What Are Your Management Styles? Why Having Just One Might Not Be Serving You Well

By Susan M. Frey

Recently I served as a reference for a former coworker who was a candidate for an administrator position at a large university library. When the consultant from the executive search firm asked me to describe the candidate’s management style, I immediately thought of the types of responses I have heard over the years to this question. As a supervisor I have personally interviewed and hired staff. As a faculty member I have operated within the collaborative and highly bureaucratic environment that is the university search committee. In both cases popular responses to, “What’s your management style?” have been to say that one is not a micromanager; that one is collaborative or democratic; that one is people-centric. Though all these things − or some of them − might be true for any particular candidate these responses have a tendency to appear hackneyed to a recruiter, HR professional, manager, or search committee because they are the types of responses that so many people think we want to hear.

Everyone knows how stressful job interviews can be and how hard we all work to navigate them successfully. Over the years I have interviewed countless candidates who have attempted to represent themselves as either having the best management style – as if there is such a thing – or having the best management style for a particular job – as if a candidate could tacitly divine that by reading up on the institution. Proposing that one has “a” desirable management style is an understandable strategy for trying to make oneself attractive to a potential employer. But this mindset suggests a naiveté about the nature of management, which is about processes and polices, and leadership, which is the ability to motive and influence others.

Representing oneself as having a management style means that one views management and leadership along a flat dimension. Whether you are in an administrative position or you are project manager of an interdepartmental team, if you examine your behavior you will begin to realize that you do not have just one management style. Certainly there are many rewards beyond prestige and salary that make serving in administration desirable, such as helping others realize their full potential. But anyone who either manages or leads others knows that it is a highly faceted, complex, and sometimes thoroughly exhausting experience. People are complicated. Politics are messy. Agendas change and are sometimes hidden. Time and money are restrictions that touch every project.

Instead of embracing one modality the most effective leaders have a toolbox of frames that they use to deal with the bewildering constellation of congruent and conflicting situations and personalities that they encounter in the normal course of their responsibilities. How you handle Fred’s work performance may not be the same as how you deal with Cynthia’s project proposal. Your behavior at yesterday’s department meeting might be very different than your approach in responding to today’s forecasting meeting. Using frames is one way to respond well to a fast-paced, changing environment. Frames do not change who you are as a person. They do, however, assist you in knowing how to be true to your own personality and values while adapting to different types of situations and people.

Those described as natural born leaders instinctively use frames without realizing it. To better understand frames many turn to one of the classics of leadership research, Bolman and Deal’s (2013), Reframing Organizations. These researchers describe organizations and situations metaphorically as factories, families, jungles, and theaters. These metaphors describe structural environments; human resource, team-based environments; political environments; and symbolic environments, respectively.

According to the authors people and organizations have the tendency to favor certain frames over others. One person, for example, might have a tendency to interpret other people’s actions along the political frame, even though her colleagues are not being expressly political. This same person might also have the tendency to be highly structural and deem policy and procedure as near sacrosanct. If this person is a manger it would behoove her to recognize these tendencies and develop a feel for the other frames. In like fashion a manager who treats policy loosely because he tends toward a very humanistic, familial frame needs to understand that he might unnerve a highly structural employee.

To better understand how the frames might exist within the same organization consider a fast-food restaurant’s protocol for food preparation as falling along a structural, mechanistic frame. But the company’s sustainability or social responsibility program might genuinely serve a highly symbolic frame by offering employees a shared purpose. Being able to look at one’s work, and other people’s work, through these 4 frames helps managers and leaders make meaning of their environment.

Bolman and Deal have spent the last 30 years refining their research using a 4-frame model. For an example of someone who explores additional frames, Manning’s (2013) Organizational Theory in Higher Education explores concepts such as the feminist frame, cultural frame, and spiritual frame. Though written for academe the author’s helpful scenarios can be appreciated by those managing in any type of environment. I refer to just two books here, but there is a large body of literature on the topic. It is beyond the scope of this article to delve into how Bolman, Deal, Manning and other authors explore the use of frames in the real-world. The point I make is that it is helpful and often necessary for mangers and leaders to be sensitive to the different and changing frames of the people they serve, and of the shifting work environments we all take for granted. For anyone wishing to read up on the topic I suggest starting with Bolman and Deal.

As for the executive recruiter who had asked me about my former coworker’s management style, I did not offer an explication of frame theory. But I did say that I believed this candidate used many ways of leading others, while still being true to himself. I cited his tendency to be humanistic in finding ways to motivate groups, and his natural proclivity for using humor to build community. I also explained how I had witnessed him gain a new appreciation of policy and procedure as he grew into his role as a manager. So while he lead with his strengths, he also learned the importance of other modalities. In doing so he developed his ability to lead others towards greater enrichment and productivity. This is perhaps the best thing I can say about any colleague − that he or she is not afraid to learn new things that might change their behavior for the better.

Susan M. Frey is the Coordinator of Strategic Initiatives in the Cunningham Memorial Library at Indiana State University, Terre Haute, Indiana.


Bolman, L., and Deal, T. (2013), Reframing Organizations: Artistry, Choice, and Leadership, 5th ed., Jossey-Bass, San Francisco, CA.

Manning, K. (2013), Organizational Theory in Higher Education, Routledge, New York, NY.