When you apply for any kind of managerial or administrative job, there’s one interview question you can always count on: “Tell us about your management style.”
I hate that question. Not because it isn’t a fair and legitimate one, but because (in my opinion) a good manager won’t be able to answer it.
Why? Let’s revisit the Greek myth of Procrustes, which I invoked in an earlier column about library collections. Procrustes was an evil hotelier with a single iron bed. He would invite unwary passersby to spend the night, and if they were too tall to fit into his bed, he would cut their legs off to make them match the bed’s length; if they were shorter than the bed, he would stretch them on a rack.
In my earlier column, I suggested that the traditional library collection takes a similar (though less gruesome) approach to the patron’s research needs, creating a “bed” based on the librarians’ general understanding of those needs, and then trying to convince individual scholars to adapt their specific research agendas to it. But I think the story of Procrustes also illustrates the danger of having a management style—or, at least, of adopting a particular style of management and applying it generally in one’s dealings with employees.
For example: one person might consider herself a “hands-off” manager. Her style will be to err on the side of giving people space to do their work in the ways that work best for them. After all, they’re the ones working on the front lines, and they’re likely to have a better sense than she does of what patrons need and what approaches are really most effective in meeting those needs. A hands-off manager will tend to operate under the “forgiveness rather than permission” model, encouraging staff members to make independent decisions, take risks, and act on their own judgment. This approach will tend to work very well with staff who are capable, creative, wise, and self-motivated, but it will likely pose problems with staff who are less prodigiously skilled, who are not on board with the library’s vision or mission, or who struggle to make good judgment calls.
A manager with a “hands-on” style will tend be more involved in the staff’s daily work, for better or for worse. The hands-on style assumes that the manager is the manager because he has both a deeper understanding of the work at hand and a broader perspective of the library’s needs and goals. This manager will want to know exactly what is going on within his area of responsibility, so he can ensure that patrons and the institution are getting the right kind of service, and so he can nip problems in the bud before they blossom into crises. A “hands-on” manager will tend to operate in “permission rather than forgiveness” mode, encouraging staff to keep him in the loop on their activities and plans, to run decisions past him before making them final, and to provide ongoing status reports on projects and assignments. This approach will tend to work well with staff who are enthusiastic but need guidance, and with those who thrive on feedback; it will tend to pose problems for staff who crave independence and have ambitions for leadership.
Obviously, neither the “hands-off” nor the “hands-on” style works perfectly in every situation. It would be tempting to think that an approach somewhere in the middle will work more universally, but that’s not necessarily true either—no single point on the “hands-on-to-hands-off” continuum will work equally well for everyone you have to manage. And that continuum is only one among many dimensions of management style: is your decision-making style more consultative or more directive? Is your default tendency towards transparency or confidentiality? Are you big-picture or detail oriented?
Across all of these dimensions of management, I think it’s less useful to think in terms of style than of philosophy. Style is about how you do things, whereas philosophy is about why you do them that way, and what your ultimate goals are. A philosophy can remain consistent even as you apply different styles and strategies in different situations.
For example: suppose that one aspect of your management philosophy is a focus on staff development—you want to make sure that your staff has the chance to learn and grow, and you want to offer your employees opportunities to expand their scope of duties whenever possible. That part of your philosophy might lead you to take a more hands-on approach with a staff member who shows promise but needs help developing good organizational skills. The same philosophy might also lead you to toss a more organized and self-motivated staff member into the deep water of committee chairmanship, promising to stand by, ready to offer help and moral support as needed, but otherwise leaving her to grow into the role on her own.
Suppose another aspect of your management philosophy is a belief that in everything we do, we should think about the patron first. With that in mind, you might look around your staff to identify those who need closer supervision and guidance (because they tend to focus less on patrons’ needs and more on preserving internal workflows) and those who set such a strong example of service orientation that they should be given lots of leeway both to interact directly with patrons and to influence their colleagues.
In both of these cases, two very different (or even diametrically opposed) stylistic approaches can serve the same management philosophy. In both cases, the approach is determined not by your adoption of a single style, but by adopting a variety of styles in service to your ultimate goals for your staff and your patrons. Style is about means; philosophy is about ends. And keeping ends and means in proper order is one of the great duties (and challenges) of a manager.