I’ve learned that there are four distinct styles of management: Directing, Supporting, Coaching, and Delegating. Each can be effective when applied in the right context.
One of the most intriguing aspects of management is that each person requires a slightly different approach to realize their full potential. A management approach that yields spectacular results with one person may result in abject failure with another. Even using the same approach on the same person for different tasks on different days may give significantly different results. I think that one of the great challenges of people management is the ability to recognize the skills and motivation of an individual and match your management style so that they are primed for success.
This seemingly simple goal – match your style to the individual you are managing – is very difficult to do well. It is hard to recognize an individual’s skill, confidence and motivation, especially as levels will vary from day to day and task to task. It’s challenging to pick the right management style for each situation. And it’s very hard to become comfortable with the wide variety of styles and approaches you’ll need to handle each situation.
Over the years, I’ve used a framework to make this task easier, and I believe it has made me a better manager. I use categories for individual development levels (competence, confidence, and motivation) and categories of management style that match to each. These are not hard and fast rules, but they help to take the mystery out of things.
The first step I take is to identify the level of development of the individual I am managing. I take into account their experience, training, past performance on similar tasks, confidence, personality, and level of excitement they have regarding the present task. I use this information to determine their competence and commitment. Competence is derived from experience, training and past performance. Commitment is derived from confidence, excitement, and individual personality characteristics. Using this information I categorize into one of four mental buckets. These don’t cover every scenario but they are what I’ve found to be the most common combinations:
1. Low competence, high commitment. This bucket tends to contain inexperienced or new team members. They often lack the training and experience to be highly competent, but they make up for it in enthusiasm and commitment to the job at hand.
2. Low to moderate competence, low commitment. This bucket contains poor performers as well as good performers who are temporarily frustrated. Frustration is usually caused by someone who wants to do a good job but doesn’t yet have the expertise to perform to their expectations. Here are some statements I’ve heard that indicate a person is in this bucket:
- The task is harder than I thought
- No one appreciates what I do
- I’m not getting the help I need
- The more I learn the more I realize how much more I need to know
- The task is boring
- I don’t like my job
The big difference between poor performers and good performers is the time they spend in this bucket. I always assume an individual wants to do well and will transition out of this bucket as quickly as they can. The longer they stay, the less optimistic I am that they will ever leave.
3. Moderate to high competence, moderate commitment. This bucket contains solid performers who are consistent contributors of high value. These are people who have good skills, but are held back by variable confidence or motivation. This bucket may contain potential superstars, but only a few are able to put it all together to make it to the next level. Most good contributors peak in this bucket and never leave.
4. High competence, high commitment. These are the superstars on any team. They are masters at what they do, they are confident, and they are highly motivated.
Keep in mind that someone can be a level 4 while working on one task and then move to a level 1 when working on something different that requires different skills. For instance, imagine a brilliant software engineer who decides he wants to become a lawyer. He may have the potential and the commitment, but he doesn’t yet have the skills. It’s also useful to recognize that people can bounce between levels from day to day based on personal circumstance and other events that impact motivation and confidence.
Once I identify the level of development, I match my style of management to it. Bucket 1 matches to style 1, bucket 2 to style 2, etc.:
1. Directing. This style requires a lot of hands on work. I spend time explaining the task, sometimes step-by-step. I show examples of success and failure. I identify clear goals, timelines and outcomes. I make the decisions. I provide a large amount of feedback both positive and constructive in order to accelerate their personal development.
2. Coaching. This style is more interactive than the directing style. I spend more time explaining my reasoning and the decision making processes. I give more access to behind-the-scenes thinking and start training the individual to make good decisions on their own. Although I involve the person in the decision making process, I still make the decisions. Goal setting in particular is more interactive as the individual is able to start taking ownership of their career and future success.
3. Supporting. In this style I give increasing amounts of responsibility to the individual. I’ll often ask them to take the lead tasks, planning or goal setting. I become more of a sounding board and resource rather than a force driving actions and success. Rather than telling the individual what to do, I’ll take the time to explain how to make the decision themselves. I spend more time asking questions, even if I know the answer. The thought process and learning experience is as important as the end decision. At this point, my focus is to remove road blocks, answer questions, provide support and encouragement, and help them continue to develop their skills and confidence.
4. Delegating. In this style I am primarily focused on empowerment. I help define the problem and then work with the individual to set goals and outcomes. I give encouragement and support so that the individual can take the lead in problem solving and decision making. A large portion of time goes toward recognizing and rewarding the individual’s contributions to the team. I am outspoken about the value they bring to the team, my high degree of trust, and then I challenge them to reach higher levels of contribution.
I’ve realized that some of these styles are more challenging for me than others. I’ve found that delegating and supporting come pretty natural to me, I tend to trust people until proven otherwise and these styles are primarily about trust and encouragement. Coaching is the most difficult for me. I sometimes find myself feeling that I am spending so much time explaining rationale and reasoning that it would be easier to do the job myself. However, coaching is an important style, everyone needs it at some point and if not given the proper guidance and management they can stagnate. I have found that the more time I spend on coaching the more competent I am in its use. I regularly challenge myself to become a better coach!
There are many ways I measure myself as a people manager, but these are the two that I think are most important:
- Am I able to consistently move members of my team from low levels of development to high? Ideally everyone would move from bucket 1 to bucket 4 over time. I realize not everyone can make it to level 4, but I don’t want to be the one holding them back.
- How effective is my team when I am gone? This is really a measure of the overall development level of my team. The more directing they require, the more impact my absence will make. If I return from a vacation and things have proceeded as if I had never left – I know I’ve been successful!
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