7 Management Styles to Master [Plus Infographic On When To Use Them]

Marcel Tit

Written by

Marcel Tit

Read Time

10 minutes

You’ve probably had several jobs so far, hence reported your duties to more than one manager.

What do you remember about them? Was it the their daily routines or the way they dressed?

Most likely it was their attitude and management styles. That is how they prevailed or failed to deliver results and influence stakeholders under a set of different, often competing interests.

If you were lucky enough to work under a leader’s guidance (short reminder: managers are not leaders), you’ve probably noticed them in action, displaying a wide area of management styles: decisive during a crisis, motivating when it comes to new challenges, even supportive towards your career.

In fact, the majority of the studies show that leadership influences the organizational culture and overall employee satisfaction in a positive way, which in return impacts the bottom-line performance and profitability.

But how exactly do they manage to adapt so well to so many different situations?

To answer this, let’s take a walk down the history of employee motivation.

History of employee motivation

First off is a social psychologist mentioned in almost every Management 101 class, Douglas McGregor, who in 1960 came up with two theories about management styles.

Theory X implies that humans are inherently lazy. They avoid work at all costs, dodge responsibilities, even resist the company’s needs altogether. Hence they need to be tightly controlled through strict policies, punishments, and carrot-and-stick rewards. This is not necessarily McGregor’s thinking, but rather a depiction of the authoritarian management style predominant at that time.

Theory Y, on the other hand, implies that humans can enjoy work and motivate themselves as long as they are committed to the company’s goals. Taking ownership of our work, seeking responsibilities, and solving problems in a creative way are blessed faculties that reside in all of us – granted they’re properly nurtured by the management. What McGregor did was to propose a democratic management style, valuing each individual’s input over control.

Nine years later, Abraham Maslow would iterate on McGregor’s theories and add a new dimension derived from his famous hierarchy: the need for self-actualization.

Theory Z was born, implying that a rare portion of humans become transcenders and seek peak moments beyond self-actualization, unlike their theory Y peers who stop after fulfilling their goals. This makes them far more able to think about the world’s problems and find solutions for them. Without knowing, Maslow was referring to the visionary management style so dire these days.

It was only later in 2000 when Daniel Goleman – with the help of the consulting firm Hay/McBer  – developed on those and other theories to come up with 6 management styles, deeply rooted in emotional intelligence.

To those, I’ve added another management style, the Laissez-Faire one, that advocates for employee freedom and self-directed teams. Mainly because of its popularity among high growth startups and creative businesses nowadays, even though it was initially introduced in 1939 by Kurt Lewin and his team.

That’s a total of 7 management styles that can be summed up in the following table adapted from Goleman’s research paper.

project management styles

Management styles characteristics

And a matrix plotted by yours truly to determine when to use the appropriate management style given your team’s maturity (inexperienced-experienced) and the nature of your company environment (crisis-stability). Assuming that you’re a knowledgeable manager with tenure, but not an expert.

management styles graphic

When to use management styles

Note: Before looking into each of these management styles, bear in mind that each manager has a set of tools they prefer using. If you are a manager looking for low-cost tools to use with your team, please check this project tools article, in which we tried comparing the most popular project management tools.

Here’s a deep dive into the pros and cons of each one of them.

1. Authoritarian management style

Also known as autocratic, coercive, or directive, this management style is the most controlling and damaging of them all. There is only one authority figure, the manager, who makes all the decisions and expects complete obedience.

Because of this, communication is top-down and personal opinions are discouraged. Employees gradually lose their morale to the point of being reluctant to take any form of responsibility. They will also be severely punished for the smallest deviation from the norm and motivated through higher quotas, which robs them off their respect for themselves and the work they take pride in.

It doesn’t take a scientist to tell that an authoritarian management style spells disaster in the long run. But there are two cases when this style works: during a crisis (like a hostile takeover) or with a workforce that is either new, unskilled, or unmotivated. Brief moments when speed and certainty weigh in much more than consensus. Of course, this implies that your organization is well oiled, with clearly defined workflows and roles.

2. Visionary management style

Dubbed as transformational, influential, or authoritative, the visionary management style’s main role is to provide guidance towards a shared vision that resonates with everyone onboard.

Unlike their more authoritarian counterparts, visionary managers motivate their teams not through fear but by showing them how their work fits into the company’s goals and strategy. As a result, expectations become crystal clear while team members are given plenty of freedom to come up with their own solutions as long as they contribute to the overall vision.

Although it does foster an entrepreneurial spirit and lifts the employee morale, the visionary management style proves ineffective with people who lack emotional intelligence to read the atmosphere around them and lead the change. It’s also not advisable with a team of experts who know more than you do. They’ll stifle your authority and boycott your trust. Use it in knowledgeable teams, who can handle the intricate details on their own and look up to you for direction.

3. Affiliative management style

Affiliative management style focuses on building relationships – either between the team members or the team members and the manager. The premise is simple: create a sense of belonging through positive feedback and a lax environment, which breeds loyalty in return.

Managers who employ this style affiliate themselves with employees and tend to their needs – even have one-on-one personal talks over lunch or bring cupcakes when a big milestone has been reached. Team members in general work relaxed and communication becomes streamlined, without the need to play any team building games to bring them together.

However, as people come first, there’s less emphasis on results since everyone receives more or less the same treatment. This might trouble those who invest heavy hours in their work and take pride in it. There’s virtually no feedback as to what steps one should take to further improve their skills or work. For these reasons, the affiliative management style is better off under stressful situations when broken ties need to be repaired and always in conjunction with another management style, like the visionary one.

4. Coaching management style

As its name goes, the coaching management style considers the employee’s long-term professional development as the main objective. It does so by uncovering their strengths and weaknesses, then tying their personal goals to the company ones.

Just like a coach, a manager carves out time from their personal agenda to help others improve themselves. Unlike an affiliative manager, they give plenty of constructive feedback and challenges in the form of projects or a new role with more responsibility to motivate their trainees in their endeavors. This means they’re willing to close an eye at short-term failures as long as they serve as lessons for the future.

According to Daniel Goleman, this management style is one of the least used ones, due to the time that it requires to mentor someone. But after the first sessions, it gets easier to bond and review performance. Be cautious in your pursuit, as coaching might not work with someone who doesn’t want to deliberately improve themselves or with a passive-aggressive coworker.

5. Pacesitting management style

Like the authoritative management style, the pacesetting one also revolves around one authority figure, which this time sets the pace and expects everyone to follow suit with little to no guidance. If they fail to do so, they’re immediately fired and replaced with someone who can.

Although it might look invigorating, the management style is damaging for the overall climate in the long run. By setting high standards of excellence without a clear plan on how to achieve them, managers leave their teams in limbo. As a result, morale is low and routine installs in, each task representing a small check in the daily treadmill. Team members might also turn aimless once the pacesetter is gone, suffering a temporary productivity shock and perhaps a loss of identity if they recognize work as part of themselves.

There is but one case when the pacesitting management style is appropriate, and that is with highly skilled and self-motivated team members that get things done ahead of time. This implies though that skill-wise you need to be at the same par with them, otherwise, they won’t trust you.

6. Democratic management style

Also going by the name of collaborative, consultative, or participative, the democratic management style is all about consensus. Team members are encouraged to voice out their thoughts, while the manager approves the final decision.

What makes this style charming is the benefits on both sides. On one hand, employees get to actively participate in the decision-making process, hence tend to be more realistic in terms of what can be achieved and what not. On the other hand, managers can get an easy buy-in and access to a diverse set of ideas that they wouldn’t have come along with. This also helps them gauge the team’s level of spirit and concerns, so they know how to boost their morale.

Beneficial as it may be, the democratic management style lacks speed, since consensus can be delayed through endless meetings that are anything but effective. Some managers might even use it as an excuse to stall precious time until an Evrika-moment hits them with a brilliant solution to their problems. But perhaps the biggest downside represents the minority of voters, who might feel hurt or alienated from the group since their opinions weren’t taken into account.

Whatever the reason, sit down with them and make sure they commit to the outcome, even if they don’t agree to the final decision. Also, beware of using this style in times of crisis or with an inexperienced workforce. Your job is to be guided by knowledgeable employees, not confused.

7. Laissez-Faire management style

“Laissez-faire” is French for “let do”, a phrase that this management style fully embodies: allowing employees to do what they want, with no interference from the management.

Common in high-growth startups, creative businesses, and those with a flat hierarchy, this laid-back style allows teams to fully manage themselves for an increased level of innovation and creativity. Managers might intervene when things go awry or when requested, trusting their expert teams to make decisions and troubleshoot minor issues on their own. 

This auto-pilot style as I like to call it works only with a mature, self-motivated and highly skilled team, that is much more competent than the manager. It is not advised during a time of crisis, with an inexperienced team, or during a large project when small details can turn into large problems overnight. Even so, too much autonomy can misalign teams when they bring their work together as they don’t communicate with each other. So use it with caution and impart clarity at the beginning and review phases of a project.

Other management styles 

Notice how we paired the management styles in comparison with each other (authoritative- visionary; affiliative – coaching; pace-sitting – democratic), leaving the Laissez-Faire one alone since it’s a one-of-a-kind breed in itself.

This is not an exhaustive list, as there are other not-so-popular management styles. Like the transactional management style, which motivates employees by tying up performance with rewards. These normally come in the form of financial incentives (quota bonuses, stocks), which tend to wear off in meaning once a certain level of economic stability has been reached.

Or the management by walking around (MBWA), a custom rather than a management style that puts great emphasis on being reachable to your team. Similar to an open-door policy, managers walk between desks to check for progress and make sure their team members have everything that they need to fulfill their work. In time, they can become a distraction though.

Elements that can influence management styles

There’s no right or wrong management style. Each one of them is suitable under certain conditions and environments:

  • Your personality, maturity, and skills – You can’t use the democratic style to only get fresh ideas from your team and not act upon them. Nor be a coach when you yourself need coaching. Assess yourself fairly and don’t hide your shortcomings – rely on your team to compensate for them.
  • Your team member’s maturity – Self-motivated, highly skilled team members who take pride in their work can be granted more freedom of action. At the opposite end, recent grads could use some discipline – while those with tenure, but still young might need coaching in terms of decision making and critical thinking.
  • Team longevity – Newly formed teams require more supervision and conflict resolution as opposed to the more established ones. Use the visionary management style to instill a common vision and sense of belonging for the formed, with a more laissez-faire attitude towards the latter.
  • Team location – Teams that reside in the same office and meet face-to-face for feedback can benefit from a laid-back environment. Remote teams though, need a more tight approach with guidelines in place to make sure they’re on the same page.
  • Project urgency – A project that’s urgent or is intended to solve a crisis calls for a directive style, where results come before people. Long-term ones are more relaxed, allowing you to focus on the personal and professional development of your team.
  • Culture – You might not feel it, but subconsciously you’re affected by the culture of the country that you live in. Geert Hofstede’s initial four (now six) cultural dimensions speak loud about the values of a company or team. For instance, in a collectivistic country managers are more inclined to make consensus-based decisions (Mexic), while those living in on with a high-power distance (Asian countries in general) are comfortable with an authoritarian management style.

What is the right management style for you?

A lot of influencing conditions, right? Luckily, Daniel Goleman has pinned down four management styles every manager should master.

Leaders who have mastered four or more— especially the authoritative, democratic, affiliative, and coaching styles— have the best climate and business performance.

The secret to making them your own is to actually study the underlying emotional intelligence competencies specific to every style, available in his study. So for instance, if you’re an authoritarian manager and want to become more democratic in your approach, refine your active listening and communication skills. Or if you’re an affiliative one and want to use the coaching style, then focus on the art of delivering constructive feedback.

Simon Sinek said it well:

Authorities die when they die. Leaders live on through all those they inspired.

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