The Best Management Styles for the Return to Work

Written By:

Which Management Styles Will Deliver the Best Outcome After the Pandemic?

Management styles are changing, with the pandemic forcing businesses to become more responsive and flexible. Business management is still about getting the job done – but what’s the best approach for your situation? We look at different management styles and how they affect people differently, including the managerial grid and McGregor’s Theory X and Y. This takes sensitivity, so we end with some pointers to help develop your emotional intelligence.

But first, a word to the wise! This article straddles general business management and person-to-person management. These two are related but distinct. The other problem is one we’ve addressed in previous pieces. Writers and business people use management and leadership interchangeably. That is fine but you need to beware…

What are the Four Basic Management Styles?

We talked in a previous article about the leadership styles that Dr Kurt Lewin identified in 1939.

Dr Lewin’s three main leadership styles are:

  • Autocratic or Authoritarian (“I’m in charge”).
  • Democratic or Participative (“Listening boss”).
  • Laissez-Faire or Delegative (“Let it be”).

Years later, experts still see Dr. Lewin’s three styles as the most effective, depending on the situation.

Dr. Lewin’s three leadership styles and a fourth, coaching, come into play as businesses develop. Here’s how they fit.

The founders of successful businesses start out as visionary, at times autocratic. They need to be, to overcome the many challenges. As businesses grow, their leaders and managers become more democratic, welcoming their teams’ views. This creates engagement, helping the business’s culture develop.

When the team needs to be nurtured, coaching shares the vision. In businesses based on intellectual property like IT and creative industries, or professions, management can afford to be laissez-faire. They trust their highly skilled or qualified employees to get on with the job.

In employee-owned businesses, management softens their style to overtly democratic. This fosters employees’ commitment. Meanwhile, gig economy businesses are typically autocratic, leaving no room for debate.

What are the 6 Management Styles?

Regardless of their role in the business, successful managers adapt their style according to the circumstances and the individuals. This is more likely to produce results than being fixed.

The consultancy Hay-McBers breaks down personal management styles into six different categories. They all have their limitations, hence the importance of being flexible.

Hay-McBers go with three management styles we’ve just mentioned:

  • Autocratic (which Hay-McBers call Authoritarian).
  • Democratic (they say Participative).
  • Coaching (they use the same term).

They add three more styles to make their six:

  • Affiliative: This style puts people first, concentrating on producing a harmonious working environment and building emotional bonds
  • Directive: You expect compliance from employees. Things get done your way, or there’s trouble! This can be demotivating.
  • Pacesetting: You have high standards and expect your people to match them. It’s fine, but can leave some people feeling inadequate.

What are the 7 Management Styles?

Red number 7 on a blue background
Understand the 7 management styles to know which is best for you


Some experts add Laissez-faire, one of Dr. Lewin’s three, to the management styles list. Laissez-faire’s disadvantage as a management style is what you’d expect from giving staff free rein. If you end up with loss of direction and productivity, you must be directive to restore order.

Contrasting Management Styles

Another current theory focuses on two contrasting management styles, transactional and transformational.

Transactional managers exercise authority according to their rank in the organisation. They let subordinates know what’s expected and step in when mistakes happen. This makes sense in, for instance, a gig economy business.

Transformational managers mentor and develop their subordinates and motivate them to achieve organisational goals. They focus on these rather than personal targets.

Deciding which style will be the best for your situation needs time and thought. But you can always change.

Get with the Program

We’ve mentioned coaching as a management style. Now it’s time to look at the different styles of coaching that exist.

What are the Main Coaching Styles?

The notion of coaching to develop skills comes from the world of sport. Many high-level sports coaches go into the business world, offering motivational training based on their sport experience. There are three main coaching styles for athletes, which are transferable to business:

Autocratic: The coach has total control. The downside is, there’s no dialogue. Such rigidity can be invasive and stressful.

Democratic: The team has freedom and accountability to work together and explore different possible coaching solutions.

Holistic: Starting from the belief that everything is connected, this is based on individuals being the sum of their parts. Holistic coaching looks at possible stumbling blocks and repetitive behaviours that might impact on work performance. It also offers solutions like stress management and relaxation techniques.

For the growing number of businesses placing value on employee wellbeing, holistic coaching can be powerfully beneficial. However, done clumsily, it can trigger deeper emotional problems, requiring trained intervention.

Vision:  This encourages and empowers employees with clear direction and strategies for achieving objectives and developing focus. Intensive and short-term, this can work well for high stress or overwhelming workplaces needing fast adjustment. It also works when teams must come on board quickly with change.


Well, that’s a slight exaggeration. There are benefits to all these coaching styles. But be aware of the following:

  • Some approaches might trigger emotional problems.
  • There is a risk of over-training causing detachment from work.

Listen to your team, use their creativity, and take their ideas on board. Employees also benefit from feeling their leader is ‘present’ and keen to engage.

The Awesome and the Awful

What are Bad Management Styles?

Here’s some light relief. How do the following management traits resonate with you?!

  • Poor communicator.
  • Unfocused manager – muddles through with no plan or direction.
  • Micromanager.
  • Indecisive.
  • Abusive.
  • Thinks they automatically deserve respect.
  • Unapproachable.
  • Takes undue credit.
  • Negative.
  • Doesn’t have standardised rules.
  • Underprepared for leadership (not their fault, unlike these other failings).

And here are some bad management practices to avoid at all costs:

  • Using fear to motivate people.
  • Calling out employees in public.
  • Not being emotionally invested in a project.
  • Ignoring good performances from team members.
  • Conducting ineffective meetings… and if the meetings are on Zoom, that’s probably worst of all!

For American business writer James Carlini, the following bad practices hit the low spot:

  • Managing people – new and untrained managers think they need to manage people. He points out you manage resources, but you lead.
  • Casual workplace – James says people come to work to work. He even suggests we dress smartly in Zoom calls. He’s hopeful….

What is Mushroom Management?

Some people see mushroom management as the worst of the worst.  This management style involves keeping people in the dark and controlling them with negative tactics. It takes its name from mushroom farming’s use of low light levels and manure.  Indicators of mushroom management are:

  • Egotistical leadership – preparedness to sacrifice business goals for personal gain and/or unwillingness to accept blame.
  • Sidelining talent because you feel threatened.
  • Setting people up to fail.
  • Management by absence.
  • Management by crisis.
  • ‘Need to know’.
  • Shifting blame to others.
Two red mushrooms growing from the ground
Mushroom management is formed from negative tactics


Give Peace a Chance

Sometimes in business, you need to negotiate a settlement. But it’s not easy: for lasting results, all parties need to be happy with what’s agreed.

5 Major Conflict Management Styles

Dr. Barbara Beloliel at Walden University identifies these different approaches to managing conflict:

  • Competing: Assertive and uncooperative, keen to pursue your interests at the other person’s expense.
  • Avoiding: Unassertive and uncooperative, avoiding conflict by diplomatically sidestepping an issue or simply withdrawing from threatening situations.
  • Accommodating: The opposite of competing, this involves an element of self-sacrifice. This is ideal when you don’t mind the outcome, but rebuilding the relationship is the priority.
  • Compromising: This is good when the outcome isn’t crucial and time is short. But beware of the risk that no one comes out feeling satisfied.

For Dr. Beloliel, the best approach to managing conflict is

  • Collaborating: A combination of assertive and cooperative, seeking to work with others to identify solutions. This works best when the long-term relationship and the immediate outcome are equally important.

The Theory of Everything

McGregor’s Theory X and Theory Y

Douglas McGregor is famous for two theories of human work motivation and management, Theory X and Theory Y. He created these in the 1950s, while studying at MIT Sloan School of Management. Theory X places importance on supervision, while Theory Y stresses rewards and recognition.

Under Theory X, you believe your workers dislike their jobs and have low motivation, so you’re authoritarian. You’re hands on, micromanaging people to ensure work is done properly.

If you believe your people take pride in achieving their best, you’ll be more participative. You trust your team to take ownership of their work and do it with you in the background. Theory Y covers this.

The Managerial Grid

Another interesting theoretical model is The Managerial Grid, developed by Robert R. Blake and Jane Mouton. The Grid identifies five different styles, based on concern for people and concern for results, or production.

The styles featured in the Grid are

  • Country Club: high on concern for people, low on concern for results.
  • Team: high on concern for people, high on concern for results.
  • Middle of the road: middling on concern for both.
  • Impoverished: low on concern for people, low on concern for results.
  • Produce or perish: high on results, low on concern for people.

‘Concern for people’ means managers are mindful of their subordinates, respecting ideas and establishing trust. ‘Concern for production’ means managers value results over everything and subordinates’ needs are unimportant. ‘Produce or perish’ ties in with McGregor’s Theory X, while the ‘Team’ style ties in with his Theory Y.

You’re an Integral Part of the Project

Project management also has its share of different management styles. Project managers need to find the right style for a given project, as much as anyone managing people.

Business team having a project meeting
There are 5 different project management styles


What are the 5 Project Management Styles?

Grace Pinegar at identifies the following:

Affiliative: This type of manager is in charge of their team but isn’t overbearing. Like Theory Y managers, they give background support and check in on progress from time to time.

Deadline-driven: This is good for small projects. It’s not ideal for detailed schemes with a large scope, needing adequate attention and working through.

Coercive: These project managers are very Theory X. They come in to get stuff done: they’re not looking for collaboration. Coercive project management isn’t good for morale, and should only be used when necessary.

Hands off: A democratic project manager empowers employees and lets them get on with it.  Micromanaging stifles productivity and creates tension. A democratic style challenges the Theory X notion that employees must be watched to succeed.

Agile: Able to move quickly and easily, their team members must be flexible and adaptive to match.

This last project management style leads us to look at agility as a topic in itself.

You Need to be More Agile, Mate

Over the pandemic, we’ve heard the word ‘agility’ a lot. The term comes from the concept of agile working, used in tech businesses.  This is a set of methods and practices based on the Agile manifesto for software development. Agile values include collaboration, self-organisation, and teams with cross-functionality.

Agile was born out of the methods innovative Japanese companies like Toyota and Honda used in the ‘70s and ‘80s. They used the Kanban method to improve the speed and flow of work.

In the 90s Jeff Sutherland found himself frustrated by companies whose projects were continually behind schedule and over budget. He looked at the Japanese companies’ methods, and from there created the Scrum project framework. This helps all kinds of businesses, including marketing and comms agencies, organise teams and do work faster.

Scrum assists in delivering projects, broken down into workable chunks. The idea of Scrum is to work smarter and accomplish more.

The different parts of Scrum are:

The product owner: they have the authority to say what goes into the final product

The Backlog: The list of tasks and requirements the final product needs.

The Sprint: The predetermined timeframe in which the team completes tasks.

The daily scrum: Team meetings for progress updates

Scrum also focuses on improving the process, with retrospective meetings as stages are complete,

Understanding and Using Scrum

Andrew Littlefield wrote The Beginner’s Guide to Scrum and Agile Project Management in 2016. It’s available on line. The official Scrum guide is available free on

There’s also a book:  Scrum: The Art of Doing Twice The Work In Half The Time, by Jeff Sutherland.

And Finally… The Emotional Leadership of Teams

We’ve covered the archetypal management styles. Research different companies and individual countries’ cultures and you’ll see each has their own variation. It’s important to be aware of how these different styles affect people’s emotions. The key is to use them interchangeably, as appropriate.

To judge the best style for the moment, you need to be able to “read” others and the situation. Work on these soft skills. Practise deep listening and understanding body language.

Here are six steps to improve your emotional intelligence:

  • Observe how you react to people
  • Look at your work environment: what’s happening?
  • Do a self-evaluation
  • Examine how you react to stressful situations
  • Take responsibility for your actions
  • Consider how your reactions will affect others – before you take those actions

Prioritise learning ways to reduce stress, communicate effectively, empathise with others, overcome challenges and defuse conflict. That way, whichever style you judge appropriate in a situation, you’ve more chance of being an effective manager. Good luck!

Related Articles:

Employee Experience Articles and ContentFlexible Working Articles and ContentManaging Difficult EmployeesManaging Difficult PeoplePeople Management Tips

Sign up to receive regular articles on learning and development.

You may also like:

Line manager wooden figure on yellow background with employees behind

Line Management Responsibilities

Bridging the Gap Between Organisational Strategy and Frontline Employees In the dynamic business world, line managers serve as the critical…