In Management, One Size Does Not Fit All: Managing Subordinates So They’ll Thrive…

4 minute read

Management styles are a frequent topic of conversation with our coaching clients. Sometimes coachees want to discuss how they’re being managed by their boss, and other times it comes up with a coachee’s frustrations regarding a subordinate.

The conversation usually starts out with something similar to this: “Jason’s a good guy, but he’s so high maintenance that I get frustrated and question whether he’s the right one for the job.”

What’s important to understand is that, like plants, not everyone thrives under the same conditions. Some people, due to their personalities and experience, want to work very autonomously and don’t want someone looking over their shoulder. These employees would like as much independence as possible in doing their job, and are often especially confident and self-assured. So, it stands to reason that the management style they prefer is more hands-off.

Conversely, some people may get labeled as being high-maintenance or “needy”, but at the end of the day, they just need more guidance, more feedback, and more reassurance. They simply need more of a ‘safety net’ in a manager when they’re unsure of the next step.

However, what we’ve often observed—particularly among lower-level managers—is that unless this has been explicitly laid out for them, they operate under the assumption that it’s incumbent upon their subordinates to adjust to their management style. And if subordinates don’t successfully adjust, the manager concludes that the person is not a good fit for the team and/or the job.

While sometimes that may be true, we don’t think that should be the default position, particularly given the extremely high cost of turnover in American businesses today, as we previously discussed. Instead, we think a critical conversation must occur in every manager-subordinate/leader-follower relationship: an open, honest conversation about level of support that the manager is giving the subordinate via the management function. It’s something of a Goldilocks and The Three Bears puzzle: is there too much looking over the shoulder, not enough responsiveness to emails and phone calls, or is the manager’s support just right?

This is a conversation we always encourage, whether the coachee is in a new in role or has a new subordinate. It should occur very early on in the relationship, and the farther up the ladder you go, the conversations sound a little different. For example, a VP who has a new director working for them may want to ask that director, “How often do you want to check in with me?” or “Do you prefer more autonomy and independence, or do you find it more helpful to check in with me on a regular basis?”

Most of the time, we hear from people squirming under the weight of too much management, but on the other end of the spectrum, someone who is not getting adequate support from their boss often feels like they’re out on an island. This usually occurs when the boss has too much to do themselves, or has a generally hands-off management style.

Though admittedly intimidating, it is possible to ‘tee up’ the management style conversation with your boss, assuming there is a level of trust between you: “Boss, how do you feel about the level of management and support that I require? Would you rather I was more autonomous?”

If the boss is a true leader, they will provide a forthright answer and then reciprocate: “How do you feel about the level of support I’m giving you?”

Sadly, we’ve had plenty of coachee tell us they “could never have that conversation” with their boss. If that’s the case for you, please let us be the first to tell you: it’s time to find a new boss.

We also would be remiss if we did not point out that micromanaging is different than high-touch, supportive supervision. Remember, this is all about trust. The need to micromanage by dictating HOW the work gets done indicates a supervisor’s lack of trust that the final work product will meet expectations. We agree that repeated instances of sub-par work that only seem to respond to micromanagement could certainly indicate a lack of fit for the job, but don’t throw the baby out with bath water just yet. Sometimes all it takes to rectify that issue is the appropriate amount of supervision, which will then lead to excellent outcomes.

And as we’ve talked about many times before, all of this is in service of building the trust that is uber-essential to a healthy, successful leader/follower relationship. At the end of the day, the manager needs to trust that the subordinate’s work outcomes will be as good as or better than they would be if the manager had time to do the work themselves.

Ultimately, the Kool-Aid of the manager-subordinate partnership is a two-way toast. Subordinates’ jobs are to reach the goals and benchmarks assigned to the team; managers’ jobs are to proactively support subordinates in that accomplishment.  

For this week: Do you know how your subordinates like to be managed? Further, have you and your boss ever talked about where you are on the autonomy/support continuum?