When we discuss education, we often talk about differentiated learning, that is, how teachers adapt lessons to engage students with different learning styles, abilities, and difficulties.
This is something as common as chairs and tables in the classroom these days, with education degrees focusing on strategies for integrating multi-modal learning in practical settings.
But, once we leave school and enter the workforce, it can feel like all that differentiation and adaptability goes out the window.
I've heard many "old school" people respond to this by stating differentiated learning should be done away with in classrooms because it ill-prepares students for what will be expected of them in "the real world."
And I find this so very disappointing.
Just as a teacher differentiates their approach to teaching different students, so too should a manager adapt their management approach to engage effectively with their team.
This concept is one slowly creeping into workplaces - that the manager is responsible for these relationships and shaping positive team culture through valuing the contributions of each individual team member for what they are, and not trying to create a group of clones with robotic output.
And yet, we still see managerial stragglers, seemingly hellbent on forcing their staff into traditionalist moulds via a management style that is confused with parenting.
In the workplace, you are all adults (usually). However, the use of "disciplinary action" to manage unwanted behaviour at work often seems to confuse managers into considering themselves to be the work parent of errant children. This is highly unhealthy for any workplace.
Being a careers counsellor/coach, I meet a lot of people in leadership positions and this has enabled me to recognise a diverse array of leadership styles. The ones that appear to net the most positive, consistent and high-performing outcomes, are the leaders who adapt their style based on whom they are engaging with.
At first thought, this may feel disorganised, even chaotic, and perhaps unfair, particularly if a leader is kinder to one person than they are to another.
But a considered and engaged leader, will have taken the time to identify the different values, interests, communication preferences and learning styles for each member of their team, and will adapt their approach to get the best out of each individual team member.
The difference between a good leader and a great one is often measured by the way they can empower and support the individual balanced with the maintenance of a cohesive team culture. Easy peasy, right?
When you consider that each staff member may also struggle with particular things such as executive function, focus, dyslexia, dysgraphia, etc., this further complicates the experience of a leader because they have to be hyper aware of the struggles their team members are facing in order to tailor the support they provide.
This support may look like rolling out task management software or systems, daily micro-meetings to pull everyone's head back into the game, dictation and audible software, the creation and implementation of phone scripts, document templates and auto-forms to be able to streamline administrative processes for everyone, while also supporting the individual staff member the manager has recognised as experiencing challenges.
Of course, none of this is possible if you don't know your team. So the most important step as a team manager is to get to know your people. I'm not talking about the names of their children and pets, or what they like to do on the weekend (although that's part of it). I'm talking about understanding what's important to them, recognising the role they prefer to play in group work, they working preferences such as research, customer facing, etc and their superpowers - what are they particularly good at? What do they avoid? How can you all work together so that the strengths and weaknesses of each team member are complemented and supported?
Undertaking personality testing as a team can be a great start to understanding how your team communicates, learns, engages and works, as can 360 degree assessments, but often the best place to start is the simplest - with a values inventory. Ask your team what's important to them. Perhaps they value their autonomy, collaboration opportunities, mentoring, finishing work on time, or the ability to share ideas for change. You won't know if you don't ask, and if you don't ask, you can't lead.
Differentiated management is a thing. Pass it on.
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