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August 23, 2017

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Donald Trump loves superlatives. So he would probably have no problem acknowledging that he has exhibited the most disruptive management style ever seen in the White House. This might even be his intent. But would his style work for your business?

There is no shortage of examples of disruption in the Trump Administration ‚Äì leaks, contradictory statements, public undermining of colleagues. For illustration purposes though, let’s focus on the juxtaposition of two prominent cases. One month it’s Reince Priebus resigning as chief of staff. The next, chief strategist Steve Bannon falls on his sword.

The significance is that Priebus is something of a bastion of Republican Party tradition, while Bannon is a standard bearer for the alt-right. That both should be pushed out the West Wing door in rapid succession suggests that neither represents a shift in the political direction of the Administration, but rather a pattern that is a manifestation of a distinct management style – Trump likes to keep rival factions in balance, and on their toes.

This is a management style based on setting a tone – employees should not get too comfortable in their seats, and individual agendas are secondary to loyalty to the boss.

The distinct management tone of this Administration raises some questions for entrepreneurs. How much does tone matter in running a business? Should your management style be judged solely on the content of your message, or is having the right tone also important? And should that tone be cut-throat or nurturing?

Turning from the political to the corporate world, an example of the importance of tone could be seen a couple months back in the high-profile report on Uber’s corporate culture. There is no debate about some part of that culture ‚Äì clearly, things like sexual harassment and drinking in the workplace do nothing but create problems for an organization. However, there are elements of the report, compiled by former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, that get into more debatable areas of corporate culture, including the tone that leadership sets.

Holder’s report recommends a reduced emphasis on management values Uber has espoused in the past, such as “Let Builders Build,” “Meritocracy,” and the oft-quoted “Always Be Hustlin’.” Instead, the Holder report calls for a greater emphasis on introducing diversity and inclusiveness into the corporate culture.

While Uber is an extreme example, the contrast highlighted by the Holder report has echoes of a common contrast in styles between corporate leaders ‚Äì the hard-driving, take no prisoners, business-isn’t-a-democracy approach on one hand, and the input-seeking, nurturing approach on the other.

The truth is, I’m sure we can all think of examples where each approach has worked. The following are some thoughts on both sides of the question.

Lead, Follow, or Get Out of the Way

Among entrepreneurs in particular, as opposed to hired managers, a somewhat dictatorial approach is understandable. After all, successful entrepreneurs tend to be hard-driven people, so it is natural for them to expect that of those around them. It is the entrepreneur’s vision that has formed and shaped the company, so it makes sense for that singular vision to be the focus of the firm’s efforts. Furthermore, it takes a healthy ego to form a start-up venture, so it should come as no surprise that many entrepreneurs seem to dominate those around them.

In these cases, the management style can be summed up as “lead, follow, or get out of the way.” In the fast-paced battles a new organization faces, there is often little time for inclusion and consensus-building.

Thus, having those individual characteristics of ambition, focus, and audacity permeate the culture of a start-up is not necessarily a bad thing ‚Äì instead, it might be crucial to a start-up venture’s success. However, there may come a time in an organization’s growth where these same characteristics don’t play so well as they become ingrained in the corporate culture.

As an organization grows, the entrepreneurial leader can no longer do it all, so others must be empowered to make decisions as well. However, dominant leaders often stifle that kind of initiative, intentionally or unintentionally. Also with time, the original single vision may no longer be sufficient to meet the breadth of challenges the organization now faces, but autocratic leaders are often loath to empower other strong personalities, and reluctant to listen to outside ideas.

In short, the very same qualities that can help a new venture break through to success can also become drawbacks later on.

When Kindness is Cruel

Does this mean a kinder, gentler approach is the right touch for a more mature organization? Perhaps, but there are times when too much kindness on a day-to-day basis is actually cruel to an organization’s stakeholders in the long run. Here are three examples:

1. Analysis paralysis. Seeking input on key decisions is good, but when decision-making gets bogged down by a bureaucracy of studies and meetings it can sap the vitality of an organization. A side-effect of analysis paralysis is that accountability gets fuzzy when so many people have a hand in a decision.

2. Tolerating underperformers. Okay, so managers should not be like the Queen of Hearts in Alice and Wonderland, roaming around yelling “off with their heads,” but it is possible to err too far in the other direction by tolerating underperformers. While this is most commonly associated with bloated bureaucracies, entrepreneurial ventures that have found success can be prone to it as well. Mr. So-and-so might become viewed as untouchable by management, simply because “he has been here from the beginning.” While loyalty is admirable, if a person isn’t pulling his weight it is a problem. Nothing destroys morale more than people having to work around someone who is in over his head or worse, isn’t making a competitive effort. If Mr. So-and-so- means well and is at least trying, perhaps he can be redeployed into a more suitable role. If he is simply coasting, this attitude threatens to infect the corporate culture.

3. The soft termination. As for what to do with underperformers, the soft termination seems to have become increasingly popular. This is sometimes referred to as “managing an employee out,” an approach which includes alternatives to actually firing somebody such as making their lives miserable, giving them impossible-to-reach-goals, or freezing pay. The idea is that they will self-select out without management having to be responsible for firing them. The problem is that in the meantime, you are letting that position go under-staffed, you are creating a morale problem that is likely to spread, and in this day-and-age especially, you are creating a security risk in the form of a disaffected employee who nonetheless continues to have access to the office and its data systems. A decisive firing, once a person has been given appropriate warnings and a chance to improve, may be less cruel to everyone involved than simply waiting for nature to take its course.

Adapting to Conditions

Since more than one management style can be effective, a good question for leaders to ask is whether they are exhibiting a style designed to be the right tool for the organization or simply a natural expression of their personality.

A good test of this is whether you can adapt your style to different situations. Some employees may be most productive when put under pressure, while others may respond better to being gently coaxed. More broadly, a tight labor market – specifically, one where the particular skills you need to recruit and retain are scarce – may call for a more collegial approach than one where labor is a readily-replaced commodity. The nature of your business and the size of your organization may also be factors driving the need for adaptation.

In other words, what do you put first, the goals of the business, or being able to freely express your personality (whether that happens to be the personality of a dictator or a Cub Scout den mother)? It is entirely possible that the ability to adapt to specific situations gives a manager a broader tool kit to use in running a company – and possibly even a country.