How to Adapt Your Management Style

Managerial Style Is Situational Depending on Employee Involvement

Supervisor listening to workers in factory
Jetta Productions/Iconica/Getty Images

There are many different styles of leadership championed across academia. It can be challenging 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 Blanchard in 1969. This approach is generally interpreted (or modernly interpreted) to have four basic styles for a leader to choose from while accounting for the employee's maturity levels. This approach defines Directing, Coaching, Supporting and Delegating as its four situational management styles.

Leadership Continuum Model

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

  • The experience, seniority and 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 other settings

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

The Tell Style

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

Like the autocratic style of leadership, the manager makes the decision and tells employees what they will do. The Tell style is a useful management style when there isn't much room for employee input or when new employees receive training.

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.

The Sell Style

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 are needed, but the decision is not open to employee influence. Employees may be able to influence how the decision is carried out.

The Consult Style

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

If you choose to ask for employee input when making a decision, explain 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.

Employee input must be 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.

The Join Style

In the Join management style, the manager invites employees to join them in making the decision. The manager considers their voice equal to the employees in the decision-making process. You sit together around the same table, and every vote is critical in the decision.

The Join management style is useful when the manager truly builds agreement and commitment around a decision. The manager must also be willing to keep their influence equal to the degree of influence that other employees who provide input exert. The join management style can be useful 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 that you are the leader and do not need a group session to make decisions.

The Delegation Style

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 with 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 process's anticipated outcome. As your team members progress in proficiency and competency, you can move to different leadership styles depending on the situation and projects.

Situational Leadership Model

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

The Directing Phase

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

The Coaching Phase

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.

The Supporting Phase

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

The Delegation Phase

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 can receive instructions and complete tasks independently, 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 can adapt their leadership style to match each phase. 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.