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Team Productivity

Which Leadership Style Best Fits Your Team?

Daniel Threlfall
February 13, 2017

The late Jim Rohn once wrote, "The challenge of leadership is to be strong, but not rude; be kind, but not weak; be bold, but not bully; be thoughtful, but not lazy; be humble, but not timid; be proud, but not arrogant; have humor, but without folly.”

That’s a lot to ask for in a leader, and it’s a testament to the importance of good leadership.

A good leader is able to intuit, often within an instant, exactly what type of leadership is best for their team. Sometimes, that means taking a more laid-back style, while other times, it means assuming a more authoritative role.

Sometimes, you need to use different styles with the same team. Different activities, seasons, events, and projects may require differing leadership styles.

However, it's important to remember that not all leadership styles are created equal.

Too often, leaders make the mistake that teams are all the same. They think that what works for one team will work for every team.

Unfortunately, that’s simply not the case.

Any given team has a wide mixture of people who run the gamut of personalities and work styles.

As a result, certain leadership styles tend to work best with certain types of teams. Leadership styles that work well with analytical extroverts might not succeed with more emotionally intelligent introverts or ambiverts. Likewise, techniques that work well for big teams may be a bad choice for smaller groups.

In 2000, author and psychologist Daniel Goleman published his study “Leadership That Gets Results” in the Harvard Business Review.

In the study, Goleman identified six prominent leadership styles that were common across all work teams.

These six leadership styles have provided a useful north star for leaders who are struggling with the right style for successful team management.

By understanding the most common leadership styles, you can 1) identify which leadership style you tend to use, 2) understand alternative that can be helpful in certain situations, and 3) determine how to match your preferred style to your unique situation.

1. The coercive leader

Since this is a survey of the six leadership styles, we’re going to check one off the list right at the get-go.

Goleman called it “the coercive leader.” Without even discussing it, you’ve probably encountered this type of leader at some point in your life.

It’s not an optimal leadership style, but it’s important to be aware of it. Why? Because it appears often in business leadership settings.

Coercive leadership can be deadly. Coercive leaders tend to put themselves at the center of the decision-making process, thus discouraging new ideas, innovation, and forward progress.

Think of a narcissistic leader who makes decisions without listening to anyone. He or she strikes fear into everyone who passes by. People quit. The leader bosses everyone around. Morale and productivity drop.

Those are just a few of the negative effects of a long-term coercive leadership. In a phrase, Goleman notes, the coercive leader would command, “Do what I say.”

In fact, Goleman openly admits that the coercive style can destroy motivation, promote selfishness, and harm team members’ feelings.

That leaves you with an obvious question: Why would anyone ever want to use this leadership style?

I included it in this list because it’s a common approach, and should be guarded against, rather than encouraged.

Although it’s mostly negative, researchers admit that there may be some situations in which it is useful, rare though they may be.

As such, Goleman has very strict recommendations for coercive leadership:

"The coercive style should be used only with extreme caution and in the few situations when it is absolutely imperative, such as during a turnaround or when a hostile takeover is looming. In those cases, the coercive style can break failed business habits and shock people into new ways of working.”

In other words, it’s a last resort. In fact, it’s a last resort to your last resort. If literally nothing else is working, coercive leadership might do the trick.

Except when it doesn’t. Coercive leadership can drive resentment and foster outright rebellion.

The leader needs to use the coercive style to a specific end only in the short-term, and must do so with the well-being of the company and their team members in mind. Otherwise, coercive leadership can degenerate into dictatorship.

In the case of extremes––a team that’s bleeding money or perpetuating destructive habits––coercive leadership may be appropriate.

But it should never be anything except a last resort. The leader who chooses coercive leadership as a primary style is generally a damaging leader with a lack of vision and empathy.

2. The authoritative leader

In stark contrast to the coercive style, the authoritative style is positive and highly versatile. In fact, of all the leadership styles, Goleman says that “the authoritative one is most effective, driving up every aspect of climate.”

Goleman provides the story of a marketing VP who gave a passionate speech during a meeting. In doing so, he “filled a leadership vacuum” with “his vibrant enthusiasm and clear vision.”

Authoritative leaders know where they’re going and what it will take to get there. They’re able to instill their passion and motivation into others to create an overwhelmingly positive response. Think Martin Luther King Jr.’s unforgettable “I Have a Dream” speech.

Where coercive leadership ignores others, authoritative leadership inspires others. The authoritative leader is confident but not bossy. Instead of promoting their ideas without listening, authoritative leaders seize opportunities to fix the problems they see in their workplace.

Authoritative leadership also allows others to flourish in a team setting. In Goleman’s words, “Authoritative leaders give people the freedom to innovate, experiment, and take calculated risks.”

The authoritative leader trusts others to help carry out the vision he or she has in mind. That team effort brings about large changes, creating an almost 100% chance of a positive outcome.

So what’s the catch? While it sounds too good to be true, the authoritative style is appropriate for the majority of situations.

Goleman points out that it may fail if authoritative leaders is less experienced than their peers or if they become domineering and threaten to overshadow others.

Still, authoritative leadership is a multi-use device in the leader’s toolbox. Whether your team is in need of serious inspiration or a breakthrough, give the authoritative style a spin.

3. The affiliative leader

Like the authoritative style, the affiliative style of leadership is sensitive to the feelings of team members.

Goleman describes the affiliative leader as someone who values “individuals and their emotions more than tasks and goals. The affiliative leader strives to keep employees happy and create harmony among them.”

In a way, the affiliative leader is more of a mediator. He or she is readily available to talk to everyone and prioritizes the team’s emotional wellness.

As you might expect, the affiliative style enhances communication and morale. By giving positive, constructive feedback and allowing for flexibility in work styles, the affiliative leader creates an atmosphere of trust and peace.

This type of leadership can be the perfect antidote for a broken, despairing team. Like an attentive friend, the affiliative leader builds emotional bonds and tends to others’ mental and physical health.

Affiliative leadership works well when the team is self-motivated. Since the leader isn’t constantly checking up on everyone, team members need to be driven to accomplish work.

Because it’s so positive, the affiliative style shouldn’t be used by itself. Goleman warns that “its exclusive focus on praise can allow poor performance to go uncorrected.” It can also withhold advice for improvement from workers.

The solution? Goleman recommends using the authoritative and affiliative styles in tandem. The two complement each other nicely, giving team members a firm vision while encouraging them along the way.

4. The democratic leader

Steve Jobs famously brought Apple to an all-time high after its mid-nineties slump. Jobs has been immortalized as one of the best business leaders of all time.

But he wasn’t always that way. The reason he was fired was his leadership style. He had become somewhat coercive, demanding too much from employees and maintaining a sour attitude.

When he returned to Apple in 1997, Jobs took a new approach as a more democratic leader. Instead of bossing his employees around, he trusted them to do their jobs well. It was during this time that Jobs mentored lead designer Jonathan Ive and now-CEO Tim Cook.

In fact, Jobs’s definition of teamwork closely resembles Goleman’s definition of a democratic leadership. When he spoke at the D: All Things Digital confab held by The Wall Street Journal, Jobs said, “Teamwork is dependent on trusting the other folks to come through with their part without watching them all the time.”

According to Goleman, “By letting workers themselves have a say in decisions that affect their goals and how they do their work, the democratic leader drives up flexibility and responsibility.”

Democratic leaders aren’t concerned with micromanaging. Instead, they prefer to sit back and allow their employees to pitch in their thoughts about how they ought to work.

However, the democratic leader isn’t simply a yes-man. While workers have a say, it’s still ultimately up to the leader. The difference is that a democratic leader invites collaboration without letting team members call the shots.

The democratic style is most useful when a leader is stuck on a certain problem and needs fresh ideas. It’s also important to not overuse the democratic style. If you do, you run the risk of completely ignoring your own thoughts.

Like the authoritative and affiliative styles, the democratic style tends to produce positive results. It gets others involved and lets them know their contributions and insight are valued.

Using the democratic style wisely leads to a better team with inspired, motivated members. As Jobs proved, a little trust goes a long way.

5. The pacesetting leader

At first glance, pacesetting leadership looks like a successful style. The leader sets high standards and expects his or her workers to follow them.

This leader is concerned with efficiency, speed, and accuracy. If some workers are falling behind, the leader either challenges them or replaces them.

Pacesetting leadership sounds like it’s the perfect formula for a more efficient company. That’s why Goleman was surprised to find out that the pacesetting style is extremely damaging.

“Many employees feel overwhelmed by the pacesetter’s demands for excellence, and their morale drops,” Goleman writes.

So while the pacesetting leader aims to improve their team by demanding more, he or she is actually doing exactly the opposite.

Like the coercive leader, the pacesetting leader is often seen as a commanding know-it-all. Team members working under a pacesetting leader feel afraid of messing up or doing something the wrong way (i.e., they feel they need to do exactly what the leader does).

So is the pacesetting style a dud? Goleman says that it follows the same rules as the coercive style (or high amounts of sugar): Use sparingly.

If your team is composed of highly-motivated individuals, the pacesetting style can help drive them even further. Self-starters will see the leader’s standards and challenge themselves to meet those.

In generally, the pacesetting style produces negative results, but like every leadership style, it has its place. For most team situations, it’s best to avoid pacesetting leadership.

6. The coaching leader

“Coaching” has become a buzzword in recent years. It’s often used to refer a one-on-one style of training with a focus on improvement.

Coaching has surged in popularity because many people thrive on personalized feedback and actionable goals. They can receive advice that’s specific to them.

That’s exactly the heart of the coaching style. The coaching leader acts as a mentor or counselor to team members, creating an encouraging atmosphere.

Like the affiliative leader, the coaching leader cares about his or her team members. For the coaching leader, taking time to listen and talk with individuals is more important than demanding a certain work ethic from them.

As you might expect, this is another style that creates positive outcomes. Coaching gives team members opportunities to improve themselves. Their morale goes up and their performance enhances.

However, Goleman says the coaching style is the least used style. Why? Most leaders don’t have enough time for the gradual, one-on-one approach.

Still, Goleman argues that it needs to be used more. “Leaders who ignore this style are passing up a powerful tool: Its impact on climate and performance are markedly positive.”

So while coaching may carve a good chunk of time out of the workday, know that the time is going to good use.

How do you determine which style is right for your team?

Every team deserves a combination of leadership styles that’s right for them.

When choosing a leadership style, consider team composition and context. Teams will respond well to different styles in different situations.

For example, if you’re in the middle of a project with a tight deadline, the affiliative style probably wouldn’t work as well as the authoritative style.

Goleman argues that no leadership style should ever be used alone. Every style has its strengths and weaknesses, but when you combine them, you can get the most out of your team.

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