Why “One Size Fits All” Leadership Styles Actually Fit None

Have you ever tried on a garment labeled “one size fits all” and thought, “Uh, really?”

Well, over the years I’ve found the term “one size fits all” doesn’t translate any better in management than it does in tank tops or Halloween costumes. And yet, leaders often fall into the trap of trying to manage a diverse group of people with a single approach.

Spoiler alert: when it comes to leadership styles, one size fits none.

Why Command-and-Control Is Going the Way of the Black-and-White TV

In the not-too-distant past, the preferred “one size fits all” style of management was “command and control,” where leaders in top-down organizations hoarded information and meted it out on a need-to-know basis. This autocratic style of leadership was better suited to the workplace of the past, where a higher percentage of employees worked on an assembly line or had entered the workforce straight out of the military. But today, knowledge workers’ best assets are their ability to apply their own creativity and individual thinking to help organizations succeed.

That’s why effective managers of all eras have realized they need to find out what motivates each individual team member and speak to them in their own language. The problem I frequently hear is that busy managers don’t have time to adopt 37 different management styles to please each individual team member. The good news is you don’t have to.

Five Ways to Customize Your Leadership Style (Without Going Crazy)

There are only so many hours in the day and so much availability to provide the personal attention that your employees crave — and need to produce their best work. Here are some strategies I’ve come across in my speaking and consulting work that might work for you in providing flexible leadership.

  1. Be available — on your own schedule.

A completely open-door policy can quickly translate into constant interruptions, making it hard to do your own work. Take a cue from a millennial manager I recently met who set “office hours” for his team. He told them he was available every day from 8 to 9 a.m. and invited them to stop by/Skype/call, etc. to hit him up for career coaching, advice, problem-solving, goal setting or anything else they wanted to talk about.

His team knew that if they missed this window, they’d have another chance the next day. Setting the parameters means you can be the responsive manager you want without feeling you have to be available on demand.

  1. Rely on trickle-down managing.

In today’s increasingly flat organizations, some leaders are responsible for hundreds of employees, and obviously, you can’t effectively coach all of them. Instead, focus on your immediate reports: Model the standard of customized management and knowledge sharing that’s important to you and let them know part of their task is to spread it among their own teams.

Be the absolute best coach you can be to the people who directly report to you — whatever that manageable number looks like — and that leadership style and culture has the best chance of spreading.

  1. Have the “Style Conversation.”

As many of you know, I am a big fan of the style conversation that Michael Watkins writes about in The First 90 Days. No matter the tenure of your team, it’s never too late for leaders to initiate this practice to clearly share your availability and preferred communication habits to help your employees be more effectively managed.

  1. Ask instead of guessing.

If you do one thing, make it this, and it will minimize so, so much wasted time and effort, as Henrik Edberg recently noted in his Positivity Blog.

Send a survey to determine individual employee preferences so you can tailor rewards and other areas where you have some leeway. Some sample questions to ask include:

  • What training opportunities do you prefer (conferences, online courses, etc.)?
  • How often do you like feedback?
  • What can I do to help further your professional development goals?
  • If you were given a reward, would you rather have (day off/cash card/massage gift certificate, etc.)?
  • What’s your favorite small indulgence?
  • Where do you most like to eat lunch?
  • What three gift cards would you love to receive?
  • What sort of group events would you like?
  1. Be transparent.

Often there’s no way to please everyone even when you have asked their preferences or opinion. Yet you’ll find that people will still feel “heard” if you explain the “why” behind your decisions.

So, if you survey your group about the next team-building activity, and 80 percent want a cooking class, let the others know that you’re holding the chef’s night since that’s the option chosen by the vast majority. Mention that you realize some may be disappointed, but you hope the laser tag lovers will still come along and enjoy. Using the magic word “because” is a good strategy for getting others on board.

Do you customize your leadership style to different people? What has been your experience? I’d love to hear on Twitter or in the comments below.

Lindsey Pollak is the leading expert on millennials and the multigenerational workplace, trusted by global companies, universities, and the world’s top media outlets. A New York Times bestselling author and keynote speaker, Lindsey began her career as a dorm RA in college and has been mentoring millennials — and explaining them to other generations — ever since. Her presentations have audiences so engaged that, in the words of one attendee, “I didn’t check my phone once!” Contact Lindsey to discuss a speaking engagement for your organization.

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Lindsey is a globally recognized career and workplace expert and the leading voice on generational diversity. She has spoken for more than 300 audiences including Google, Goldman Sachs, Estee Lauder, Stanford and Wharton. Lindsey is the author of four career and workplace advice books, and her insights have appeared in media outlets including The TODAY Show, CNBC, NPR, the Harvard Business Review and the Wall Street Journal.


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