Managing people is a tricky business; if it weren’t, everyone would do it. And it doesn’t matter if you’ve got two or 200 people underneath you–issues will crop up where you as the manager will have to navigate your way through loaded scenarios, bearing in mind people’s feelings and reconciling everything to your own work obligations and the company’s bottom line. The question is, what approach to take? Business theorists may hypothesize about the existence of a dozen or more styles of management, but we’re looking at just two: love and fear.
Defining Management Styles
“Fear” obviously has a negative connotation, and only managers who are looking to be fired themselves would ever make it their philosophy to try to frighten employees. The ideal goal of this management style is a reverential deference for your authority. Employees may not be dying to buy you a beer or invite you to their kid’s birthday party, but they know what’s expected of them and they appreciate that you have a stable vision for where you’re headed as a team.
Gen. George Patton is a classic example of this leadership style. Patton swore at, slapped, and pushed his troops harder and farther than any general in World War II, yet they revered him enough to follow him to their deaths, if necessary. This was the prevailing management style for most of the 20th century, and many “workplace generals” can still be found, despite the move out of the industrial age and into the information age, where ideas and creativity are prized above adherence to strict guidelines.
It’s in this era of information that the friendship style of managing has really taken hold. Instead of just enduring the loneliness at the top, young managers are increasingly averse to being seen as the bad guy/girl and are joining the happy hours and friending underlings on Facebook. The perceived benefits of this style are that employees will be happier, the productivity benefits of which are well-documented. One danger here is that you’ll go from pal to pushover and lose your authority in the office. Another surprising risk is that as a friendly manager you may hinder your chances of being promoted.
“Respect is the operative word here,” says Dr. Bob Taylor, senior consultant at The Oliver Group and dean emeritus for the University of Louisville College of Business. Focus too much on being liked and you risk the failure of the hubris that results from your popularity. But scaring your employees into submission stifles creativity and causes workers to play it safe. The best approach is the one that best preserves employees’ respect for you and demonstrates your respect for them.
Sometimes this will mean leaning toward dominance (foe) and other times toward lenience (friend). We asked a handful of managers and business experts to consider a few hypothetical (though common) workplace situations to help us determine which point on the spectrum of styles works best and when.
Situation #1: Conflict between two employees
Tina and Jason are coworkers under you who used to date but are now broken up and bickering, and the entire office knows it. They’re on the same team, and the other team members feel like they have to side with one or the other. Both Tina’s and Jason’s work is suffering, and the tension on the team is palpable.
Friend: Just like a close mutual friend would do, a manager could show sympathy and understanding by taking time to listen patiently to each employee’s complaints separately, without picking a side. Then, without letting other employees know about it, she would invite both employees to sit down and use questions to draw out the root of the trouble and to help identify a reasonable resolution.
Foe: The manager who wants to play up the fear aspect of this situation could raise the possibility of a poor performance review unless the two employees put an end to their dispute. Given the nature of the conflict, she might also remind the two that relationships between coworkers at the company are prohibited and constitute a fireable offense. Taking things to the extreme, she would fire one — the less productive or less agreeable one — or both, to eradicate the source of conflict (and send a message to the rest of the team).
The edge: Friend: A foe of a manager is more interested in conveying that the employees’ behavior will not be tolerated than he is in resolving the problem. The friend manager doesn’t have to be any more tolerant of the behavior, but he recognizes that painting over the issue with threats will likely cause trouble down the road. Mark Fenner, president of Rise Performance Group, says of this approach, “It accomplishes what a good manager needs to do, which is make each employee feel as if he or she understands what makes that employee unique and values and cares about them.”
Situation #2: An employee is being insubordinate
Since not getting the raise she expected, Jennifer has been making it known that she’s unhappy at work. She can be loudly heard complaining about the work she’s assigned, she argues with management, and she is willfully missing deadlines. This has been going on for three weeks and it’s obvious this is not a passing behavior, or one that will get better if left unattended.
Friend : When a boss and an employee are buddies, “insubordination becomes a tiff among friends,” says business consultant Kathleen Brush. “What boss terminates a buddy?” With the line of authority blurred by friendship, the friend manager resorts to the tools of a wronged friend: trying to guilt the employee into correct behavior (“I thought we were friends”) or snubbing that person socially (which, because of your friend relationship, includes in the workplace).
Foe: Whether pulling them aside privately for a talking-to or giving them a public dressing-down for the benefit of the rest of the team, as organizational behavior expert Michael Provitera recommends, the dominant manager will make it clear to the employee that the undermining comments and actions will stop or his employment will be terminated. He’ll enunciate from then on that certain tasks are direct orders that aren’t up for debate. And he’ll keep close tabs on that employee to ensure progress is being made in the right direction.
The edge: foe: The experts agree; insubordination has to be nipped in the bud on no uncertain terms. “Zero tolerance,” “put in their place right away,” and “remove that person” are some of the phrases they used in emphasizing the importance of stamping out disrespectful employee behavior. The friend approach is just leaving the door open for other employees to be similarly flippant and insolent. ” You have to work within the law and your own company’s HR policies,” Fenner says, “but they need to be moved out.”
Situation #3: An employee’s performance is slipping due to personal issues
Your team has a major project coming due soon, and employee Jake is an integral part. However, his mother is very ill, and although he hasn’t missed more than the allowable amount of work time, while he is in the office, his work is beginning to suffer. He takes long breaks to have heated arguments with his siblings over his mother’s medical bills, and they leave him visibly affected for the worse for much of the day.
Friend: The friendly manager has a number of means at his disposal to attempt to find a solution to the slipping performance yet display passionate concern for what the employee is going through. He could offer assistance finding a help program (or direct him to the company’s program), grant him more flexible work hours or the ability to work from home, or just lend him an ear so he can vent. Emphasizing the search for a solution should remind him why it’s necessary: there is a job to do.
Foe: As he did with the two conflicting employees, the commanding manager may treat Jake like any other under-performing employee. While he might verbally express sympathy for Jakes troubles, his meeting with him will be a short one, just long enough to cover the importance of stepping up the pace before the project due date.
The edge: Friend: Our experts were fairly well split on this. Business coach Donna Deming said, “Never penalize an employee for family issues beyond their control; they will never forget it and this is the quickest way to lose a good employee.” But Fenner cautioned that in organizations where performance is all that matters, the manager has to be guided by the values of the organization, which means being as tough on the employee as the manager’s superiors would expect him or her to be.
Management author Dan Melchior summed up the more lenient perspective by saying “people aren’t robots.” In these situations, the rest of the team has to step up and have the troubled employee’s back so that the team still achieves its goals, rather than using him as a fallback scapegoat in case the team does miss its performance mark. The difference is the amount of fear or pressure the team is under, and Melchior says it’s up to the manager to create that type of positive environment.
On Selecting Your Default Style
No manager is a tabula rasa who can simply flick a switch depending on the situation. You’re going to bring all your experiences, beliefs, moods, and temperaments with you into the conflict, and that’s fine. There are still a few things you can do, either before or after a problem arises that needs your attention, to help you achieve the best outcome for all concerned.
- Do a personality assessment: It’s vital that you play to your personality strengths when it comes to managing; but you can only do that when you know what those strengths are. The most common assessment tool is the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI). Although it is possible to take this quiz for free online, consider hiring an MBTI consultant who can help you make the best sense of your results and pinpoint the best ways for you to deal with those employees under you. The Myers and Briggs Foundation recommends using the MBTI Referral Network to find a certified professional.
- Don’t be too quick to go into “management mode”: In our three scenarios, there was clearly a need for a manager to get involved. However, there can be a third avenue of attack, at least in the short-term: do nothing at all, and potentially avoid turning nothing into something.
“Take the (case of) insubordination,” says management consultant Gordon Veniard. “Is it a momentary lapse unlikely to be repeated? If so, it can be quite useful sometimes to be deaf…A manager’s instant overreaction has rarely improved a situation. So, realize the difference between reacting and responding.”
- Stay consistent but not rigid: Employees can spot a boss who can’t pick a management style a mile away. It’s a terse email followed by an attempt at humor at the water cooler, followed by a stricter policy rollout, then an invitation to go home early. Besides looking weak, it’s flat-out confusing to the members of the team you’re leading.
However, that doesn’t mean your management style should be set in stone. On the contrary, 91% of employees believe managers who are willing to change after receiving employee feedback help create a more positive work environment, according to Lynn Taylor Consulting. We’re just surprised it wasn’t 100% — who doesn’t appreciate knowing they have a legitimate voice in how their work is overseen?
Whichever side you come out on, at the end of the (work) day, you have to be able to look yourself in the mirror. If it’s just your nature to be firm-handed with employees, more power to you (no pun intended). If you’re by nature a friendly leader, trying to be Patton won’t suit you well. People in the 21st century highly value authenticity, even in the workplace. Staying authentic is the surest way to earn your employees’ respect, whatever management style you use.