• 10 min read

8 Management Styles That Can Make or Break a Company

Siôn Phillpott
Siôn Phillpott

Career & Entrepreneurship Expert

female manager smoking cigar

The concept of management has come a long way in the last 50 years, with the development of various leadership styles yielding a wide variety of results across different industries and fields. Gone are the days of the one-size-fits-all approach; research is now able to measure the performance of organisations against the style in which they are managed.

As a result businesses can tailor their approach accordingly – what works in one particular sector or company might not work in another. A good manager understands the motivations, competencies and personalities of the people under their charge, and knows how to balance several styles to get the best out of them. This in turn creates a happier and more productive workforce.

So what are the different types of management? They are traditionally split into two kinds – classic and modern. Classic styles have been around a lot longer and were defined by social researcher Kurt Lewin, while the modern styles were identified by psychologist Daniel Goleman in his book Leaderhip That Gets Results (paid link). They are as follows:


1. Autocratic

donald trumpShutterstock

Also known as directive or coercive management, an autocratic boss does things one way only: their way. With employees getting no say in how things are done, it is widely regarded by management experts as being counter-productive; under-appreciated staff are likely to go elsewhere, leaving behind the less talented workers and creating a stale and lacklustre organisation.

Despite this, there are certain situations where autocratic leadership is needed – usually in environments where personal safety is at stake, such as in the military or on construction sites where adhering closely to instruction is important. Alternatively, new employees to an organisation may need close direction and scrutiny (at first anyway) to understand their job role.

Eric Gill of St. Thomas University claims that despite its wider negative connotations, autocracy benefits companies as they grow. “This doesn’t mean mature business must switch to a top-down leadership style,” he says. “It means that autocratic leaders should be recruited to improve efficiencies within specific departments”.

Example: Leonard D. Schaeffer

The former Californian Blue Cross CEO used autocracy to transform the fortunes of his ailing company, with the urgent need for affirmative action outweighing analysis and consultation with subordinates. “I would define autocracy not as someone who bullies other needlessly,” he says, “but as the managerial equivalent of an ER surgeon, forced to do whatever it takes to save a patient’s life”. Once the company was on a more balanced footing, he abandoned the autocratic method.

2. Democratic

Larry PageQZ

As the name suggests, democratic (or participative) management encourages group input, with decisions being made as a collective. Research shows that this approach is effective, and leads to high levels of productivity and morale among staff who feel valued and appreciated, especially in creative fields.

For this system to work though, recruitment is key. Staff must have the knowledge and expertise to make strong contributions. Additionally, it must be taken into account that when a course of action is taken, those that advocated a different course can feel alienated or ignored (even when this is not the case). It is also worth noting that in situations where time is of the essence – like Schaeffer’s struggling company – more authoritative leadership can be required.

Example: Sergey Brin & Larry Page

The creators of Google originally hired experienced executive Eric Schmidt to jump-start their search engine business, utilising his experience and collaborative instincts to scout and hire the very best talent. This was to set up small teams of knowledgeable staff members, thus creating a pool of creativity and ideas that saw the company grow rapidly. Google still use this approach under current CEO Page, with Google’s notorious recruitment process ensuring the company recruit only the very best.

3. Laissez-Faire

Donna KaranThe New York Times

Laissez-faire, or delegative, management is in many ways the antithesis of autocracy, with leaders taking a very hands-off position and allowing staff to make the decisions. Perhaps unsurprisingly, research has shown that this leads to very low levels of productivity among workforces.

In certain environments though, it can be a highly beneficial approach. In teams where staff are highly skilled and competent and are actually, it makes sense for a manager to take a step back. Understanding that high performers are usually self-motivated and respond to independence can work well for all parties.

That is the key though – managers also need to be sure that staff can handle the freedom. Regardless of how good someone is, everybody needs to know their role clearly; it is also important not to mistake laissez-faire leadership for no leadership. “The laissez-faire approach is often dismissed,” says writer Kendra Cherry. “But when group members are highly skilled and motivated, it can produce excellent results”.

Example: Donna Karan

The DKNY founder has a reputation for allowing managers to make decisions, while overseeing their performance and offering continual feedback. Roles are clearly defined and staff are trusted to do their job; by encouraging such autonomy, job satisfaction is high and productivity is increased.


4. Visionary

steve jobscnbc

A visionary leader proposes a certain goal or outcome without putting any emphasis on how exactly the team or organisation is going to arrive there, usually as a lack of technical know-how. As a result, staff are trusted to come up with the necessary solutions to meet the vision.

This leadership style is usually prominent in entrepreneurial businesses and is more about motivating and encouraging staff while they work to meet the organisation’s demands. Consequently, visionary leaders need to be inspirational figures, capable of capturing the imagination and cultivating loyalty from their staff.

Example: Steve Jobs

Jobs can be described as exemplifying any number of management styles; Apple was originally a democratic venture, but he was infamously dismissed when he became too autocratic. In his second spell at the tech giant though, he changed his style again, advocating his vision for the company and communicating it effectively to his staff. “It is a happy place in that it has true believers,” an anonymous Apple headhunter told Fortune. “People join and stay because they believe in the mission of the company, even if they aren’t personally happy”.

5. Affiliative

Sheryl SandbergAP

Affiliative management is about managers building positive relationships between themselves and their staff. This type of leadership works best in environments where morale is low, or where there is existing distrust or disharmony within a group.

On the flipside, when conflicts do inevitably arise, affiliative managers will not be in a strong position to tackle the issues head-on. According to management guru Joseph Chris, it can also lead to complacency as the constant positive feedback creates an “unwillingness to strive for the better”.

The key to avoiding this is to be aware of the need to change your style at a certain point. “When you feel like your style is no longer connecting, it’s likely that you’re dealing with an already secure team,” says management consultant Joanne Trotta. “This is the pivotal moment when you should realise a different style is required”.

Example: Sheryl Sandberg

Sandberg, who is the COO of Facebook and founder of gender equality group LeanIn, is a strong advocate of building and utilising a team mentality to motivate her staff towards goals.

6. Coaching

Revered coaching genius, Bill BelichickAP

The coaching style is more committed to developing employees and is a more hands-on, one-on-one role. This works well in environments where staff are motivated and want to grow, and where skills need to be developed for the company to meet their goals.

A lot of how this works depends on the climate the business is operating in – this approach is unlikely to be successful when results need to be produced immediately. It can also result in managers persisting with poorly performing staff when the reality is they should be let go.

Consequently, Alyce Johnson of MIT believes boundaries should be set. “Employees should not get the impression that coaching means managers can no longer tell them what do,” she says. “Coaching is a sophisticated management style that should build confidence and competence”.

Example: John Henry Patterson

National Cash Register CEO Patterson was a controversial figure (he banned unhealthy foods from work premises and allegedly fired a worker for riding a horse incorrectly), yet he took great care to train his staff to his own standards. One such salesman was Thomas Watson Sr, who went on to found global IT giant IBM; Watson was hugely influenced by Patterson’s management style and built the culture of the company in his image.

7. Pacesetting

Jack WelchEnthead

Pacesetting is one of the more lauded techniques in the leadership textbook, with the idea that a manager who leads by example is in tune with their staff. It doesn’t necessarily always work this way though.

When standards are set too high, or the workload becomes too intense, employees will become demoralised and demotivated. In many cases, if workers don’t or can’t keep up, they will simply be replaced. Unsurprisingly, Goleman found in his initial study that “more often than not, pacesetting poisons the climate”.

Indeed, the key is to use it sparingly. “The approach works well when employees are self-motivated, highly competent and require little direction,” he claims, citing R&D and legal teams as good examples. “Given a talented team to lead, pacesetting does just that: gets work done on time or ahead of schedule”.

Example: Jack Welch

The former General Electric CEO may have been a ruthless pacesetter, but his 20-year tenure at the helm of the manufacturing conglomerate saw its value rise by over 4000 per cent, a phenomenal figure. Welch promoted an informal approach that allowed him to interact with employees at all levels, but he was also hugely demanding; between 1981 and 1985, he cut nearly 100,000 workers from the payroll that were deemed to be underperforming.

8. Management by Walking Around (MBWA)

Bill Hewlett David PackardQuartz Media

In an age where office communication is almost exclusively by email, business coach Annie Stevens claims that management by walking around – which is exactly what it says on the tin – can lead to employees becoming more engaged and productive, breaking down the perception of a remote and inscrutable boss.

It helps you be more visible, connect with employees, share ideas and invite suggestions for doing things better,” she says. This echoes the sentiments of management consultant W. Edwards Deming, who once said that: “If you wait for people to come to you, you’ll only get small problems. The big problems are where people don’t even realise they have one – you must go and find them”.

Example: Bill Hewlett & David Packard

MBWA was popularized by Hewlett & Packard, who advocated it as an essential leadership tool in The HP Way their management mantra.

There are a wide range of variations on these themes, but the overriding idea of any management style is that there is no one particular right or wrong one – especially as companies change and develop depending on their needs.

Instead, managers are most effective when they can demonstrate a balance between more than one style, and adapt accordingly to different goals and different people. When bad bosses fail to grasp this essential leadership lesson, both companies and employees can suffer as a result.

Do you agree with this assessment? What management tips do you have? Let us know in the comments below…