A few years into my career, I was working at a large eCommerce company which was growing rapidly.
As I’d moved into a senior role, I was asked if I'd like to start managing a peer. Easy I thought, I’ve always been open and a good chatter, a listening ear when required. The report in question was a teammate I’d worked with, enjoyed a Friday beer with and assumed the perfect candidate for me to venture into management with. I hadn’t had any formal management training, but I’d learned how I liked to be managed, what I didn’t like in other managers and some ways to facilitate 1:1s and development.
With this mix, I felt that I had all the tools to successfully walk into management. What I didn’t envision was, although talkative over a beer, they were not as open when in a 1:1 setting that I’d created based on how I wanted to be managed. They were willing to gripe, but I didn’t have the tools or knowledge to know how to support them or how to provide a space where we could get to the core of the issue together. What I’d actually done was focus on myself and how I liked to be managed, I had to go back to the drawing board. And get formal training, ASAP.
In this article, I’m going to draw on more examples and go through a few of the frameworks that I found helpful and that I have applied to develop my leadership skills.
The management styles I’ve encountered
My first manager set the course of how I expected to be managed and how I wanted to approach leadership. He respected my opinion and was invested in me as an individual, even though I was a junior designer at the time, which in turn allowed me to trust him and bring my true self to work. It was only when I did start formal management training, that I learnt this was called ‘Psychological Safety’.
1. Psychological Safety
A term coined by Amy Edmondson in 1999, Psychological Safety is the belief that you can bring your whole self to work without the fear of risk of humiliation or punishment, and for managers and leaders to facilitate this. Allowing everyone their own space and voice within the business, in turn, enables personal and team growth.
I think this is even more important now that the majority of people are working from home, where the lines between home and work life are blurred, and our physical ‘safe space’ is now our office. Leaders have to rely on digital tools more than physical actions to build psychological safety, and without seeing people’s body language, or having ‘water cooler’ conversations, there is a need to evaluate which digital tools best replace the empathy that’s created with human contact.
To build trust in this time, with limited in-person contact, I’ve found the best way to promote psychological safety is by providing space. This is trial and error depending on the report, but some mechanisms I’ve found that work is being more flexible with working hours, being open and honest with my peers, and making allowances e.g. not forcing someone to turn the camera on for meetings. The latter may seem fairly trivial but can make an individual feel safer and therefore more likely to contribute/speak up remotely.
2. Situational Leadership
One thing I always assumed was that everyone was pushing to be promoted and climb the career ladder. Objectives and mentoring were focussed around promotions or title changes. Asking the question, ‘what needs to be done to get to the next stage?’ was the norm. The error here was assuming that growth and development were only linked to promotion.
Something I’ve learned since, is that ability and willingness are things that need to be evaluated separately. Someone could have the ability, but not the willingness to take on further responsibility. Not everyone wants to take on more responsibility. We need to remember that the people we look after are more than just their 9-5, and their management style must flex to support these people as much as those actively pushing for progression.
The framework that talks about ability vs. willingness specifically is ‘Situational Leadership’. It explores how management styles should be flexible and reflective of the direct report and are unique to each workplace. Ability, within situational leadership, refers to the ability e.g. skills and experience of the person being managed to successfully perform their role. Willingness refers to motivation, and confidence to take on tasks and carry out their responsibilities.
The practical application of situational leadership is to understand which group you, or a direct report, sit within to understand how they’re best managed. This is where this model is crucial. It’s not only on leaders to understand how to manage or support, it’s also on the person being managed to understand how they can be best managed (more on the groupings here). We should also ask ourselves what frameworks, and dialogue best suit, to enable them and your own performance as a manager.
3. Growth Mindset
I’ve had the pleasure of line managing some amazing colleagues; common characteristics include drive, honesty, and the ability to take and apply constructive criticism. The comment earlier around ‘Objectives and mentoring were focussed around promotions or title changes.’ wasn’t only driven by me, but my direct reports and the businesses we worked for. A ‘growth mindset’ was encouraged within the fabric of the company and the employees.
The ‘Growth Mindset’ model details how some people have different approaches to development. A growth mindset is the belief that hard work and learning from failure will develop personal skills, and a fixed mindset is believing intelligence is static, inherent, and unable to change over time. Due to self-development always being worked on, I’ve very rarely seen a completely fixed mindset in any of the people I look after, but I do believe there is a relationship between a growth mindset and psychological safety.
I once worked for a company that went through management changes whereby the team ultimately lost its autonomy. Micro-management became the norm, and it became increasingly difficult to pitch ideas as they were constantly overlooked. This environment caused a fixed mindset in the team; they believed their efforts were futile and therefore stopped contributing and challenging. The team’s fixed mindset wasn’t intrinsic but eventually came about because of the restrictive management style. On reflection, I see how these frameworks can help teams develop, but also highlight deep cultural issues at a managerial level.
One thing I’ve discovered along the way is that very few people will require the same leadership style over time, projects or roles. Reports or peers will also not have the same mindset or needs as they develop or as the company, they are in changes. The responsibility of a leader is to provide a space that is respectful and allows a peer to grow and develop regardless of these things. By understanding what you personally need from your line manager, and providing the correct support and understanding to the people you manage; people and teams can be as successful as ever regardless of their location.
Although I understand the model, and I can notice certain characteristics of each in different people (not one person has to be wholly both, it could change based on the task), I’ve always found this much harder to apply than psychological safety. I believe the environment has a much bigger effect than the ‘Growth Mindset’ model states. For instance, in a psychologically unsafe environment, most people would adopt a fixed mindset as the respect from leaders and opportunities to grow and learn have been removed.
My experience has taught me that everyone requires a slightly different management style; no two people have the same ambitions, background or experience. As a manager, it’s your responsibility to actively support your reports’ whole situation, not just the 9-5, and respect their professional and personal endeavours - no matter their preference.
It’s easy to replicate what’s worked for you, and fall into the trap of thinking it’ll work for everyone. That’s naive, but common thinking. Instead, establish open and ongoing dialogue from the very beginning and you’ll sufficiently support your team and enable their growth - as well as your own.
As a report, however, it’s important to interrogate how you would like to be managed, and work with your line manager on how they can best support you. It’s not just for your manager to direct this, it should be done together to ensure a cohesive and safe environment from which you can both benefit.
For more information on any of the styles mentioned in this piece, advice or to share your own experience, you can contact me here.