Style wars

Momentous decisions, office hostilities and uncomfortable truths… which factors dictate how we respond to the everyday trials of management? The quest to understand and influence managerial behaviour is an increasingly critical mission for employers.

One Manager’s Rash Decision Is Another’s Moment of Inspiration

Every manager demonstrates a unique set of qualities, skills and values through their behaviour. But certain common factors have a bearing on how effectively they manage themselves and their subordinates. Some may be naturally analytical, data-oriented and cautious; others rely on instincts and impulses. And those who prefer a rational and straightforward approach to dealing with people act in ways that contrast starkly with more emotional fellow managers.

These are the findings of researchers at Vlerick Business School in Flanders, after undertaking a study of how cognitive style influences managerial behaviour, specifically around decision-making, conflict-handling and feedback.

In relation to management, soft skills – a loosely defined set of valuable dispositions, attitudes and methods of communication – have in many organisations become as important as technical ability or knowledge acquired via professional qualifications. And cognitive style – how people perceive and act on information – is intertwined with the extent to which those soft skills are crucial for managing effectively. Against a backdrop of lifelong learning, more sophisticated performance measurement tools, a greater appetite for executive coaching and a shift in management thinking (emphasising people-oriented skills, rather than simply task-accomplishment), understanding managerial behaviour has taken on a greater urgency.

Cognitive Styles: Who’s Who on the Managerial Spectrum?

Researchers found that managers approach conflict and feedback situations in different ways, depending on their cognitive styles. A number of characteristics emerged as being more closely aligned to individual decision-making thought processes:

• Knowing style: focused on logically reflecting on objective facts and precise details; as managers, their analytical approach means they’re unlikely to rush to judgment – but nor might they be sufficiently imaginative to generate new ideas or take a risk on others’ subjective suggestions, which can be detrimental to team motivation and effectiveness

• Planning style: compelled to apply an orderly, structured approach, organising information systematically with only rare forays outside the confines of conventional norms; planners reject ‘gut feeling’ but that doesn’t mean they slavishly follow what facts and figures tell them; their diplomacy and dislike of change may hold rash decisions and emotional reactions in check; however, as managers, they readily recognise the benefit of providing positive and negative feedback

• Creating style: unafraid to generate and experiment with a pipeline of imaginative, often impulsively conceived ideas, regardless of others’ opinions; driven by intuition and confident in their own judgment; they typically make quick decisions and adapt positively to new or unexpected situations (and even to being proved wrong); however, managers who exhibit creating cognitive styles may have issues with following through on their original ideas

Effective Management: First, Introspection

Those who aspire to management (and managers still climbing the corporate ladder) are likely to have already developed a sense of their own individual style, including how they interact with others.

Cognitive styles influence the interpersonal behaviour and individual preferences of managers – as well as, of course, the way their subordinates choose to perceive and respond to their managers. For instance, managers with more analytical styles may appear less friendly and more impersonal, as well as more self-controlling in their emotional behaviour. Those who are more intuitive and instinctive may be regarded as having better ‘people skills’.

However, for any one individual to be an effective manager, he or she must first demonstrate a firm grasp of the nature and effect of their own strengths and weaknesses. Armed with greater self-awareness, managers (and those with a stake in their performance) can more effectively work on those aspects of their behaviour that until now have been holding them back or impacting negatively on their teams.

Work with What You’ve Got, then Build

For instance, managers who identify more with knowing styles might be alert to those moments when they allow ultra-cautious information-gathering to get in the way of making a quick decision. Rather than dismissing others’ ideas outright on the basis of complex explanations, they may instead try to understand, so that a decision is made on substance rather than style. Similarly, managers who demonstrate planning styles may train themselves to spot occasions when sticking rigidly to a structured list of tasks becomes a hindrance, and be more open-minded. Managers with creating styles might make an effort to steady themselves, should they recognise the signs of storming ahead without sufficient preparation or thought for the consequences.

The key is this: if introspection results in a realisation that certain changes must be made, that’s fine. It’s not about changing deeply ingrained cognitive styles or proclaiming one style as better than the others; instead, it’s about adopting strategies to counteract any potential negative impact of their individual style in specific situations, and to work more effectively with those around them – for everyone’s benefit.

Related article

Cools, E. & Van den Broeck, H. (2008). Cognitive styles and managerial behaviour: a qualitative study. Education and Training, 50, 2, 103-114.

& Rankings

Equis Association of MBAs AACSB Financial Times