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How to Be an Adaptable Leader

Ask The Expert

By Barbara Mitchell

Q: I manage quite a large staff and struggle with how to be fair while giving people the leadership they need. Any ideas on how I can improve my leadership skills?

A: You've found out that there is no "one size fits all" when it comes to managing people. It would certainly be a lot easier if we could just manage everyone the same way. But each of our employees is at a different place in their own personal and professional development, and a good leader adjusts his or her leadership style to the needs of the employee.

Each person has had different experiences before they come to you—even if they are right out of school. Some have had great managers before you and have learned a lot; others, no matter how long they've been in the workforce, may need substantial feedback to successfully complete the assigned task. Some employees lose interest if asked to do the same task over and over and need encouragement to keep at it.

The only way you will know who needs what is by watching and listening carefully. That's how you find out how to manage for each situation and each person. Spend one-on-one time with each employee to help you guage their level of proficiency in the work you're asking them to do. Don't just assign work and expect it to be done to your standards—employees aren't mind-readers and neither are managers. Welcome your employees' questions about their assignments. You will learn a lot about where they are if you listen carefully to what they ask.

The only way you will know who needs what is by watching and listening carefully. That's how you find out how to manage for each situation and each person.

When staff is new to the job or the assignment, set milestones and have frequent check-ins so they know they're heading in the right direction—or so you can offer guidance if the work isn't going well. If you see that certain employees are where you want them to be, you may want to allow them more freedom, but pay attention to their need for reinforcement. Some people, even if they've been working with you for a long time, will still want frequent feedback, while others are more comfortable on their own. Still, it's a balancing act to not micromanage—you want your employees to build their skill sets by successfully completing assigned work with just the right amount of leadership from you.

Today's employees rarely respond well to the command-and-control leadership style of the past, so managers can no longer simply tell people what, when, and how to do their jobs. We're learning that empowered employees are usually more engaged in their work, and that's a good thing.

When you tailor your management style to the situation, you will have greater success as a leader. I've always liked what author and consultant Ken Blanchard says: "Leadership is not something you do to people, but something you do with people."

Barbara Mitchell is a human resources and management consultant and author of The Big Book of HR and The Essential Workplace Conflict Handbook. Do you have a question you'd like her to answer in "Ask the Expert"? Send it to [email protected].

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