Management is a tough gig.
I’ve never forgotten what one of my leadership mentors told me years ago: “People are messy.” Boy, was she right. The people situations you deal with as a manager come in all shapes, sizes, and varieties. One minute you find yourself training a new employee who needs an incredible amount of time and attention, while the next you’re coaching a team member through a situation where she has the skills to tackle the project but is doubting her abilities. The following moment you have to talk a team member off the ledge because she’s totally frustrated and discouraged, then shift gears to respond to that high-performing employee who’s ready to tackle a challenging new goal.
You can’t be a one trick pony as a manager and expect to succeed…even if your one trick is really, really, good.
Unfortunately, too many people approach management as a one size fits all proposition. Research shows that 54% of managers are comfortable using only one leadership style—one trick ponies. Those one trick ponies are most comfortable using a coaching leadership style that is heavy on supportive behavior and low on directive behavior. That’s great if the person you are leading is competent on the goal or task and needs some encouraging words to get over the hump. But if the person isn’t that competent, she needs higher amounts of direction from you, such as defining the requirements of the task, showing her how to accomplish the steps, setting timelines, and providing the appropriate resources.
The most successful managers use different leadership styles based on a blend of directive and supportive behaviors. Managers employ a directive style of leadership when the follower needs to develop competence. The manager shows and tells the team member what to do, how to do it, and when to do it. As the team member develops competence, she eventually realizes the task or goal is harder than anticipated and experiences a drop in motivation or commitment. The flexible manager responds by dialing up the amount of emotional and relational support to encourage the team member, while also maintaining the proper level of direction to continue the development of her competence.
As the team member becomes more capable at the task, the manager scales back on the direction provided but still maintains the support that’s needed to coach the follower to overcome any doubts or uncertainties in her competence. And for the employee who’s fully competent and committed, the manager uses a delegating style by providing low amounts of direction and support in just the areas needed to help the employee set new and challenging goals.
Flexibly shifting leadership styles between employees, or even with the same employee based on different goals or tasks, is a huge challenge for managers. Ken Blanchard likes to say managers need to provide different strokes for different folks, and different strokes for the same folks.
Being a one trick pony may work in some situations, but it certainly doesn’t work in the variety of situations managers find themselves. Successful managers develop their skills so they are able to use the right leadership style in the right situation. You have to be more than a one trick pony to be an effective manager.