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How to Refine Your Management Style and Boost Employee Engagement

By Johnny Duncan

It’s been said that people don’t leave companies, they leave managers.

In fact, according to a study in Gallup’s 2017 “State of the American Workplace” report, 51 percent of currently employed adults in the US say they are searching for new jobs or watching for new job opportunities.

Some of this dissatisfaction is due to particular management styles. That doesn’t mean that a particular management style will be detrimental to your workforce; instead, it indicates that certain management styles don't mesh well with certain workforces. 

The ultimate goal we should all strive for is to adopt a management style that improves and increases employee engagement.

Another Gallup study found that 70 percent of American employees are disengaged, costing the US over $550 billion a year in lost productivity. Keeping employees engaged requires a close examination of the workforce and work processes to determine what could be improved, changed, or simply eliminated.

Many areas, such as empowerment, work environment, and reward processes, should be analyzed regularly. But one area of concern that can be addressed immediately with instant results is that of management style.

First things first. What's your management style?

There's a time and place for all management styles. No one style is good or bad, but it is how and when leaders use them that determines success or failure. Understanding your management style and how it impacts employee engagement is crucial to the success of your company.

In this piece, we'll cover the five management styles typically associated with business leaders. Most of these styles can be found to some degree in every organization, and while some are known by several names, they tend to fall into one of these categories.

1. Autocratic

The autocratic management style is a traditional one that has been around for a very long time. This is the style adopted by a leader with a “because I told you so” mentality.

In environments that demand error-free outcomes (i.e., military, firefighting), the autocratic management style can be useful, but it's not a style you'll want to adopt on a full-time basis. Autocratic managers believe rules are extremely important, dictate all methods and processes, and don't solicit input from others. 

One example of an autocratic management style is how Sam Walton managed the growth of his Walmart empire. Football legend Vince Lombardi adopted an autocratic leadership style when he coached the Green Bay Packers. For both men, the style helped them streamline their processes and grow their customer bases.

The autocratic management style has proven effective in factory settings or among unskilled workers, but it's being phased out as these types of organizations shift their focus to promoting future leaders from within the organization. It's useful in small doses, but, like adding cumin to a dish, it should only be used a little at a time. Too much will ruin the outcome.

Because a fully autocratic management style is not conducive to increasing employee engagement, use it only when necessary.

2. Coaching

With the coaching management style, managers motivate their employees by providing tools and resources for growth. Coaching is a favored management style for improving employee engagement since managers focus on helping their team members develop their strengths and improve their performance.

The coaching manager says, “let me show you how it’s done.”

Examples of coaching management include Tony Hsieh’s style of guiding his customer service team at Zappos or how philanthropist Andrew Carnegie coached Charles Schwab, a low level employee who eventually became the first president of US Steel.

To hone your coaching management style, you must first build relationships with your team members.

According to the Harvard Business Review, you must “understand that before you start coaching, you need to develop a culture of trust and a solid relationship with the people you will be coaching. In spite of your good intentions, all the techniques in the world will make little difference if those you are trying to coach don’t feel connected to you in some way.”

3. Affiliative

Identified by Daniel Goleman in 2002, the affiliative manager strives to create harmony in the workplace, not just between employees and managers but also between employees.

The affiliative management style puts people first and tasks second. It is very useful in creating more harmonious work environments and thereby opens pathways to more engaged workforces.

While it comes across as less stressful than the autocratic management style, the affiliative management style has its downsides when employee performance falters or project deadlines aren't met.

It’s hard to keep a friendly, people-first attitude without accountability when profits are down. One way to increase the effectiveness of the affiliative management style is to encourage your team members to forge work relationships that cater to their needs while still getting their work done.

Former manager Joe Torre of the New York Yankees was known for his affiliative management style. Torre recognized the various contributions of individual players, but also expressed his gratitude for everyone's contributions regardless of whether they won.

4. Participative

With the participative management style, leaders encourage employees to get involved with analyzing problems and strategizing solutions. Because participative managers create a sense of ownership for everyone, they can instill a sense of pride in their employees and motivate everyone to increase their productivity in order to achieve their goals. With the participative management style, employees tend to become more engaged in their work.

When employees feel like they are a part of a team with a common goal, their self-esteem grows and generates pride and loyalty. If you want to create an atomic reaction in your employee engagement, embrace the participative management style.

To do this successfully, you must be secure in your position and willingly relinquish some control to your employees. This isn't as easy as it sounds, especially if you’ve held your responsibilities close to your chest for a long time. With an open mind and trust in your team members, it's worth letting go.

When Steve Jobs was fired from Apple in 1985, he was practicing an autocratic style of leadership. By the time Jobs was brought back to Apple in the mid-1990s, he had adopted a more participative management style, hiring experienced leaders and furnishing them with the resources and latitude they needed to shine.

With Jobs' participative leadership style, employees were empowered to make decisions and Apple soared to even greater heights than before.

5. Pacesetting

The fifth management style, as mentioned in Daniel Goleman’s book, Primal Leadership, is the pacesetting management style. When a manager practices a pacesetting management style, they'll set the tone and cadence of work for others to follow.

Typically, employees are motivated to keep up with their pacesetting manager's expectations by increasing their performance and output.

“The [pacesetting] leader holds and exemplifies the highest standard of performance. He is obsessive about doing things better and faster and asks the same of everyone. He quickly pinpoints poor performers, demands more from them, and if they don’t rise to the occasion, rescues the situation himself," Goleman writes.

This style serves as a great motivator for everyone except those who fall behind. For that reason, the pacesetting management style has a short lifespan with regard to increasing employee engagement.

The long-term effects of a pacesetting management style can leave employees exhausted and feeling as if they’ve been pushed too hard.

For that reason, it's a management style that's useful in spurts and depends on the culture of an organization and its products or service. Managers should practice this style cautiously and only when the conditions are right for an all-out sprint.

Jack Welch, former CEO of General Electric, comes to mind as a pacesetting manager. Welch vowed to lead by example and encouraged his executives to do the same.

Welch, nicknamed “Neutron Jack,” lived by the four E's of leadership: energy, energize, edge, and execution. Employees followed his pace and GE excelled to greater heights under his leadership.

Hone your management style

Obviously, managers' relationships with their employees are highly correlated with employee engagement. A good marker for the strength of those relationships is how comfortable an employee is approaching their manager with any type of question.

Goal setting is an area where this correlation is especially strong. One Gallup survey revealed that when employees were asked to rate their feelings on the statement, “My manager helps me set performance goals,” 69 percent of the employees who replied “strongly agree” were considered engaged in their work. On the flip side, only 8 percent of the employees who responded “disagree” or “strongly disagree” were considered engaged in their work.

The best managers seem to blend various attributes of every management style and change their approach depending on the situation. But management styles don’t just happen. Managers are made, not born, so consistent management training is key to developing great managers.

According to the Society for Human Resources Management (SHRM), middle managers need to be trained for their roles, empowered with larger responsibilities, and involved in strategic decisions. If executives and HR professionals want to hold managers accountable for employee engagement, they should:

  • "Supply managers and employees with the tools they need to do their jobs correctly"
  • "Periodically assign managers larger, more exciting roles"
  • "Give managers the appropriate amount of authority"
  • "Accelerate leadership development efforts"
  • "Ask managers to convey the corporate mission and vision and to help transform the organization"

The goal is engagement

Learning which management styles your workforce is most receptive to will be crucial to your organization’s success.

In a recent Forbes piece, former Navy SEAL Brent Gleeson writes: "Great managers ensure they acquire and develop great talent – they get the right people on the bus and make sure they are in the right seats. They actively prioritize engagement. Their team’s activities align perfectly behind the mission narrative of the organization." 

The management style you use should depend on the circumstances you and your team are encountering at a given moment. Is there a need to be more autocratic because a crisis is at hand? Is it time to set the pace or is this a situation where coaching is more appropriate?

Managers are chameleons, changing their demeanor in response to changing environments. No matter what, the ultimate goal of any management style is to achieve 100 percent employee engagement.

Written by Johnny Duncan

Johnny Duncan

Johnny Duncan is an author and consultant with over 22 years experience helping to provide solutions to small businesses with the people side of business.

Originally published on April 04, 2018 → Last updated April 11, 2018