Develop your leadership skills by understanding different management styles

“People don't leave jobs, they leave managers” – or so the old workplace saying goes. Bosses can create fear and potentially turn exciting and fulfilling work into a living nightmare. But they can also enhance employee engagement, improve business results, and reduce staff turnover. In this article, we'll examine the three main types of management styles to help you deliver the results you want. We'll also identify the best management styles and which to avoid. 

What is a management style?

A management style is a way of working adopted by bosses that helps them to fulfil their goals. It spans creating targets, engaging with the team in a certain way, resolving problems, and delegating. In short, it's all about how a manager manages their team.

A good manager often incorporates a management style with leadership skills. But it's worth noting that while managers and leaders share many traits, there are some key differences between leaders and managers too.

3 main types of management styles

Anyone in a position of authority within a business should be aware of the three broad management styles, along with common leadership theories, as the workplace productivity and morale are hugely affected by the different types of management styles in place. 

We can group management styles into three broad buckets:

  1. Democratic

  2. Autocratic

  3. Laissez-faire

Within each group, there are nuanced management styles, and each comes with obvious pros and cons. 

1. Democratic management style

The type of management style all leaders should aim for!

Democratic management styles empower employees. These managers encourage staff to contribute to the decision-making process, while retaining overall accountability for the decision and outcome. Team cohesiveness is prioritised, as communication flows top-down and bottom-up. 

Democratic management styles are akin to top leadership traits, as the styles welcome diverse schools of thought and collaboration. Democratic management styles can be broken down into several subtypes:

Consultative management style

Consultative management styles are typically used in specialist fields amongst experts, where a manager will call on every team member's thoughts and opinions as part of the decision-making process.

While the final decision is in the hands of the boss, they will consider all inputs from their team.

When to use: This management style is useful if a manager doesn't have a specific skill set, as they can call upon experts to help inform their final decision. It's also useful in a specialised team, where different opinions and experiences can help to carve a path to success.

Participative management style

In a similar vein, the participative management style promotes activity from all team members in a decision process. The small difference is that team members are granted access to more information that will encourage innovation, as managers welcome each individual's unique problem-solving skill set.

Participative managers encourage the thoughts, ideas, and opinions of their staff, and actively collaborate to craft a solution.

When to use: This management style is useful when larger changes, such as those that affect the whole team, are at play. Incorporating the entire team engages even the most resistant employees, as they contribute to the solution. This management style is also suitable for innovative industries, such as tech.

Collaborative management style

A collaborative management style incorporates the fundamentals of consultative and participative management styles, but the key difference is that the decision is determined by a predominant consensus. By elevating staff and instilling trust in taking ownership of the outcomes, managers can increase engagement, innovation, and creativity.

When to use: This management style is best used when a company wants to engage employees and build trust. 

Transformational management style

A transformational management style is focused on ambition, growth, and raising the bar. Transformational managers tactfully nudge and encourage their teams forward, regularly pushing them beyond their comfort zones, in a bid to help them to achieve their greatest potential.

Often, transformational managers lead from the front and set a clear example of a great work ethic, to inspire their reports.

When to use: This management style is useful for teams and companies that are in a period of change, as it encourages agility. But be careful – not every personality is receptive to moving outside of their comfort zone, so managers will need to keep fairness and empathy front of mind.

Coaching management style

The coaching management style is hinged on learning and development, where the manager is the coach and the employees are the ones being coached.

It's the manager's role to prioritise the team's development and guide them to success. Managers often make room for failure, as they recognise that upskilling is a process, not an immediate solution. They promote learning and growth and recognise that elevating employees' skills is the key to organisational growth and meeting business goals.

When to use: When a skillset is rare or highly sought after, a coaching management style is often used as it prioritises development. This fosters a culture of care and helps to reduce turnover.

2. Autocratic management styles

A style that should be used with caution!

This type of management style is arguably the most passive-aggressive, threatening, and unpleasant. 

Autocratic management is a top-down approach, where employees at the top hold the power. They make the decisions without consulting or informing subordinates. 

When the manager delegates, they expect complete acceptance and execution with no questions asked, and actively discourage staff from sharing thoughts or ideas. The boss will then micromanage, to ensure the employees perform within the defined parameters. 

The subtypes of autocratic management style are authoritative, persuasive, and paternalistic:

Authoritative management style

This management style involves managers dictating what they require from their employees. If the subordinate doesn't comply, it results in punishment. 

Often, employees are expected to follow directions without question and perform tasks the same way each time without creativity or thought.

Authoritative managers closely monitor staff, as there is often a lack of trust or confidence. Typically, authoritative managers believe they can do the task better, but they require “minions” to do the “grunt work” for them with supervision.

When to use: The only time this management style is acceptable is in a time of crisis when decisions need to be made and executed quickly. Otherwise, avoid it at all costs.

Persuasive management style

A persuasive management style is less direct than an authoritative management style, but the same outcomes are sought. In this style, managers convince employees to follow orders unilaterally, because the decisions are good for the team and business. 

Often, managers invite staff to question the decisions and rationale behind them so that they can explain the process. This interaction typically convinces staff that they are part of key business decisions which can lower tension and resentment. 

When to use: If a manager has more experience in a field than the team, then it can be helpful to explain the thought behind decisions and gain team buy-in. It can also be useful when managing managers – but there is a fine line between the good of the team and a dictatorship. 

Paternalistic management style

The default setting of a company run through a paternalistic management style is to refer to the organisation as “family.”

Having a family-oriented culture in an organisation is nothing more than complicated and unprofessional, as employees are asked for unconditional loyalty and trust. But managers promise that they are acting with the best interests of their staff at heart.

Typically, the management style remains top-down and unilateral, with no room for debate, with leaders explaining that decisions have come from experts and are therefore legitimate.

When to use: This type of management style is very common and can be useful in small organisations. However, it should be avoided by larger companies, especially in Western cultures, where staff will be less accepting of a paternalistic leader.

3. Laissez-faire management styles

A management style that can easily go wrong!

Laissez-faire management styles are very different to democratic and autocratic. In this management style, management is hardly there at all, as it involves a hands-off approach to leadership.

While management is there during the delegation and delivery stages of the work cycle, it takes a step back during the work process. Employees are trusted to do their work without supervision and have the freedom to control their workflow and outcomes. 

That said, management can step in if staff request assistance. Delegative and visionary management styles fall into this category:

Delegative management style

In the delegative management style, the manager is present to bookend the task. They brief the employee, give the employee freedom to complete the task in the way they think is best, and then step back in to review. The manager is always responsible for the task being completed successfully.

When to use: This management style is great when you have a team that's specialised or has more specialist know-how than the manager. However, watch out! This management style can cause productivity leaks if the team lacks experience in direction or focus.

Visionary management style

A visionary management style involves managing through inspiration. Managers develop their vision and then seek to gain buy-in from their team by explaining the goals with reasoning. 

Once team members are briefed, they are empowered to use their creative freedom to contribute to the shared vision. Managers check in occasionally, but interference is minimal as they trust staff to push activity forwards and make the vision come to life.

Throughout the process, managers offer positive and constructive feedback to ensure that employees continue to learn and develop, and to ensure that the project stays on track.

When to use: This management style is a winner for ambitious companies that are disruptors or have ambitions to be first movers. A strong sense of purpose and strategic direction is a must for this type of management style – and that might not always be possible in certain organisations.

Other types of management styles

There are two other types of management styles (hybrids of other styles) that are worth acknowledging:

Servant management style

Servant managers prioritise the greater good. This management style is akin to the paternalistic management style, but with a small tweak. In this instance, they serve their team and organisation first and put their own objectives on the back burner.

The positive result is a team that feels cared for, as their happiness is prioritised. However, the consequence is a lack of focus on business objectives. Servant managers don't prioritise performance and often don't address issues with employees that are underperforming. This can create a complacent team.

When to use: Prioritising team well-being is important as it fosters a culture of trust and respect. However, the servant management style places this ahead of business objectives, which is unacceptable in most organisations. 

Transactional management style

“If you scratch my back, I'll scratch yours” is the essence of a transactional manager. This management style leverages incentives and rewards, such as bonuses, to motivate employees to carry out commands. 

While financial incentives are a legitimate way to encourage employees, it's only one piece of the motivational puzzle. Intrinsic motivation, such as buy-in to a vision and enjoyment in work, is much better than extrinsic motivation, as it has long-term potential for producing quality output.

When to use: If a team member's priorities are associated with bonuses, then it makes sense to flex transactional management. However, be aware that bonuses are a small part of what encourages an employee to consistently do their best work possible. 

The best types of management styles

Of all the styles above, what are the five best management styles? To build a productive and cohesive working environment, all great leaders should take influence from:

  • Democratic

  • Consultative

  • Participative

  • Transformational

  • Coaching

The worst types of management styles

All leaders should review the following management styles carefully before implementing them in their management role:

  • Autocratic

  • Authoritative

  • Persuasive

  • Paternalistic

  • Servant

  • Transactional

Types of management styles: with examples

To fully understand management styles, it's helpful to look at some examples. 

Democratic: These people have been cited as great examples of democratic leaders: Dwight Eisenhower, Mahatma Gandhi, Richard Branson and Nelson Mandela. This type of management style is embraced by world-leading companies such as Microsoft and Google. 

Autocratic: Vladimir Putin, Ghengis Khan, Richard Nixon and Elon Musk have been described as Autocrats. Amazon, McDonalds and Tesla all employ this approach.

Laissez-faire: Warren Buffet, Queen Victoria and Theodore Roosevelt have earned reputations as laissez-faire leaders. Apple and Berkshire Hathaway have achieved success with this type of management style. 

What are types of leadership skills a leader should possess?

Leadership requires a combination of many different skills. The top skills for any leader include:

  • A willingness to take accountability

  • Relationship building skills – both internally and outside the business

  • The ability to embrace and implement change

  • Vision

  • Problem solving 

  • Decisiveness

  • Verbal and written communication 

How to answer “what is your management style?” in an interview

If you've succeeded in landing an interview – well done! You may be anticipating some questions about your people management skills, such as “How do you describe your management style?” or “What is your management style?” In this case the interviewer is looking to get a sense of what they can expect in a certain situation, based on your past experiences. 

As part of your preparation, think about the management style of your previous managers and determine the qualities they had that helped you to perform. Of course, if previous managers weren't successful in motivating you, draw on this experience too, to articulate what caused you to feel less positive and therefore prompt you to act in the opposite way.

Then, consider the qualities that you think a good manager has and cross-reference them with the qualities that make you a good manager. Where possible, draw on the management styles listed in this article to discuss which specific management style you think you possess.

Expert tip: In the interview, use this information and tell a story about when you used a particular management style, using the STAR method.

Show off your management skills on your CV

As you would expect, management styles are affected by a range of factors. Within the company, a style may be governed by the organisation's culture, policies, employee engagement, and staff skill levels. From an external perspective, employment laws, the economy, competitors, and customers may dictate a management style.

A good manager will be able to navigate internal and external factors and adjust their management style to achieve their targets.

If you're looking for your next management role, make sure you're showing off your management skills effectively on your CV. Our free CV review service will make sure you're on the right track!

This article was originally written by Laura Slingo and has been updated by Jen David.

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