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Monday, Dec 15, 2003

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The winning style in management

R. Devarajan

Employees must recognise opportunities, deal with changes, resolve problems, prioritise issues, and make decisions.

HOW does a manager decide which management style he will apply to a particular situation? Should he use the facilitative techniques, or the coaching/advisory skills, or the directive approach, wherein he just instructs the employees about what they must do? A successful manager will be flexible. In many situations, a blend and mixture of styles will be useful. He will move to different points on the grid and the continuum, according to the demands of the situation.

The facilitative style (also, referred to as the empowering or the participative style) is often the most difficult for managers to master; and perhaps, therefore, it is the winning style as well — the rate of failure in this style is minimal. When a manager uses the facilitative style, it does not imply that he can take a totally hands-off approach, delegating willy-nilly, and expecting that all will go well.

Normally, four circumstances determine the style which a manager may employ — the situation, employee's personality, manager's personality and the corporate culture. While the facilitative style has a clear edge over all other styles, at times it may be necessary to use the directive style — should the situation warrant its application — when the manager shall not demur and, also, be plain about it. Generally, the manager may need to be directive at the goal-setting stage, and turn facilitative during the goal-implementing stage. He will spell out and start with the objectives of an action (in a directive manner), and delegate the implementation phase (in a facilitative fashion) to his employees. What is important, however, is that he must not be manipulative; he must not pretend to be facilitative, when in fact he is not.

Employees will see through the false front and the smokescreen, and then the manager's credibility will be at stake.

Some managers are wary and worried about dealing with an articulate employee. They would like to avoid the dialogue going off the track, and the possibility of the employee taking undue advantage of the opportunity for a discussion. By experience, however, the manager can always steer the conversation when it tends to drift, and bring it back to focus.

Operating in an open and transparent manner sometimes has its downside: there is a tendency to incite and ignite relatively minor problems, and magnify them as major issues. This may seem prima facie stupid and needless to an already busy manager. Conversely, if opportunities are ignored, and problems are not nipped in the bud, the situation may snowball into a crisis, and eventually affect productivity and morale. It is wishful thinking to suppose that by ignoring problems, they will be solved.

As part of their daily dozen, employees must recognise opportunities, deal with changes, resolve problems, prioritise issues, and make decisions. The effectiveness of a manager depends on his ability to educate and enable his employees to do all these things; and it will be appropriate and constructive for him to do so in a facilitative, rather than a directive manner. The initial investment in time will pay off in the long run, as employees learn to be self-reliant, depend less on their manager.The manager must generate a congenial and conducive climate to reach a good rapport with his employees.

Treading on a safe and trustworthy constituency will inspire an employee to open up more, and also, self-examine the righteousness of his stand. The ability to see your image in the mental mirror is a prerequisite for any progressive change: Counsellors always celebrate this competency as a positive outlook. Facilitative style requires playing on a level field. Entreating an employee as a valuable partner, and not a case study, will make all the difference in developing an enduring relationship with him. An egalitarian relationship is essential for this process to succeed. It must be a meeting point between individuals. The manager carries the responsibility to create this climate, because by virtue of his functional and situational considerations, sometimes he may unconsciously adopt a directive style.

Empathy is a critical factor in the facilitative style of management. Empathy is different from sympathy. It means caring about the employee, and realizing his difficulties; but not necessarily moving over to his side. Empathising implies that the manager has heard, understood, and assimilated; it does not, however, mean that the manager has accepted, or agreed with the views of the employee. The manager must retain an objective distance from the situation; which must not, in any case, prejudice the employee, and drive him away. Another key factor in this process is that the manager must just listen, while the employee does the talking.

This does not mean, however, that the manager may sit back and relax. He must be an active listener, and not a passive spectator. He must encourage, and even prod the employee to talk; especially in the initial stages, say, until the employee warms up.

Again, the manager must ensure that the dialogue does not drift, dilate, or waffle - which is quite likely since most employees may not have the skill and experience in concise communication. In the ultimate analysis, it is the manager who must maintain the locus and the focus on the employee, and on what is important to the employee.

When an employee broods over the problems already confronting him [existing], or thinks may confront him (imaginary), his mind gets confused, and his thoughts tend to be dubious and vague. Amorphous ideas, fears, and images float around in his mental orbit, and not in any logical or sensible sequence. Under such circumstances, if he is encouraged to share his difficulties with someone trustworthy, his thinking becomes clear, and he gains confidence and conviction in whatever he wants to do. The facilitative style helps to achieve all these, and like a lubricating agent it helps to cleanse and clarify the thought process. A need may arise occasionally for the manager to redefine more objectively the situation causing disturbance to the employee. It is important that such an exercise is always accompanied by reinforcing and convincing the employee, that the manager clearly comprehends the situation from the employee's point of view. Even if the manager may not agree with the employee's contention the very fact that he can perceive the situation from the employee's frame of reference will bring satisfaction to the employee, and dispel any acrimony or animosity in the relationship between them.

Applying a facilitative style enables the manager to extend adequate help and guidance to the employee, without getting too deeply involved, or bogged down with the responsibility for the situation. He must ensure that the employee does not develop a dependency syndrome. The onus and ownership for the situation must rest and remain with the employee. Ownership is a crucial and critical concept in this context, as it opens the door to responsibility. The final phase expects the employee to establish goals and objectives. He must decide what just needs to be refined, what must be totally changed, and what can only be managed a trifle differently. Each goal must be assigned a pragmatic plan of action, with a specific time-frame. It is useful to subdivide a major objective into several smaller and compact objectives. Of course, the manager must reassure the employees that he is always available to them for back-up support, especially should any crisis crop up.

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