Three Management Styles

Guest post from Great Leadership regular contributor Paul Thornton:

Management style greatly affects employees’ motivation and capacity to learn. The most effective managers vary their styles depending on the employee’s knowledge and skills, the nature of the task, time constraints, and other factors. By so doing, they encourage and inspire employees to do their best at all times.

The basic concepts presented in this article are derived from the “Situational Leadership Theory Model,” developed by Ken Blanchard and Paul Hersey. I was privileged to study with both Professor Hersey and Professor Blanchard at Ohio University. Since then, as a college instructor, coach, consultant, corporate trainer, manager, and facilitator, I have successfully applied the concepts described below with many employees and students in a variety of settings.

The Three Ds

It is helpful to think of management styles according to the three Ds: Directing, Discussing, and Delegating. In essence, the three management styles boil down to this.

· Direct — Tell employees what to do

· Discuss — Ask questions and listen

· Delegate — Empower employees

Using an appropriate management style helps the employee learn, grow, and become more independent.

Managers need to consider how much experience their employee has had in doing a particular task. Does the employee have the required knowledge and skills to do the task? If the employee has little or no experience a directing style is appropriate. As employees gain experience and know-how, managers need to move to a discussing style and then a delegating style. The goal is to use a management style that fits the needs of the employee relative to the task he or she is assigned.

The Directing Style
Start with the big picture. Provide the context before launching into specifics. State clearly what you expect, how you expect it to be done, and when it’s due. Wordy and poorly organized directions confuse, overwhelm, and frustrate employees. It’s important to provide the right amount of detail. Communication breakdowns occur when important details are omitted. 

· Communication in the directing style is predominantly one-way, from manager to employee. The manager imparts information to the employee via verbal or written instructions. The only feedback the manager looks for is “Do you understand the instructions?”  

· Coaching occurs as the manager tells the employees what they need to do or change. In addition, the manager may demonstrate desired behaviors.   

· Decision making occurs when the manager defines the problem, evaluates options, and makes a decision. Employees learn how to frame problems, evaluate alternatives, and make effective decisions by understanding the process the manager follows. 

· Recognition happens spontaneously when the manager praises employees who follow directions and complete assignments correctly. It can be accomplished on a more formal basis through company reward/recognition programs and feedback provided in private manager-employee conferences.    

The Discussing Style
Prepare questions in advance. Great discussions don’t just happen. Ask one question at a time. Be open, curious, and interested in learning what your employees think and why they think that way.

· Communication in the discussing style is two-way (between manager and employee) or multi-way (among employees, or among employees and manager). The manager asks challenging questions and listens carefully to the employees’ comments. Follow-up questions help uncover underlying assumptions, reasoning, and feelings. Employees learn to have opinions and be able to back them up with facts and data.  

· Coaching occurs when the manager asks questions that require employees to evaluate their own performance. “How do you think you did? What could you have done better? The goal is to encourage employees to examine what they did, why they did it, and what they can do to improve.   

· Decision making occurs as the manager and employees collaborate and work together to define problems, identify and evaluate alternative solutions, and make sound decisions. Employees learn as they respond to the manager’s questions, offer their own ideas, and consider the advantages and disadvantages of each option. 

· Recognition may be given to employees who express their ideas clearly and succinctly. In addition, employees should be praised for thoughtful observations, creative ideas, building on the ideas of others, and helping the group reach a logical conclusion. 

In meetings don’t allow one or two employees to dominate the discussion. Solicit everyone’s ideas and opinions. Promote broad participation by engaging all employees. After a good discussion it’s important to get closure on who is going to do what tasks by when.

The Delegating Style
Assign tasks that are challenging, but not overwhelming. Increase the probability of success for each employee by expressing confidence in his or her ability to get the job done.  

· Communication occurs as the manager assigns tasks for employees to tackle independently or in small groups. Employees listen and ask follow-up questions until they fully understand what they need to deliver. Managers need to get periodic updates from employees to insure appropriate progress is being made.

· Coaching is accomplished primarily through self-coaching. Employees gain the most maturity and confidence when they are able to critique their own performance.

· Decision making happens as employees establish goals, implement plans, and work through issues on their own. They make the decisions.     

· Recognition most often takes the form of praise and other rewards given to employees who work well independently, meet deadlines, and produce quality work.  

As employees grow and develop they want the freedom to make their own decisions and solve their own problems. Such independence promotes maturity and increases motivation.


Effective managers use a variety of styles. They know how and when to choose the most appropriate one for the specific situation. At the end of each week, managers should assess their own performance with questions like the following:

· Did I use the most appropriate management style for each task?
· Am I asking the right questions?

· What else can I delegate?

· Who’s ready to take on a bigger task? 

· Are employees becoming more capable and independent? 


Paul B. Thornton is speaker, trainer and professor of business administration at Springfield Technical Community College, Springfield, MA, where he teaches principles of management, organizational behavior, and principles of leadership. He may be contacted at