The Big Three Management Styles

Management literature describes numerous management styles, including assertive, autocratic, coaching, country club, directing, delegating, laissez faire, participatory, supportive, task oriented and team-based. Are there really that many styles? I believe there are three basic styles – directing, discussing and delegating, The 3-Ds of Management Style. The appropriate style provides the right amount of structure and support for each situation. Each style is unique in terms of how managers communicate, set goals, make decisions, monitor progress and recognize good performance.

Directing Style

Managers tell people what to do, how to do it and when to have it completed. They assign roles and responsibilities, set standards and define expectations.

  • Communications – The manager speaks, employees listen and react. Managers provide detailed instructions so employees know exactly what to do. The ability to communicate in a clear, concise, and complete fashion is critical. The only feedback managers ask for is, “Do you understand what needs to be done?”
  • Goal-Setting – “Your goal is to sell 15 cars per month.” The manager establishes short-term goals. When goals are specific and time bounded, employees are clear on what is expected of them. Goals and deadlines often motivate people.
  • Decision-Making – “I want you to stop what you are currently doing and help Sue set up the room for the seminar.” The manager makes most if not all decisions. When problems arise the manager evaluates options, makes decisions and directs employees as to what actions to take.
  • Monitoring Performance and Providing Feedback – Managers establish specific control points to monitor performance. “Get back to me at 11:00 a.m. to brief me on what you’ve accomplished.” Managers provide frequent feedback including specific instructions on how to improve performance.
  • Rewards and Recognition – What makes a “directing style” manager happy? When people follow directions. “Great job, you did exactly what I told you to do.”

The directing style is appropriate when there is a mandate from above that describes what must be done and how it must be done. The manager is the “commander in charge” simply carrying out the orders. The directing style is also appropriate when employees have limited experience or lack the skills needed to complete the assignment. Directing style managers provide the structure, action steps and controls necessary to complete the task.

Discussing Style

Managers using this style take time to discuss relevant business issues. What happens in a good discussion? People present ideas, ask questions, listen, provide feedback, challenge assumptions and coach as needed. It’s important to make sure ideas are fully discussed and debated. Managers often perform the role of facilitator, making sure the discussion stays on track and everyone has a chance to contribute.

  • Communication – Two-way communication is the norm. “Let’s go around the table and give everyone a chance to discuss their ideas.” Managers spend as much time asking questions and listening as they do talking and sharing their ideas. The right question focuses the discussion and draws out people’s ideas.
  • Goal-Setting – “Ingrid, what do you think our sales target should be for the fourth quarter?” After adequate discussion, goals are established. Utilizing a participatory style generally increases employees’ commitment to achieve their goals.
  • Decision-Making – “We have a problem with the amount of inventory we’re currently carrying. What action do you think we should take?” Decisions are made collaboratively. Both manager and employee play an active role in defining problems, evaluating options, and making decisions.
  • Monitoring Performance and Providing Feedback – The manager and employee monitor performance and discuss what actions need to be taken. This works best when both parties are open and make adjustments as needed.
  • Rewards and Recognition – “Jason, you make an excellent point about the proposed organizational structure.” Managers recognize people when they contribute to the discussion, ask good questions, build on the ideas of others, and are open to new ideas.

The discussion style is appropriate when there are opportunities to influence answers to questions such as, “What are our goals?” “What quality standards are needed?” “What work process should be used?” “Who should do the work?” “What type of controls and feedback are needed?” The discussion style is effective when employees have ideas and confidence to speak up. Involvement in determining whatmust be done and how it will be done increases employees’ commitment to making it happen.

Delegating Style

Managers using this style usually explain or get agreement on what has to be accomplished and when it must be completed. The how-to-do-it part of the equation is left up to the employee. Responsibility and authority are given to employees to get the job done.

  • Communications – Regarding what has to be accomplished, communications may be one-way: “I want you to deliver a 15-minute presentation on our new compensation program at Tuesday’s meeting.” In other situations it may be two-way: “Let’s discuss what needs to be accomplished in the marketing brochure you’re designing.” Additional communication takes place to review what has been accomplished and obstacles preventing progress.
  • Goal-Setting – As stated above, specific goals may be established by the manager or may evolve after a discussion between manager and employee. Failures in delegation can often be traced back to a lack of understanding of the desired output or deliverable. “I thought you only wanted recommendations, not an implementation plan.”
  • Decision-Making – “Barbara, that’s your decision to make.” Decisions as to how the task will be accomplished are left to the employee. Employees have the power to take appropriate actions to achieve the desired goals. Managers must avoid “reverse delegation” when employees try to give back decisions that they should be making.
  • Monitoring Performance and Providing Feedback – “I want a weekly update on plan accomplishments.” Managers decide how much monitoring is necessary. The amount of monitoring depends on the priority of the task and the person doing it. Providing feedback is the responsibility of the employee. Keeping the manager informed, especially when the plan is off track, is critical.
  • Rewards and Recognition – Managers reward and recognize people who demonstrate the ability to work independently, make decisions and get the job done. “Helen, you worked through numerous obstacles. You found a way to make it happen. Great job!”

The delegating style is appropriate when people have the knowledge, skills and motivation to get the job done. Experienced people don’t need a manager telling them what to do. They want the freedom to choose how to get the work done. This style gives managers more time to spend on other tasks such as benchmarking, strategic thinking and planning.


Each style (directing, discussing, and delegating) is unique in terms of how the management functions are executed. One senior executive states, ” I often use a hybrid approach. I’ll use a directing style on what needs to be accomplished and a discussing style to determine how it should be done. Other times after a good discussion, I’ll delegate. I tell my associate it’s his or her decision to decide how to proceed.” Effective managers use all three management styles to work with and through people to achieve organizational goals. The appropriate 3-D style challenges and motivates people to achieve the desired results.

Applying the Concept

Susan Fowler, Division Manager, Business Services, Norwich Public Utilities

My most natural style is discussing and generally that works well with the supervisory/management people that report directly to me. I have found, however, that I often end up using all three styles, depending on the subject matter, with the very same people.

For example, one person on my staff is a highly qualified technical manager to whom I have delegated most technical decisions with little input from me (e. g., budget constraints); however, he does not communicate well with his customers. This weakness results in complaints about his timeliness and ability to keep the customer up-to-date. In this area, I use the directing style to tell him what, when, and how to negotiate deadlines and keep his customer informed of progress.

On another topic, employee development, this same manager and I are in discussing mode. We set performance goals, agree on development assignments for the staff, and assess progress as a team.

I use two basic clues to determine when to use each management style. The degree to which the outcome of using the style meets the objectives, and how the employee feels about the style are both important.

Usually, after making one or two assignments, I can tell whether the person has the necessary skills, judgement, and resources needed to be successful. With new employees I start with the discussing style and move in either direction as needed.

Sometimes even though an employee can and is successful, he or she needs more than the “textbook” amount of guidance. I once had two highly competent people working in similar roles who needed very different styles. One did her thing and kept me informed. She used me to bounce ideas off, but never waited for or expected approval before proceeding. She gave me reports and I rarely checked on progress. The other person, who was equally competent but less experienced, felt that I didn’t care about his work unless I checked on progress frequently and provided feedback on how he was proceeding. At first I didn’t know my delegating style with him was ineffective because he was meeting objectives. On the other hand, he always seemed to want to stop by and give me verbal updates that I felt were unnecessary. Finally I asked him how our relationship was working for him and he told me how he felt about my lack of apparent interest. He thought what he was doing was not important unless I was asking about the progress on a regular basis. What I thought was a vote of confidence was actually eroding his confidence.

When using each style it’s important to pay attention to both project results and the behavior/morale of the people. If both are good, keep doing what you’re doing. If not, ask questions and make adjustments.