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Matching your management style to your employee’s personality

Much like one bad apple, one bad employee can spoil the whole bunch in your office, says Dr. Steve Cohen, Principal, Lead HR Consultant at HR Solutions On-Call.

Cohen, who is often described as a “mess management” expert for his ability to solve people problems for vulnerable organizations, says the typical job is always built on the issue of technical skills, but interpersonal skills are generally where problems are caused and/or solved.

“Employees have loads of power and rights granted to them by the EEOC (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission), by the courts and the court of public opinion,” says Cohen.

However, every person has a personality and sometimes that personality can be difficult.

“If you’re going to handle employees effectively, then their cooperation and engagement must be maximized. Your job as a manager is to get things done through other people,” he says.

The way you interact with your employees, says Cohen, can either maximize or minimize their contributions.

The role of personality in the office

Managers who are parents can probably relate to their kids bringing home objectionable, annoying, and generally unlikeable friends. However, some of your children’s other friends have magnetic personalities and you can’t help but like them even when they stand on your furniture or break things in your home.

“That is a personality issue that plays heavily into the personal dynamics of your organization,” says Cohen.

While some people will annoy you during their job interviews and their resumes will be placed in the recycling pile, others can ace the interview process, be hired and then cause problems for you, often after passing their probationary periods.

Some workers are used to being successful and powerful, even though they don’t have formal authority in your practice.

“Your employees don’t have the mantle of authority you have, but they do have personal power and most aren’t afraid to use it,” says Cohen, adding that managers need to learn how to manage such people when difficult situations arise.

If you find yourself dealing with objectionable employees, don’t expect them to change their style.

“They are who they are and it’s taken them years, decades, or their entire lives to become who they are. When you hire them you just have to accept who they are,” he says.

Why your management style is so important

Management style is defined as characteristic ways of making management decisions and dealing with subordinates.

“Everyone is different and everyone responds differently (to situations in their lives). From your point of view as a manager, you cannot operate simply by having one (management) style.”

While all managers have a dominant management style, Cohen says a style that works with Employee A won’t necessarily work with Employee B. Also, what works with Employee A today may not work tomorrow because of circumstances that arise in the workplace.

“Your job as a manager is to maximize productivity and what’s entailed in that is figuring out who your employees are, what style they respond best to, and then adjusting yourself so that you are that person or you express that style when dealing with them. If you don’t, then conflicts will emerge,” he says.

What is your management style?

What type of manager are you? According to Cohen, just as there are several types of employees, there are several different management styles.

They include:

  • Competitive: These managers are assertive and uncooperative, with a win/lose attitude.
  • Avoiding: While unassertive, they are also uncooperative in their dealings with employees.
  • Accommodating: They are unassertive, yet cooperative with those they manage.
  • Compromising: They occupy an intermediate step between assertive and cooperative in some ways and unassertive and uncooperative in other ways.
  • Collaborative: They are both assertive and cooperative. This is the most effective style, promoting a win-win situation for bosses and their employees alike, according to Cohen.

Matching styles

Employees all have their own styles of behavior. They tend to fall into two categories:

  • Fight or competitive: These include exploders, Sherman tanks and snipers, which will be clarified below, and
  • Flight or non-competitive: These include complainers and negativists.

An exploder is an employee who throws adult tantrums. Cohen says he tries to let his own employees be who they are even, if they are explosive individuals—as long as they follow two rules.

The first rule is, they cannot explode at him in public, only behind closed doors, and the second is that they are never allowed to be physical.

“Give them (the exploders) time to run down. It’s very important that you show them you are taking them and the situation seriously. A clear way to do that is to maintain eye contact. Then, after a certain period of time, if they aren’t running down, then I would call for a break.”

A Sherman Tank is an employee who comes out charging and whose demeanor is to attack others. They have a strong need to prove they are right and they have a strong sense of what others should do.

“Sherman Tank employees don’t value timid people and they don’t value timid behavior. If your (management) style is (one of) avoidance, that is going to be seen (by them) as weak,” he says.

If your management style is compromising, that is also going to be seen as weak by the Sherman tank.

“You want to avoid timidity. One of the major rules or tenets of management is that you don’t want to make a situation worse through your behavior than existed prior to your jumping in,” says Cohen.

As with the exploder, you need to give the Sherman tank employee time to run down, but you also need to hold your position. Cohen says maintaining eye contact is vital to that process.

When they begin to lose momentum, interrupt them and call them by name. Be ready to be friendly, as the adult in the room.

Sherman tanks don’t really care what they are arguing about. They are simply stimulated by the experience of the argument, according to Cohen.

The sniper has a strong sense of how his or her fellow employees, including their bosses, should act.

“They have a superior orientation and they’ll undercut you in any way that they can,” he says.

How should a manager deal with a sniper? The first thing to do is to smoke them out, by shining a light on their behavior. For example, if a sniper makes a sarcastic comment about how a coworker looks, shine a light on them by responding in a Sherman tank manner.

Tell the sniper that he or she seems snide or snarky and ask that person if they really meant what they said, or did you somehow misunderstand them.

“I want to provide a peaceful way out by asking questions. If it happens in a group, I want to seek group confirmation. Ask how the rest of you feel about that (comment). Nine times out of 10, the group knows the sniper is sniping and doesn’t appreciate it.”

Complainers aren’t assertive, but they can still cause problems for managers and coworkers alike. They go on and on and don’t feel that they are whining, but rather are warning that something is broken and needs to be fixed, according to Cohen.

How should you respond to a complainer? Cohen advises listening actively to what they are saying, which shows that you are taking them seriously. Then repeat what they have said to you and ask them if you understand them correctly. Now, switch into problem-solving mode.

“You want to draw out the practical thinker within them. Ask them what they can do to change the situation.”

Another unassertive but problematic type of employee is the negativist, who gains power over others by tapping into despair. While not assertive, these employees can still be dangerous because they attempt to undermine managers.

“They are convinced that those in power can’t be trusted. They are convinced that any task not in their hands will fail,” he says.

To deal with a negativist, you need to counteract that person’s behavior with optimism. Tell him or her that you believe what you are proposing will work. Don’t argue or rush into trying to problem-solve.

Set up the worst possible scenario. Ask them, “tell me what can go wrong” and then say, “Let’s plan for it.”


Cohen says good managers know what to do. They know their employees well enough to determine which management style will be most effective with each employee.

“You have to be competent in dealing with an avoider or in dealing with a Sherman tank. Have enough competence and skill to adjust to accommodate your employees’ needs,” he says.

But you cannot employ a single management style without getting in your own way, he cautions.

Here are five values that will help you deal with different types of employees and get the most out of all of them.

  1. Have respect for one another.
  2. Ensure that conflict remains constructive.
  3. Strive to achieve a healthy group process.
  4. Seek the truth and do the right thing.
  5. Help all employees to grow.

According to Cohen, once these values are established as the macro expectation, you can then focus on style in the micro situation.

Editor’s picks:

10 interview questions that reveal the true personality of every job applicant

Avoid these 5 deadly personality traits when hiring staff

How to end 3 costly kinds of office conflict









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