The Manager Matrix


A term that will bring dread to any heart that's been through the turmoil of working for one.

Even those who have never worked directly for a micro-manager can sympathize with the the atrocities committed by them. Who didn't laugh when President Business commanded "Send in a micro-manager!" in The Lego Movie?

Plenty of focus is placed on micro-managers; so much that we overlook other management types that can cause harm. Ones that seem harmless at first, but foster disengagement in employees long-term.

Listening to The Future of Work podcast the other day had me thinking about the spectrum of managers out there. Managers range from "controlling" to "coaching" and from "passive" to "active".

There are many other aspects to managers, but for the sake of simplifying, we'll just look at the four different combinations of these two sets. From this, we can say there are four types of managers:

Active Controller - The Micro-Manager

The worst of the worst. They'll drive you crazy with their constant critiques and demand for control of the situation. They suck all autonomy out of individuals, making for a very bleak workplace.

I don't think much more needs to be said about micro-management. Just don't be one.

Passive Controller - The Seagull Manager

"Seagull managers fly in, make a lot of noise, dump on everyone, then fly out." - Ken Blanchard

Otherwise known as the "Drive-By Manager", this one gets a lot of folks in trouble, because they're behaving as a micro-manager but are unable to see it.

This behavior is usually a result of the leader being stuck in meetings throughout the day. Since they're not with their team, they're unable to keep in sync with them.

As a coping mechanism, they schedule last-minute status meetings that distrupt their employee's day and sense of rhythm. They work overtime to plan out schedules that are well-intentioned, but ignorant of what's really going on. They feel they're doing the best they can, but they're working hard, not working smart.

The passive controller will take away opportunities from the employee by failing to delegate. They feel their job is to ensure everything is successful, and the only way to do that is to do the work themselves. They're unconsciously unwilling to accept the risk needed to allow for an employee's growth. It's not intentional, just a response to the controller's lack of productive time.

Employees under the Drive-By Manager will stagnate as much as under the micro-manager. The employee will make great progress towards a goal, only to have a passive controller make a critical decision in a management meeting which derails the effort, because the manager failed to step back and defer control to the employee.

Employees will stop feeling comfortable making the call; their decisions always at the risk of being overruled by their manager at a later date (whether purposefully or incidentally). Why go through the effort and put yourself out there if it's not going to matter anyway?

To move away from a passive controller, the manager must find a way to reduce their meeting workload. They must find time to be part of the team; to observe the situation without judgement and work to reveal the subtle nuances that can spell disaster if not planned for.

They must step back and realize they don't have time to do everything. Their job is not to sit in meetings and make decisions, but to clear the way for their employees to do the best they can.

Passive Coach - The Cheerleader

The Cheerleader enjoys a happy honeymoon period. Employee engagement is high, as their manager is their biggest fan. Work is fun, and everyone is doing a great job. This works extremely well for junior staff, who benefit from the reassurance in their new roles and aren't actively pushing the boundaries of their job.

However, it falls short after a few months. Employees realize their manager isn't really paying attention. They can get away with doing less than their best, because the manager will cheer them on regardless. The accolades become shallow, as they're not tied to reality. Do a good job, get praise. Do a lackluster job, get praise.

The Passive Coach has trouble with conflict, likely due to a lack of training. Personally, I have difficulty with conflict; it goes against my nature to confront it.

If I became a manager today, I would likely fall under this category of Passive Cheerleader. Without mentorship, I could easily cause disengagement in my employees, as I'd avoid the difficult conversations needed to get better. My words would become meaningless, and employees under me would grow bored.

Good managers get stuck in the Passive Coach mode when their employers fail to coach them. Managers need coaches too, and failing to train at every level of leadership can lead to the Peter Principle taking effect.

Proactive Coach - The Servant Leader

This is the ideal I speak of in "Coaches, Not Managers". This manager pushes hard to uncover conflict. They're purposeful in their actions, stepping out of comfort zones to address hidden conflicts in day-to-day work.

They focus on their employees, knowing the rest will take care of itself. They work for their team, instead of thinking their team works for them.

A slight digression: I hesitate to use the term "Servant Leadership", as in my experience, those proclaiming to be a "servant leaders" behave more like a Drive-By Manager. They think "servitude" means sitting in meetings planning everything out (you know, so the employees can focus on working). They never realize that employees are the best ones to make the plans, because they're the ones doing the work.

The idea of a servant leader is a good one though. Someone whose job is to do what's best for the team; by proactively digging in to the culture and doing the messy behind-the-scenes clean up. Their job isn't to point the way, but to find which way the team wants to point.

It's tricky to get to and maintain the Proactive Coach position. Sometimes being a Proactive Coach means being a Passive Coach/Controller, and sometimes it even requires being a Proactive Controller. The role varies with the employee and the situation. The Proactive Coach has to understand the need for flexibility and be experienced to know the different situations.

Finally, they must always remember that there isn't such a thing as a "perfect leader". As soon as you think you've got things figured out, circumstances change. It's only through proactively seeking feedback that leaders can avoid falling back to the previous three quadrants.

Not every manager fits into one of these four quadrants, and this is an over-simplification of the complexities of leadership. I did find it a relatable way to think about management though, and I think it's quite important to see how different management styles can impact employees.

Enjoy this content? Check out my upcoming book, The Non-Conformist Leader.