintain that style throughout their careers.  It becomes their persona, somewhere along the spectrum from bully to hand-holder.  This focus on who they are is their central and most important mistake.

The truth is, managing people is almost entirely about the people being managed, not about the manager.  We talk about people sometimes as “resources” (human resources, to be sure), but in fact they are not like inventory, or trucks, or computers, or cash in the bank (or robots).  They are living, breathing beings that are, in every case, individuals different from every other individual.  There’s nothing you can do about that (except, perhaps, not have employees).

Thus, it should be no surprise that the manager or CEO who is most likely to be successful is the one who sees each employee as an individual, and adapts their management style to suit that employee.  Some people work best when they are given a goal to achieve, and are empowered to achieve it.  Other people work best when they have clear cut tasks, with measured and tightly controlled deliverables.  Others need both, sometimes at the same time.  There is an infinite range of optimal management of an employee, just as there is an infinite variation of the employees themselves.

I read back over this, and it seems almost deafeningly trite.  Everyone knows this.  What’s your point, Jay?

My point is that this is indeed trite, except for one key thing.  Take a look at the managers you know.  How many of them have a distinct style that they apply to everyone in essentially the same manner?  How many of them can be put in the “command and control” or “motivate and empower” pigeonhole fairly easily?  Most of them?

I’m not the world’s best manager (just ask anybody), but someone else, who is as good at it as I’ve ever seen, once told me two things that I continue to believe are true about managing people:

  • The job of the manager is to find the value that an employee can bring to the organization, and then find the key to their personality that unleashes that value. It is different for every employee, and neither the value nor the key is always easy to identify, but both are there somewhere if you look hard enough.
  • Managing people effectively is hard. Sadly, most managers are too insecure, or lazy, or both, to do that very difficult job well.  Like many other aspects of our lives, we fall back on stereotypes and intellectual shortcuts, because the actual challenge, issue or task in front of us is more demanding than the energy and mindshare we are able to give to it.  Managers select one “style” because it is simpler and easier.

He was right then, and the more I observe managers in various organizations, the more his conclusions are confirmed.  When you manage someone, you enter into a relationship with the person you are managing, and that relationship has to be custom-designed for the personalities of both the employee and the manager.

Not so easy, of course, but the only way to do it right.

– Jay Shepherd, May 9, 2016

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About Jay Shepherd

Jay Shepherd is a Toronto lawyer and writer. This site includes a series on energy issues, plus some random non-fiction on matters of interest. More important, it includes the Lives series, which bridge the gap between fiction and non-fiction, and now some short stories. Fiction is where I'm going, but not everything you want to say fits one form. I am not spending any time actively marketing what I write, but by all means feel free to share if you think others would enjoy reading this stuff.
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One Response to Management Styles

  1. I think perhaps the truth is that many of us do not dwell on our management style. It certainly is not something that is taught in business school. But it is a skill, often unappreciated, by senior executives but not by the team that is being led. A good manager inspires loyalty, devotion and unconditional commitment to doing the job at hand, and doing it well. This is not a skill that can be taught. Unfortunately, it is also often not valued by an organization. But value comes from the warmth and appreciation of those that have become part of a “team” achieving a joint objective, inspired by a vision. Oh, if only it were so easy to be taught as part of a MBA program. But it cannot. I has to come from the heart and a sense of ethics and commitment/passion for people.

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