What’s your management style? 

It’s a tricky question to answer well. 

If you’re tackling this question in a job interview you might be trying to come across as an accomplished, knowledgeable and flexible manager so you might answer by saying something like, “In my experience, employees thrive when they have clear direction and autonomy over their jobs. As a manager I do my best to support, guide and coach, but I’m also firm and can drive results when needed.”  

On the other hand, if one of your new direct reports is asking this question you might have a slightly different answer by saying something like, “As a manager I see it as my job to support you in your role. I’m flexible but I’m also firm and fair when it comes to deadlines and deliverables. I’m not a micromanager, but I do like to check in regularly, and my door is always open.

Hmm… like I said, tricky. And these answers don’t really paint a clear picture of what it’s like to work with you day-to-day. 

When it comes right down to it there is certainly no shortage of ways to describe ourselves or our management styles. You could have a “coaching style” and focus mainly on team development or you could have a “visionary style,” aiming to lead your team through inspiration and more or less staying out of the way. There’s even such a thing as a “laissez-faire style” where managers are generally hands-off – which actually sounds pretty terrible to me now that I’m thinking about it.

The big problem with answering the style question so matter-of-factly or adopting a particular style label is that good managers really should be continuously adapting their styles to meet the changing needs of their workplaces and the people they manage. There is a saying that was likely inspired by leadership expert Daniel Goldman’s research which argues that there are six key leadership styles that, like golf clubs, should be used with the right measure at the right time. 

“Great leaders choose their leadership styles like a golfer chooses a club: with a clear understanding of the end goal and the best tool for the job.”

Think about it for a second: By using these style labels or by describing ourselves in these ways, are we really getting at the heart of what people need to know about us as managers? Does it help someone work with me better if they know I fall more into the “transformational” category than the “bureaucratic” category? Probably not. Quite honestly, it’s probably more helpful to know that I need coffee to function in the morning and that my dog Milo will always interrupt Zoom calls.

So, if “what’s your management style?” is the wrong question to be asking – or at least perhaps not the best question – what should we focus on instead? 

More often than not, when someone is asking about management style – whether in an interview situation, or an employee trying to get to know their new boss – they’re trying to evaluate a few different things such as overall culture fit, how you will manage your team, the expectations you might have for your direct reports, and what you’ll be like to work with in general. 

So, whether you’re the question-asker or the answerer, consider what information is really important and what you really want to know or share. Here are a few ideas for consideration:

1 Discuss preferred workplace culture and values

While there are many definitions for organizational or workplace culture, in a general sense culture is the set of shared values and beliefs that guide actions and day-to-day work inside an organization. There has been much emphasis placed on culture and company values in organizational and leadership research, and yet we tend to skip over this touchy-feely question and gravitate toward the “management style” question instead.  

Remember, Peter Drucker once famously said, “culture eats strategy for breakfast.” As a manager, don’t underestimate the importance of explaining what’s important to you in terms of company culture and values.  

2 Talk about how to motivate and support a team

Management is really about supporting, guiding, and directing people to accomplish certain objectives – hopefully guided by an overarching strategy or vision. As a manager, it is important for you to talk about how you intend to do this, preferably in a label-free way. 

So, instead of saying you have a “democratic style” for example, specifically explain that when it comes to making decisions, you like to gain input and insight from others before making a final decision. If you’re talking to a new colleague or a direct report, specificity is important. For example, instead of saying “I have an open-door policy” explain what that means to you. A CEO I once worked for explained this exceedingly well to the senior management team when he first joined the organization. He told us something like this:

My door is always open and you are welcome to interrupt me anytime with questions or ideas. If I turn toward you but keep my hands on my keyboard, you have two minutes and should probably schedule something in my calendar for later. If I turn all the way around in my chair, you have my full attention and can come in.

3 Have a conversation about general expectations for direct reports

When you’re asked the “style” question by a direct report, it’s likely that they’re trying to figure out what kinds of expectations you have for both them and the team. I was asked this question quite a lot as I was climbing the management ladder and I found it most helpful to answer using specific examples and by grounding my response in the expectations that I had for the team, such as:

I’m big on communication and information sharing, so having a weekly meeting where everyone comes prepared and ready to discuss their ongoing projects is important to me.

And,

I trust that you’re going to put your hours in and meet your deadlines. If that means you work 10 hours one day and 6 hours the next day so you can make it to your kid’s hockey game, that’s fine by me. 

4 Discuss specific information about work style, needs, and habits 

At the end of the day, everyone wants to know and understand how to best work with their team members and their bosses. I once worked for a boss who endeavored to always explain his work style, habits, and needs clearly. One thing he often said to people was this: I like to receive more information than less. If I feel it’s too much, I’ll tell you. But always assume I need more than less. 

Honestly, it was brilliant – I always knew exactly how to prepare for conversations and briefings. Whether you’re a manager or an employee, the best advice I can give you is this: don’t make generalizations about your work style and force people to figure out your preferences by trial and error. Be forthcoming and honest from day one. 

5 Ok, sometimes you will need to just answer the question

Now, in closing, I fully recognize that there will, of course, be times where you will need to answer the “style” question – whether in an interview or while giving a talk or presentation, for example. The good news is that there is indeed a best practice for it! Recruiting companies and experts suggest the following: 

  • First: define what you think “good management” actually is.
  • Second: explain what you do well that fits into this definition of “good management.” 
  • Third: tell a relatable story or give an example to illustrate your point.

In addition to this sage advice, I would say this: Try your best to stay label-free! Labels are too general, not overly helpful, and they put you into a box. When telling your story or giving your example, work in useful information that speaks to values and desired company culture, work style and habits, and your expectations for direct reports. And above all else, remember the golf club analogy – the best managers don’t just play with one club, they play with a full set.