The Problem with “Old School” Managers

Early in my career I worked for a manager who clearly embodied an “old school” management style. He was full of bravado and was intentionally intimidating. He was a terrible listener and would yell frequently in an attempt to get desired action and results.

Initially it was exciting to be around him; in some strange way I found him inspiring. There was a certain level of intoxicating energy when in his presence, and my desire to please and receive his approval was high. However, after being around him for a few months, his old school management style grew – well, grew old. My desire to please and excel waned. I found myself looking for the exit door – which I found quickly.

When I teach and consult in organizations, often the terms old school, directive or traditional management style come up in conversation. These terms are used in a negative way. Most of us have a very good picture of what they mean. It’s the type of leadership where when the boss says “Jump”, employees say “How high”. Yelling, barking orders and pounding fists (sometimes literally) is considered the best way to get results. Opinions that are not consistent with those of the manager are quickly silenced – for there can be only one right way, that of whatever the old school manager thinks.

In organizations and teams where this style is present, employees quickly fall in line or head for the exit. For those who stay, any ounce of creativity and engagement is replaced with silent acceptance. The overarching belief of employees is that it’s best to keep one’s head down and not be noticed.

To most of us, the preceding descriptions and the results of this sort of management style don’t sound effective at all. And yet this style still exists, and it is even revered in some circles. It’s important to highlight that this style of management is not just limited to older managers. Younger managers who grew up under this style of leadership often model the same approach as those who mentored them in it. In addition, certain industries idealize this style as the best way to operate.

One of the reasons this style of management continues is that many organizations are still hiring people based on old practices. Take a look at some job ads for management positions and you will find phrases such as: “highly competitive”, “independent thinker” and “fast-track”, instead of phrases like: “collaborative”, “caring” and “intuitive”. The earlier phrases are still indicative of old school management styles.

The problem with old school management is that while in the short term this style may get results, in the long term, like me in my earlier career, talented employees will become disengaged and head for the first exit available to them. My conversations with employees who work under such management styles bear this out as well. The employees who stay in this sort of environment do not like their place of work.

An interesting 2013 study looks at the differences between empowering leadership and directive leadership. It defines empowering leadership in part as sharing power with subordinates and raising their level of autonomy and responsibility. In addition, these leaders promote collaborative decision making, information sharing and teamwork. Directive leadership is defined as being associated with a leader’s positional power and results in actively structuring subordinates and laying out expectations regarding compliance.

The study concluded:

…Teams led by a directive leader initially outperform those led by an empowering leader. However, despite lower early performance, teams led by an empowering leader experience higher performance improvement over time because of higher levels of team-learning, coordination, empowerment and mental model development.

In the long term, old school management style is not only ineffective, but it moves organizations further away from being a place where people like to work.

The empowering leader moves his or her organization toward happier, more engaged and more productive employees. This strengthens relationships and powers the organization’s vision and effectiveness.

ACHIEVE is conducting a study for a book we are working on and we would love to hear your input.

The book will be published through ACHIEVE Publishing and will draw heavily on “A Great Place to Work” Survey.

Randy Grieser, CEO, Author, Speaker
ACHIEVE Centre for Leadership & Workplace Performance and the Crisis & Trauma Resource Institute

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