The Elements of Style

Business Casual
Susan Percy

Perhaps you know the screamer, the nag, the wimp, the coach, the despot, the pal or the mom? Or the good guy, the whiner or the ivory-tower dweller? Or maybe the super-delegator, the consensus-builder or the clueless wonder? They’re all personifications of management styles built on a variety of philosophies that range from “My door is always open” to “My way or the highway” to “What did you say your name was?”

Their techniques range from bribery to threats to intimidation to motivation to common sense and, occasionally, a little tough love.

Of course, there is often some cross-pollination. The wimp might be clueless. The coach could be a screamer or a motivator. The mom might resort to whining, and the despot might reside in an ivory tower.

The working world has a lot of different kinds of managers trying to deal with a lot of different kinds of managees. Some of us are both manager and managee. I’ve heard a lot of business people say that construction or publishing or plumbing is the easy part; it’s people who are tough.

Nonetheless, trying to get the very best work product out of employees while giving them the best possible workplace is, in itself, pretty steady work. No wonder not everybody gets it right.

Take the screamers, for instance. I don’t particularly like them or their style, but they do get people’s attention. On my first newspaper job I wrote a photo caption that described someone as “looking on.” Something like, “John Smith hands Mary Jones a trophy while Joe Citizen looks on.” Deathless prose? No, just a convenient if somewhat hackneyed way of matching names and people in a photo.

The editor rightly spotted it as a cliche’ (not exactly a capital offense in journalistic circles and certainly not in the regular column this particular editor wrote) and a convention that compromised the accuracy of the information conveyed to the reader. (Messing with accuracy is a hanging offense in journalistic circles and properly so.) After all, how could I be sure the man was actually looking on? Maybe he was just standing there. Maybe he was looking off.

Unfortunately the editor in question — a screamer —chose to excoriate me loudly and publicly in the newsroom, in front of my colleagues. Was it embarrassing? Of course. Management style aside, was he right? Yes. And I don’t believe I’ve ever used that particular cliche’ since — others, yes, but not that one. Would his message have been as effective delivered in a quiet little editor-reporter chat in his office? I’d like to think so, but I can’t be sure.

Another manager, another job: A good guy/coach who was generous with praise but able to deliver criticism effectively — and in a normal tone of voice. I was whining to him one day that I worked extra hours and often took work home. His response was, “So you’re telling me it takes you 50 hours a week to do a 40-hour-a-week job?” His message — work smarter — was absolutely on target and I have taken it to heart.

A friend tells stories of an office situation that was something like a dysfunctional family — a despotic dad at the helm, who dealt in intimidation, and a second-in-command mom who wanted everybody to feel good and get along. Her style was to try and please everybody, often at the expense of the work. There was a steady stream of people in her office asking out of this assignment and that assignment, wanting a different office or fewer responsibilities.

Others tell stories of bosses who smile and praise and never indicate there’s anything wrong until the pink slip is delivered; of supervisors who parcel out good assignments like Christmas turkeys only to docile employees; of managers whose sole concern is to make themselves look good and are fearful of being outshone by ambitious staff members.

My personal managerial role model is a composite of the best qualities of Walter Cronkite, Katharine Graham, Lou Grant from the “Mary Tyler Moore Show” and my mother, a working mom long before it was cool to be one. I’m not there yet, but I am working on it.

Categories: Business Casual