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Managing the professional — Styles to suit situations

R. Devarajan

Successful leaders find it helpful to vary their styles to suit different situations. Four different styles — structuring, guiding, encouraging and delegating — have been suggested in the literature.

PROFESSIONAL management is rather different from the management of professionals. Due to their nature of work and training, professionals prefer to do things their own way. As they are "knowledge workers" and concept-oriented, they tend to be self-reliant and independent. They resist being directed and controlled. They expect and enjoy considerable autonomy. They like to work by themselves, rather than with colleagues. Whenever they are called upon to work in tandem or in teams, they are wary about the prospect.

Hence, inspiring and managing a group of professionals (or knowledge workers) inside a team is difficult and different from the normal leadership challenges faced by managers.

Managing a group of professionals demands more of a leadership trait than managerial acumen. Leadership is an enabling and facilitating virtue. A blend of gentle nudging besides providing help and support when needed works well with most professionals. Henry Miller says, "The real leader has no need to lead — he is content to point the way."

The relationship between professionals and their leader is based on integrity and trust. Professionals expect their leader to be transparent and straightforward. There is no room for any hanky-panky.

They expect him to do what he says. He must walk the talk always and every time. They judge him by his actions and not words. They want him to be a good listener, and take into consideration their ideas, opinions, and sentiments; if their thoughts are not acceptable to him, they want to know why.

Leaders, who recognise and identify the differences in the behaviour patterns of individual professionals, and also the root causes for such differences, find it easier to communicate and develop a rapport with them. Some people wear their personalities on their sleeves, while some others keep their concerns to themselves. When it comes to communication and instruction, some people just want only the broad picture, while some others require chapter and verse.

Some people make their decisions in a totally impersonal and intellectual way. Facts and figures rule the roost and there is no space for any compassion. Some others find it almost impossible to take decisions without considering the personal and emotional dimensions. Feelings may be a priority above logic. If the choice is between tact and truth, tact may win the day.

Some people plan well ahead, prepare and abide by their lists of "things to be done", wherein they also provide for almost all types of crises and contingencies; some others make a laughing stock of such category — for whom adaptability, impulse, and spontaneity constitute the armour and way of life.

Successful leaders find it helpful to vary their styles to suit different situations. Hersey and Blanchard have suggested four different styles — structuring, guiding style, encouraging, and delegating style. The structuring style is used when the professional is undertaking a task for the first time. If the candidate is diffident and insecure, then there is a case for using this method in a warm and friendly way.

The guiding style may be applied when the professional is already motivated and confident, but still needs further inputs to bring excellence into his job. It is particularly appropriate with trainees for senior positions in the management cadre. The encouraging style involves discussion and dialogue about the work on hand between the leader and the professional — an exchange of views about tackling the task. This style is useful in the context wherein the professional is full of promise and potential, but not yet ripe and ready to work independently.

The fourth style involves delegating the decision-making process and its implementation wholly to the professional. The leader is available on call, but the professional is free to go about the job the way he deems fit. Irrespective of which style is being adopted, it is imperative that the leader takes the professional into confidence about the appropriateness of the style being used and also the logic and rationale for it.

It is possible that even with reference to the same professional, the leader may decide to employ different styles to suit different situations — the style is not person-, but situation-oriented. We judge ourselves by our intentions, whereas others judge us by our actions. In order that there is no gap between the intention and action of the leader — as perceived by the professional — it is necessary that a free and frank flow of communication between the two is active all the time.

(The author is a Chennai-based freelance writer.)

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