Strict or Liberal Boss: Who is more Effective?

Bosses come in all shapes, sizes and styles. But the majority fall in two categories – strict or liberal. The demeanour of the boss determines how the team conducts itself in the presence or absence of the boss. It also impacts the state of mind of the team and how it approaches its work. Last, but not the least, it affects the work output. Let’s dwell into both these styles and try to find out which one is more effective.

The Strict Boss

Between the two, perhaps the more commonly found is the strict boss. Teams are terrified of such bosses. The moment a strict boss enters the workplace, the team goes into rapt attention. When the boss is around, the team is always on its toes. The boss flares up if things go wrong at work and is quick to crack the whip. The boss is known for a fiery temper and no one wants to go anywhere near when the boss is in a foul mood. Members of the team heave a sigh of relief when the boss exits the office. The team wears a very different look when the boss is away. Such bosses demand total obedience and observance of rules. The team members are treated like school children and follow a set of strict rules and regulations. The team feels as if they are being watched at all times in the workplace.

“My job is not to be easy on people. My job is to take these great people we have and to push them and make them even better.” 

Steve Jobs

The Liberal Boss

Bosses who are liberal are far more lenient in their demeanour with the team. They make few demands and allow their team enough flexibility in the way they manage their work. Once responsibilities are assigned, the liberal boss usually doesn’t interfere unless there are issues with the output or conduct of the team or some of its members. Members are expected to be diligent in the discharge of their duties. The team is at ease in the presence of the boss and feels free to speak up or even disagree with the boss. Liberal bosses usually forgive mistakes as long as they are not repeated or committed by a habitual offender. Repeat offenders however, are not pardoned and treated very differently from others. Liberal bosses are not known to lose their temper often but their patience should never be taken for granted. Such bosses usually trust their team more and expect them to be responsible and self-regulate.

“The best executive is the one who has sense enough to pick good men to do what he wants done, and self-restraint to keep from meddling with them while they do it.”

 Theodore Roosevelt

Posturing or Different Personality Types?

Both the contrasting styles do not necessarily mean they are two opposite personality types. In some cases, the strict boss could be a different person outside work – warm, even jovial. Team members struggle to understand why the same person would behave so differently outside work. The answer lies in the belief that human beings are generally not good at self-regulation and tend to take it easy if they are not pressured to perform. 

Case for Strict Regulation

Bosses who practice the strict method feel teams work most effectively when the whip is cracked. They believe employees tend to drift in an environment where there is greater freedom and flexibility. Strict bosses argue that it is difficult to get the team to focus unless they feel the presence of constant surveillance at work. The fundamental premise of their argument is as follows: it is imperative for the team not to lose sight of the ball, to fully focus on the job at hand; which is unlikely to happen in the absence of strict regulation.

From the Employees’ Standpoint

Let’s view it from the perspective of team members. Do they like being treated like school children? How does it feel to be under constant surveillance? Do the team members look forward to be at work in office? Does it feel good to be in a workplace where your boss is constantly breathing down your neck or frequently letting off steam? You know the answer.

Merits of a Carefree Workplace

Bosses who foster a relatively less regulated work environment feel it enhances employee engagement and creates a more conducive workplace for creativity and innovation. Happy employees look forward to being at the workplace. They are known to walk the extra mile for the team when required, often volunteering to pitch in at work for a colleague who is confronted with a sudden emergency or even a planned activity. They don’t usually leave the organisation unless they find an opportunity which offers a very challenging role or a significant hike in salary.

Which method is more effective?

It is tough to say which of the two methods is more effective. Often, the strict environment produces higher output due to minimal wastage of man hours. And lesser mistakes because the team members are more careful, for fear of incurring the wrath of the boss. But such places usually see higher attrition. Employees in such an environment actively scout for job opportunities and are quick to leave when it comes. It is never easy to find talent and when you do, it takes time to train and get the recruit up to speed with the workflow and culture of the organisation. Precious time and effort goes waste if they leave after they are trained and ready for the job, usually prevalent in stressed workplaces.

The liberal workplace has relatively much lesser attrition and therefore less time is wasted in hiring and training. However, some employees do take it easy and while away their time. Freedom at work is a good thing, if used responsibly. Not everyone handles it well.

My Take

I have followed the liberal style but dealt firmly with the delinquents. My approach has been thus: why let the entire team endure a stressed work environment only because some rotten apples misuse their freedom? Take the offenders to task, read the riot act to them. Let them know there is zero tolerance for delinquency and repeat offences. Different types of people should be treated differently. Those who are responsible and sincere should be provided enough freedom and flexibility at work.

I don’t judge those who adopt the other method. It could well work for them. It surely enforces discipline, mostly out of fear. Such teams are always on guard and possibly commit lesser errors. They spend almost all their time at work on the job at hand because they know they are being watched. There are advantages in enforcing this method.

The first few years of my professional career were spent in such a work environment. I remember at that time my colleagues and I used to be offended for being treated like school children. Much later did we realise the value of being schooled that way. We were raw then, straight out of college, university or at the most had a few months of work experience. The discipline instilled in us continues to pay rich dividends for the rest of our career. It is a good way to start. However, it may not be conducive for mid-career professionals.

So, what’s the verdict? I believe there can be no generic answer. There are pros and cons for both methods. It depends on many factors. While I prefer the liberal approach, I understand why the proponents and practitioners of the opposite approach opt for it.

To each their own.

Published by RG

I see, I think. I hear, I think. I read, I think. Sometimes I write. Let me know what you think

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