Ask Richard Yu, a chief product officer for workplace productivity platform company Formstack, about his management style and he’ll tell you about how he’s used all three of the major management styles over the course of his career.
An autocratic style, where a manager makes unilateral decisions, worked best in the manufacturing industry which involved repetitive tasks and prescribed processes. But in the tech industry, where innovation is key to a company’s growth, a democratic style that solicits employees’ input before a final decision is reached is a far more effective approach, as is a laissez-faire management style where employees are empowered to make decisions on their own and chart the course of direction and action.
“I tend to think of management styles as a continuum or a spectrum that is driven by a lot of contexts,” Yu said. “These contexts can be my team, the organization, the tasks that need to be done, or tasks at hand.”
Other tech executives from game platform company Roblox to autonomous vehicle company Cruise, as well as professors from Yale University’s school of management to the University of San Diego, agree that management styles are vast and varied, and adopting one style to use all the time does not work all the time.
What Is a Management Style?
Simply put, a management style encompasses the way team leaders, managers and executives interact with their teams and departments while setting goals, making decisions and delegating the work.
But it’s not a one-size-fits-all situation, all the time.
“There are some common qualities of what a good leader does, but it depends on what the situation is,” said Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, senior associate dean of leadership programs and a professor at the Yale School of Management.
Management style also differs from leadership style, Mohamed “Mo” Elshenawy, executive vice president of engineering at Cruise, told Built In.
“Every style may make sense based on not only the situation and the people you are leading but also depending on the lifecycle of the company, industry, or product itself that you are working with,”
Management is a position a person holds and because of that role they can leverage it to get action from their team versus a leader, even if they are an individual contributor, can have a huge influence on people and entice them to follow their vision.
He added another way to look at management styles is to question the “why” behind the style or the motivation behind the style, rather than the style itself when determining the best approach to take.
“Every style may make sense based on not only the situation and the people you are leading but also depending on the lifecycle of the company, industry, or product itself that you are working with,” Elshenawy added.
13 Management Styles to Try
Three broad management styles — autocratic, democratic and laissez-faire — and their 10 sub-categories give managers a number of options on how to approach situations, according to a report from learning technology company Valamis. The question is when is the best time to use each style.
Definition: Managers make unilateral decisions without seeking employee input and discourage unsolicited ideas and discussions. Within the authoritative style there are the subcategories: Authoritative, paternalistic, and persuasive.
An autocratic management style, at first blush, may initially initiate a response of “no way” from managers, but under some circumstances, it may be the right management style to use, said Jennifer Mueller, associate professor of management at the University of San Diego.
“A big ‘a-ha’ for a lot of my students is that an autocratic style can save your time. It helps coordinate people quickly and you can start to see the benefits of it right away,” Mueller said, adding, “It can also make some employees feel more comfortable and confident when a leader comes in and says, ‘okay, this is what we’re going to do.’”
Safety situations where there is a time pressure especially call for an autocratic management style, she noted.
In other cases, you may be facing a situation where you are hired to lead and manage a turnaround of a highly dysfunctional or poorly operating business unit and an autocratic style is needed, said Elshenawy.
“Some aspects of an autocratic leadership style make sense, like in this case setting clear expectations and coming into the frontline to push for the work to get done until you get the right leaders in place,” he added.
Definition: Employees are micro-managed and managers also dole out punishment for failure to follow their unilateral decisions.
Although an authoritative management style can save time in executing tasks since no discussion is entertained in making decisions, over the long haul it may hurt your ability to grow the company.
“An authority management style doesn’t work if you want to scale the organization because people won’t be happy when you do that and you will end up losing top talent,” Philippe Clavel, senior director of engineering at Roblox, told Built In.
Priyanka Carr, chief operating officer at Momentive, also avoids using an autocratic management style because it limits learning opportunities, and reduces intrinsic motivation and creativity.
Definition: Unilateral decisions are explained and presented in the best interest of employees, who are characterized as “family” members.
Although a manager may truly have the employees’ best interest at heart when they use this management style, it could backfire on them because it may come across as condescending and also lead to a blurring of the lines between work time and family time, Yu said.
Definition: Managers use persuasion to convince employees that their unilateral decision is the best one to follow.
A persuasive management style is what Yu adopted when he worked at a manufacturing company years ago. He found it useful when working with newer or junior team members who were looking for guidance.
“I’m not a fan of being authoritative and just telling people what to do, so I tend to lean towards a persuasive management style versus authoritative,” he said, in reference to the management style he used at a manufacturing plant but no longer uses in the tech industry.
Definition: Input is solicited but managers still make the final decision. Within the democratic style, there are the subcategories: Consultative, participative, collaborative and transformational.
Both Yu and other tech executives said a democratic or laissez-faire management style is the best approach for the tech industry and the ones that they use with their direct reports.
“A democratic leadership style is something that’s misunderstood because it doesn’t mean you’re building decisions by consensus. It means you’re really considering the strength and input from everyone else who you’re working with,” Elshenawy said, adding that can also help in getting by in from those involved in the discussions.
Definition: Information is solicited, then the manager mulls it over by themselves before making a decision.
Elon Musk and the late Steve Jobs use a consultative management style, soliciting ideas from others and then melding them into actionable ideas.
“They would act like an orchestra conductor, going from one group to another but synthesizing it for themselves,” Sonnenfeld told Built In. This allows them to reap the benefits of gathering the wisdom of others yet offers the speed in decision making.
Definition: Employees play an active role in the discussion and decision-making process before a final decision is made by the managers.
A participative management style is effective during the early formation of strategies at an organization, such as which are the top priorities to what steps should be taken to achieve them, Yu said.
“I’m a big believer in having alignment and consensus as much as possible and think it’s really important to have everybody participate in helping to set priorities appropriately,” he added.
Atish Das Sarma, head of growth engineering at makers platform company Patreon, uses a participative management style among those in his toolkit. This management style gives participants a chance to be heard and weigh in on the decision-making process to a certain degree.
Patreon, for example, frequently runs experiments to accelerate growth for creators on its platform.
“We have a democratic approach, but then we have the clear decision makers, me and the chief product officer, move ahead with a plan, even if it leads to some disagreement on the teams,” Das Sarma said.
Definition: A decision is made based on the majority view of the group after it holds discussions.
Clavel learned this important management style even before becoming a manager and having the authority to make final decisions.
As a senior engineer at a wireless entertainment company, the CTO asked Clavel to gain consensus from a team of employees on how to launch Guitar Hero on mobile. He learned to listen to all arguments, aggregate the information and represent it to the group. If tempers flared, he would gently change the topic noting it would be discussed the following day. This allowed participants to digest the information overnight before resuming the conversation, all the while keeping an eye on the calendar for when the company needed to launch the product.
“You need to give time for people to acknowledge there is a conflict and then eventually guide people to a solution that makes sense for everybody. This way, people feel heard,” Clavel said.
A collaborative management style, however, could also have limits when working with a remote workforce, Sonnenfeld said.
“There are a lot of things you can do to try to pierce the veil, like using Zoom or WebEx, but some things are easier to do in person when you want to have a casual conversation on the side as part of your collaboration,” he added.
Definition: Managers push employees past their comfort zone to achieve new ideas, processes, or goals.
That’s what Das Sarma did when head of Apple’s cloud machine learning. He used a transformational management style among his management tools.
Half of his team were machine learning engineers, the other half were data scientists. In order to maximize the impact on Apple, he would tell the ML engineers and data scientists to consider the challenges that software engineers faced and try to walk in the shoes of a software engineer.
“I was also very upfront when hiring individuals that through the course of their work they would have to work on things that would be outside their comfort zone and, in most cases, they broadened their skillset and had a bigger impact,” Das Sarma said. “Half of them actually started enjoying the other side more.”
Definition: Employee growth and development is a top priority for managers.
Coaching is one of the management styles Clavel uses.
“You do this because it’s the only way to scale up your team and organization,” he said.
When Clavel joined Roblox, the team was small and he realized he could not hire the 40 people he needed on his own within an 18-month period. So, he coached his managers on what to look for in each job candidate, he added. Today, Roblox’s engineering team has grown by hundreds of people over the past few years.
Definition: Managers give control of decision-making and problem-solving to employees. Within the laissez-faire style there are the subcategories: Delegative and visionary.
A laissez-faire management style makes sense when you’re working with a group of people who do not have a lot of interdependence among themselves, Sonnenfeld said, pointing to the entertainment and technology industries and their heavy use of subcontractors as an example.
An employee’s skills and ability will also dictate whether a manager can take a laissez-faire management style with that employee, Elshenawy said.
Definition: The manager assigns a task and reviews it at the end to provide feedback, allowing the employee to pursue the task as they see fit.
Yu, for example, favors a delegative style once his team is high functioning, he said.
“I’m a fan of empowering them to make their own decisions and take the actions they feel are needed,” Yu said. “Giving them a lot of empowerment helps build a lot of trust.”
Although a situation may call for a delegative management style, Elshenawy offers some words of caution.
“You should never be psychologically removed from the picture,” he said.
Indeed. That could also cost you your job. If you’re hands off and not providing enough value to your direct reports, they may begin to resent you.
“People resent someone who’s not working and adding value, especially if they are in a supervisory role,” Sonnenfeld said. “They’ll start wondering why they have you in a corner suite that could be used as a meeting room or lunchroom.”
Definition: The manager inspires employees to move toward the goal they outline but leaves it up to the employees to execute the vision.
A visionary management style can sometimes be teamed with a less desirable management practice, Yu warned.
“Visionary managers and leaders can inspire others with their big vision, but may be short on details,” Yu said. “So, on the flip side, they may also be authoritative in terms of telling you how to deliver on their vision.”
Management Styles to Always Avoid
Threatening behavior is a management style that should be avoided at all costs, tech executives and management professors said.
“Dishonorable and threatening behavior is never a good management style,” Sonnenfeld said. He added threatening behavior would drive employees to be compliant to avoid punishment and potentially prompt them to seek opportunities to throw you out.
A cable company CEO, for example, believed throwing trash cans in the office or hitting his fist against the wall to display his frustration over the company’s poor performance was acceptable, Sonnenfeld said. This CEO also believed making examples out of people for the company’s poor performance would prompt them to try harder at work. Eventually, he was terminated after yelling at one of the company’s superstars, who filed a lawsuit against him.
Humiliation is another ineffective management style, career experts and executives said. In the workplace, this might look like publicly silencing an employee.
“You should never consider silencing an employee or being dismissive,” Das Sarma said. Such a move, according to career experts, could prompt that employee —as well as others — to hold back on contributing to future discussions and sharing their ideas.
“If you’re always painting a really rosy picture, a smart team at some point will start losing faith in it. But if you don’t paint an optimistic future and say you can’t do anything about it, then you’re not an inspiring team leader.”
One manager at a major financial institution would publicly point out when an employee was not prepared for a meeting they were attending, hoping it would prompt others to always come prepared to meetings, Sonnenfeld said.
“She didn’t realize it was coming across that she was humiliating them until someone mentioned it,” he said. “So, instead, she now reschedules the meeting if someone gives her a cue that they won’t be prepared.”
Management styles that exude overly optimistic forecasts that border on white lies should also be avoided at all costs. There’s a delicate balance between painting an optimistic scenario to inspire the team and providing a realistic assessment of what you are trying to achieve, Das Sarma said.
“If you’re always painting a really rosy picture, a smart team at some point will start losing faith in it. But if you don’t paint an optimistic future and say you can’t do anything about it, then you’re not an inspiring team leader,” he added.
The Future of Management
Self-organizing teams and autonomous teams will increasingly become the future and that will force supervisors to adapt management styles that do away with a siloed approach where you are only managing your team, said Yu.
Teams will come together on their own to work on projects that may drive a larger initiative or a piece of strategy. The managers of these teams should be comfortable with this approach rather than selecting specific employees to lead the project or leading it themselves.
A widespread shift to remote work is promoting managers to adopt new management styles or ramp up aspects of their existing style, tech executives said.
For Clavel, he is making a proactive effort to expand the inclusiveness he uses in his management style.
“It’s hard when you have a hybrid office. It forces you to find ways to be more inclusive of remote workers, much more than existed before,” said Clavel. “You need to be very cognizant that it’s easy to exclude some people and make sure everyone is working together.”
Additionally, managers need to remember that remote workers are not “always” available and should avoid reaching out to them during off-hours, he added.
“It’s more important than ever before to articulate vision, set priorities, and build trust as employees become increasingly hybrid or remote.”
Remote work has expanded the number of opportunities where employees can work since they no longer have to be tied to an employer located in the city where they live. As a result, that means managers need to be more willing to work with their employees to retain them, Yu said.
He added he is reaching out more to remote workers to understand what is happening in their lives, not just with work. That understanding of their personal life has increased his compassion as a manager, he said.
“I want to understand what is happening in their personal lives so I can offer support,” Yu said. “I now find myself giving everyone more benefit of the doubt when someone is late for a meeting or has to cut out early or miss a meeting to pick up a child from daycare or drop someone off at school.”
The increase in a remote workforce is likely to lead to other changes in management styles in the future — far after the pandemic subsides, tech executives said.
That view is shared by Carr.
“It’s more important than ever before to articulate vision, set priorities, and build trust as employees become increasingly hybrid or remote,” she said. “People have a lot more choice in how they work, where they work and who they choose to work with. Managers need to adapt. The best leaders create other leaders, invest in building teams, and continually optimize how they lead those teams to success.”