- Autocratic managers make every decision.
- Consultor managers make decisions after consulting with others.
- Laissez-faire managers act as mentors as others decide.
- Democratic managers listen to majority rule.
- Persuader managers seek the input of others; they can be persuaded.
- Listener managers jump into the trenches to listen to solutions.
- Good managers adapt their style depending on circumstance and employees.
More or less every single manager out there was an employee at some point. We’re not bees, after all. Workers can and do grab the management brass ring.
Workers who have been around the block a few times have likely run into one than one type of managerial style. Some fit the circumstances; others, not so much.
Depending on whom you talk to, there can be four management styles, or seven, or even more. Here are seven well-known, classic styles.
Where do decisions come from? Why, the manager, of course.
The biggest advantage of this style is fast decision-making. With no one to consult and get buy-in from, everything sails through. During a crisis, it’s likely a company’s best bet.
Let’s say you’re a food manufacturer. People have gotten sick from listeria in your prize product. Time is of the essence; otherwise, your business could lose all of its goodwill. In the direst situations, your business could fail. In this case, fast decisions are the only thing that will work. It’s not the time for deliberations.
Once the crisis subsides, then there is time to weigh decisions. As a result, one of the biggest disadvantages of this style is also its biggest upside: With no sharing in the decision-making, there’s no buy-in. This can be a big turnoff to employees who want more autonomy.
As a corollary, this style can be a problem for the manager. Because if the project fails, then it’s their decisions that led straight to failure. This style can be called dictatorial or authoritative. One very well-known practitioner (“you can have it in any color you want, as long as it is black”) was Henry Ford.
The consultor is the autocrat’s little brother or sister. The consultor manager consults with people under him or her when making a decision. Yet, the ultimate decision still sits with the manager. This can create a dynamic wherein the consulted employees are loyal, but those who are left out of the decision-making process feel undervalued.
Under the best of circumstances, the consultor has the best interests of the workers at heart. The downside is it creates a dependency. If the consultor is out of the office, when a new issue crops up, everyone is at a loss. Or they have to try to be clairvoyant and figure out what the consultor would have wanted.
One practitioner (“what you always do before you make a decision is consult”) of this style is Elizabeth Dole.
The laissez-faire manager
As you might expect, the manager who adopts the laissez-faire approach steps back. This person acts more like a mentor. Rather than being an autocrat, it is the employees who make the decisions, although management will step in if necessary.
The biggest upside is this style embraces risk. In a startup environment where anything can happen, laissez-faire management can be empowering. However, because everyone needs to provide buy-in, decisions may take a while. But once they are made, they are hard to argue with.
The downsides, though, extend beyond delayed decision-making. With so many cooks in the kitchen, decisions can sometimes be chaotic. Employees could be whacking away at dozens of little trees while the manager sees the forest.
A corollary issue is the various personalities of the employees. More assertive workers are most likely to be heard and more often. Some employees might resent having to do what they feel is management’s job. So much freedom might baffle others who crave a road map.
A well-known practitioner of this style (“find the .400 hitters and then [do] not tell them how to swing”) is Warren Buffett.
The democratic manager
The democratic manager (not the political party) is a cousin to the laissez-faire manager. Here, the decisions are more of a two-way street, and the majority rules. Hence, it’s like the laissez-faire style in that the more assertive are more likely to get their way.
It’s another style where decisions can take a while to be reached. Yet, there’s one big upside: For decisions comprising complexity, it can work like a charm. More brains on the problem can uncover more ideas and potential outcomes.
A well-known practitioner of this style (“the best way to go along is to get along with others” ) was John F. Kennedy.
Like the consultor, the persuader is the one who makes the final decisions. Like the democrat, the persuader seeks input from workers; the persuader can be persuaded. That’s when management makes decisions based on input from workers.
This can go in the opposite direction in which case management persuades workers of the rightness of a decision.
This is a terrific system when the manager trusts the workers and vice versa. It is particularly effective when the employees are experts. An IT department is a place where workers can all be specialists. Persuasion may be the only way for management to decide on new software to buy.
One downside, though, which it shares with the democratic and laissez-faire approach is that the more assertive will inherit the earth. Or, at least, they will own the decision-making process. Yet, at the same time, there is an upside: If employees see that others get their way more often than others, they could complain or leave. Or they could work to become more assertive and persuasive. Those are great skills to have, no matter where you work.
A more problematic drawback is when management and workers don’t trust each other. That brings up a different issue, though. If you cannot trust either side, why are they still working there?
Martin Luther King Jr. may be the most persuasive leader of all time.
This is often known as MBWA, or management by walking around. A manager who embodies this style doesn’t hesitate to get into the trenches with employees and fact-find. They listen to employees’ ideas for how to nip problems in the bud. Here, the manager offers counseling as opposed to direction.
The downside is when employees do not support management, then the manager’s suggestions will likely go nowhere. Besides, if an autocrat tries to pretend to be a listener, employees are going to know. As a result, they will clam up and pepper the manager with happy talk. Why speak up if management ignores your solutions and tells you what to do anyway?
The best-known practitioner of this style was Steve Jobs.
Which style is best if you want to be a good manager?
The answer is any of them. The kicker is knowing when they’re useful and positive, and when they aren’t.
Managers with expert employees will likely do best as persuaders, consultors or listeners. Higher-skilled workers or those with specialized knowledge generally want to be heard, hence an autocratic style will only frustrate them. At the same time, so will democratic and laissez-faire styles. These employees don’t want to spend an inordinate amount of their time deciding on things – they want to be working.
Managers with unskilled and semiskilled workers may do well as autocrats or consultors. This is particularly so when employees are new. They want to hit the ground running and be working.
For managers with a small staff, democracy could work well. If there are only three people in an office, then buy-in is a must. For managers with a very large staff, or managers of managers, listening can work well. These are the people near the top of the organizational chart.
The best managers glide from one style to another, depending on the situation. The persuasive manager can and should turn into an autocrat during a crisis, and they should become laissez faire or democratic when planning the office holiday party.
For the best managers, doffing one hat in favor of another one should be natural. Management is a form of communication –you change your communication style when you are talking with your doctor, your friends, work colleagues and your family. You should change your managerial style to suit your employees and circumstances.
Being a good manager is about more than decisions and progress reports and projects – it’s about adapting to the needs of those you lead.