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Cognitive styles and managerial behaviour: a qualitative study
Eva Cools
People and Organisation Department, Vlerick Leuven Gent Management School, Gent, Belgium, and

Cognitive styles and managerial behaviour 103

Herman Van Den Broeck
Vlerick Leuven Gent Management School and Ghent University, Gent, Belgium
Purpose – The purpose of this paper is to contribute further insights into how cognitive styles influence managerial behaviour, using a qualitative approach. Design/methodology/approach – Written testimonies were gathered from people with different cognitive styles, and content analysed (n ¼ 100). Findings – Qualitative evidence was found for managerial style preferences in accordance with cognitive styles, leading to various ways of decision making, conflict handling, and giving feedback. Research limitations/implications – Future research should explore how these results can be linked to contextual elements and to managerial performance. Practical implications – This study contributes to increased managerial style awareness, which is important for intrapersonal development and interpersonal cooperation. Originality/value – This is one of a few studies that have sought to qualitatively grasp the implications of having a particular cognitive style. It provides relevant insights into task- and people-oriented managerial practices beyond previous, mainly quantitative studies. Keywords Management styles, Qualitative research, Organizational behaviour Paper type Research paper

Introduction In addition to situational factors, individual characteristics play an important role in determining managerial performance (Stevens and Ash, 2001). According to Berr et al. (2000), there is at this moment considerable interest in the potential impact of individual dispositions on managerial behaviour and effectiveness. Cognitive styles may not be ignored in this regard, as they are expected to influence how people develop their managerial role (Buttner et al., 1999). Research has shown that cognitive style differences influence learning, problem solving, decision making, communication, interpersonal functioning, and creativity in important ways (Hayes and Allinson, 1994; Kirton, 2003; Sadler-Smith, 1998). Cognitive styles are believed to be a crucial factor for effective decision making and for successful interpersonal cooperation (Armstrong and Priola, 2001). The aim of this study is to examine the link between cognitive styles and managerial behaviour, using a qualitative approach. The uniqueness of the study lies in the qualitative approach that was chosen to address this issue and in the combined focus on task-oriented and people-oriented managerial behaviour. This way, this research wants to refine and extend findings from previous, mainly quantitative studies on the relation between cognitive styles and particular aspects of managerial behaviour. Although there is widespread empirical interest in cognitive styles,

Education þ Training Vol. 50 No. 2, 2008 pp. 103-114 q Emerald Group Publishing Limited 0040-0912 DOI 10.1108/00400910810862092

They demonstrated the relevance and usefulness of identifying three cognitive styles (Table I). The managerial role As managerial positions encompass a wide range of activities (Magretta. Traditionally. contemporary models increasingly value the human aspect (Kouzes and Posner. p. while people with a planning style prefer structure and order. cognitive style research has focused mainly on the distinction between analytical and intuitive thinking (Hodgkinson and Sadler-Smith. 2002. Cools and Van den Broeck (2007) found substantial support for this instrument’s construct validity by including other cognitive style instruments. research on the impact of individual differences on managerial behaviour is highly relevant (Berr et al. 2002. management has been defined as “the process of working with and through others to achieve organisational objectives in an efficient and ethical way” (Kreitner et al. With the increased prevalence of executive coaching and the use of managerial assessment. and convenient multidimensional cognitive style instrument – the Cognitive Style Indicator (CoSI) – for use with managerial and professional groups. Cognitive styles have gained prominence in the education and management literature over the last decades (Hayes and Allinson. 1998). Cools and Van den Broeck (2007) reported on the development of a reliable. Whereas early management theories have focused on task issues.. People with a knowing style are characterised by a preference for facts and details.2 qualitative studies that provide further support to the practical relevance of cognitive styles for organisations are currently lacking (Rayner. 8). empirical research on the relation between different cognitive style measures found that cognitive style is a complex variable with multiple dimensions (Leonard et al. 1998). Conceptual framework Cognitive styles A cognitive style has been defined as the way in which people perceive stimuli and how they use this information for guiding their behaviour (Hayes and Allinson. and people with a creating style tend to proliferate ideas and to like experimentation. This definition implies a task-oriented (achieving goals) and a people-oriented aspect (working with and through others). 2002). Knowing style Facts Details Logical Reflective Objective Impersonal Rational Precision Planning style Sequential Structured Conventional Conformity Planned Organised Systematic Routine Creating style Possibilities Ideas Impulsive Flexible Open-ended Novelty Subjective Inventive 104 Table I. 1999).. 2000). Recently. Mintzberg. 1994..ET 50. 1994). Description of the CoSI model Note: Based on Table 1 in Cools and Van den Broeck (2007) . 2006). However. valid. and personality and academic performance measures in the validation process. 2003).

For the people-oriented aspects. relationships between people’s preferred ways of information processing and their styles of handling interpersonal conflicts (Johnson. 2002). 1977). Researchers found.e. using cognitive styles as the distinguishing factor. learn. people with different cognitive styles are expected to approach their management role differently.. 1997). According to Lamond (2004).. information processing. There is no consensus regarding which factors constitute this managerial style. 2002). as this is an important informational aspect of the managerial role that might be influenced by cognitive style differences (Leonard et al. 2000). decision making. As cognitive styles are individual preferences with regard to how people perceive. as these are two important managerial tasks (Kouzes and Posner. and relate to others (Witkin et al. 2005). a qualitative approach seemed warranted. In addition. In sum. Based on previous (mainly quantitative) research findings. this study wanted to contribute to these calls for an increased focus on the relevance of cognitive style research for practice. actual behaviour) and preferred managerial styles (i. He calls for more functional research that takes practitioner awareness and applications of cognitive styles into account. Gephart. Research design To grasp the managerial implications of having a knowing.The aim of this research was not to derive an exhaustive list of the activities of managers. Hough and Ogilvie. 2000). preferences people have regarding their roles). 2004. Recently. for instance. the study focused on decision making. think. Symon et al. solve problems. 1999). task and people-oriented practices were involved in this research. Qualitative research leads to a better understanding of the meaning of what is observed and results in data of greater depth and richness (Patton. With regard to the task-oriented aspects.g. 2000). planning. 2007). Methodology Procedure and sample Management and MBA students were invited to write a testimony (with choice as to content and organisation) on how they typically behaved in an organisational context as part of an assignment. Despite the call for more qualitative research in organisational behaviour and management studies (e. 2006. By using a qualitative approach. This study focused on preferred managerial styles. they completed the 18-item cognitive style indicator (CoSI) (Cools and Van den Broeck. Lamond (2004) made an interesting distinction between enacted managerial styles (i. Previous quantitative research found that people prefer decision-making ´ processes that are compatible with their cognitive style (Gallen. but rather to focus on how they perform their roles. In line with the above definition of management. this study focused on conflict handling and giving feedback. Rayner (2006) stated that there can be no doubt that the psychometric tradition and positivist paradigm dominate the cognitive style research domain.. Research evidence suggests that cognitive style differences may fundamentally affect interpersonal relationships (Armstrong. there is still a lack of qualitative studies on cognitive styles. Item and factor analyses confirmed Cognitive styles and managerial behaviour 105 .e.. and dealing with people are important aspects of effective management (Tett et al. looking at the influence of cognitive style differences on managerial behaviour is highly relevant. or creating style. there has recently been more attention on how managers execute their tasks.

as well as a convenience sample of 278 employees. with a mean age of 30. and self-awareness (i. (2) As recommended by other scholars (Potter and Levine-Donnerstein. and problem solving). and classifying stage (Neuendorf. with Cronbach alpha coefficients in this study being 0. 2002). employee data were collected through the students who each contacted one employee. planning. 100 testimonies were actually used in the final sample (16 people with a knowing style.22 years. communication. Three categories were distinguished: task-oriented behaviours (i. distinguishing a unitising. people-oriented aspects (i. Using the procedure adopted by Butterfield et al. interpersonal behaviour. 1999). (3) Finally.31 years. . (1996). The 278 employees performed a wide range of functions in diverse sectors and represented various hierarchical levels. (1) The written testimonies were entered into the qualitative software package ATLAS.e. On the basis of the qualitative data. Results The study led to a rich amount of information on how people with various cognitive styles prefer to perform certain aspects of their managerial role. SD ¼ 11. 0. the different cognitive styles were compared. From the 275 business school students. those with the most “extreme” profile were selected (i. conflict handling. however. a cross-case analysis was carried out. out of the 553 testimonies completed. and giving feedback). Their age ranged from 21 to 67 years. For further analyses. whereas the others were graduate students who attended a one-year full-time management education. and 0. both in the student and in the employee sample. 41 with a planning style.77 for the knowing.35 versus M ¼ 23. people who scored more than 1 SD above the mean for one of the cognitive styles). 2002). sampling was based on theoretical considerations instead of randomness to have clear examples of cognitive style differences (Patton.ti.2 106 the three-dimensional cognitive style model. containing testimonies from 57 management and MBA students and from 43 employees.e. Coding and analyses A three-stage content analytic procedure was used. 63 per cent were men and 37 per cent were women. In this sense.41 (SD ¼ 10. For each of the codes.78.ET 50. and their strengths and weaknesses). SD ¼ 1.59 respectively). Units for analysis were paragraphs in each testimony that dealt with separate managerial behaviour. The mean age of the employee sample. Of all the respondents. a scheme was developed to code the data.e. paragraphs on decision making.e. and 43 with a creating style). quotes on teamwork. quotes in which people indicated the tasks they (dis)like most in their job. including both 275 management and MBA students of a leading Western European business school. categorising. was higher than the mean age of the student sample and it contained a broader range of ages (M ¼ 38. 19 per cent attended an MBA. an image of managerial characteristics for each of the cognitive styles was built (see Table II).83. A total of 553 testimonies were collected in total.93). and creating style respectively. This way.

people with a knowing style preferably interact with others in a straightforward. However. People with a knowing style do not like tasks that seem to serve no purpose. diplomatic approach Both positive and negative feedback Dutiful Demanding to oneself and others Too controlling Intuitive analysis Fast process Strong imagination Thinking out-of-the-box Implementation of ideas Mainly emotional way Assertive. Accordingly. Rational and logical arguments are the basis of acting in conflict situations as well. and that lack supporting facts and figures. sometimes even provocative Direct. constructive approach Emphasise positive over negative feedback Flexible Difficulty compromising Impulsive Cognitive styles and managerial behaviour 107 Task-oriented behaviour Decision making Detailed analysis Take their time Strengths Analytical skills Logical reasoning Weaknesses Creativity People-oriented behaviour Conflict handling Rational. Managerial characteristics of different cognitive styles Knowing style Regarding task-oriented behaviour. plans. direct way Based on rational and logical arguments Feedback Rational. control Ideas. as they find it more useful to give people ways to improve their weaknesses instead of just praising them. Regarding people-oriented behaviour. the analyses show that people with a knowing style like an analytical approach. intellectually not challenging. People with a knowing style also like to give feedback in line with their strengths. using logical and rational arguments. a weakness that several knowing people have mentioned is that they are sometimes too focused on rationality and logic when interacting with others leading to a lack of empathy and difficulties in explaining and “selling” their ideas. as they have more difficulties with finding creative. . logic. People with a knowing style consider their analytical skills and their logical reasoning as their major strengths. straightforward approach Emphasise negative over positive feedback Strength Reliable Weaknesses Too straightforward Lack of empathy “Selling” ideas Table II. A lack of data or relevant information can be a source of doubt for knowing people in the decision-making process. They prefer to take their time to make decisions. rational way. that are undefined. sometimes postponing them to collect more information. diplomatic way Quick solutions Direct. out-of-the-box solutions. possibilities Certainty Renewal Structured analysis Quick process Organising skills Sticking to agreements Unforeseen changes Rational. preferring a rational and straightforward approach. rationality Accuracy Planning style Creating style Plan before you act Cre-act Structure. this is sometimes also seen as a disadvantage. They want to make informed decisions on the basis of facts and figures.Knowing style Motto Attracted by Searches for Think before you act Facts. They are inclined to give more negative than positive feedback.

unexpected changes. while others are more emotionally involved. People with a planning style report strong organising and planning skills. they can change their minds when others are convincingly enough and provide good arguments. People with a creating style do not doubt much when making decisions and even if they do. staying calm. and own input. organised. . they are less focused on rationality as opposed to people with a knowing style. people with a creating style assertively try to persuade and convince others of their ideas. and methodical approach that lead to concrete results. Some people tend to use a rational approach to solve conflicts (i. searching for consensus). People with a creating style prefer to give feedback in a direct and honest way.ET 50. Similarly. They try to be quick decision makers in order to shorten the uncertainty that surrounds the decision-making process. but prefer above all a structured approach. If a conflict occurs. planning types like tasks that involve a planned. They feel uncomfortable with uncertainty. flexibility. They do not like to make decisions on the basis of “gut-feeling”. less focused on facts and figures (compared to people with a knowing style). as this confronts them with many doubts. direct. and strategic reorientations. In general. it does not prevent them from fast decision making. In this sense. They describe decision making as a mixture of an intuitive and rational process. People with a planning style prefer a calm. People with a planning style preferably interact more in a rational than in an emotional way with others. although they attach a lot of importance to being positive and constructive to make people feel good and to stimulate their self-esteem. Accordingly. they prefer tasks which require creativity. they want to handle it as soon as possible. they mostly prefer to solve conflicts through open discussion. People with a creating style report that they have a personal approach in giving feedback. The weaknesses that are reported by creating types are related to their strength in imagination. but they are also concerned with diplomacy. Regarding people-oriented behaviour. the analyses indicate that planning types are. However. and diplomatic approach when dealing with conflicts.2 108 Planning style People with a planning style also prefer an analytical approach to deal with tasks. in their decision making. honest. They find positive feedback important to motivate people. Accordingly. People with a creating style have a strong imagination and are good at developing new ways of doing things. Discussion and conclusion The unique contribution of this study lies in the qualitative approach that was used to grasp the implications of cognitive style differences on managerial behaviour. They also have no problem providing negative feedback to give people the chance to improve. adapting it according to the situation or the person they have to deal with. using objective information and data only in a second phase. the analyses show that people with a creating style use either an emotional or a rational approach when interacting with others. listening to the different opinions. people with a planning style like to give feedback in a direct. Like people with a knowing style. Creating style People with a creating style tend to make decisions primarily on the basis of intuition or “gut-feeling”. straightforward.e. action. They give both positive and negative feedback. However. and diplomatic way. as they sometimes keep on suggesting original ideas without considering their possible implementation.

Recently. and impersonal decision-making approach. relatively less friendly. see Armstrong. whereas knowing and planning people try to base their decisions on data and information. 2005. on the contrary.. Discussion of findings The qualitative analyses showed that people with a knowing and planning style tend to make decisions in an analytical way (although they emphasise different elements). warm towards others. and creating style were identified. Additionally. rational. 2006. as has been shown in quantitative style research. Cognitive styles also seem to influence which tasks people prefer most in their job. these results strengthen and refine quantitative studies that found that people with different cognitive styles show different decision-making behaviour (Hough and Ogilvie. and serving more psychosocial functions during interpersonal relationships (for an overview of these findings. People mostly like tasks that make use of their preferred way of perceiving and processing Cognitive styles and managerial behaviour 109 . On the basis of the above findings. This study refines and extends previous quantitative results on the link between cognitive styles and managerial behaviour. On the basis of content analyses of 100 written testimonies. Planning types. 2007) contrary to the dichotomous thinking in several other cognitive style models (Allinson et al. while people with a planning and creating style prefer quick decision making. more impersonal. Priola et al. it can be concluded that the way in which people with different cognitive styles approach conflict and feedback situations resembles their preferred way of decision making. People with a knowing and planning style both prefer a rational and straightforward interaction approach. have been shown to be more interpersonally oriented. and efficient problem-solving approach. however. conventional. 2003). Knowing and creating types tend to be mainly focused on the content of decision making (taking facts-based or creative decisions respectively). both for various task-oriented and people-oriented managerial practices. 2000). are more inclined to handle conflicts and to give feedback in a diplomatic way. flexible way of decision making (Cools and Van den Broeck. These results confirm that cognitive styles influence how people relate to others. 2000. whereas planning people mostly refer to the decision-making process as such. unconventional. 2001. differences in preferred management styles for people with a knowing. structured. relatively friendly. and more self-controlling in their emotional behaviour. and creating people had a preference for a creative. whereas people with a creating style combine an intuitive and rational approach. 2004).. using a personal approach in handling conflicts and giving people feedback. Riding. People with a knowing style like to take their time to make decisions. Creating types do not mind making decisions based on gut-feeling. Kirton. planning. whereas planning types favoured an objective. 1999). 2007). Previous studies found that people with an analytical style tended to be more task oriented. Overall.. expressive. People with a creating style tend to be more emotionally involved. Leonard et al. whereas knowing types purely focus on the rationality and logic of the situation. Previous quantitative research with the CoSI model found that individuals with a knowing style preferred a logical. this study provides qualitative evidence for the usefulness of distinguishing between the three cognitive styles of the CoSI model (Cools and Van den Broeck. several scholars emphasised the need for more qualitative research on cognitive styles to better understand what it implicates to have a certain cognitive style (Rayner. Intuitive people.

developed a quantitative instrument to measure enacted and preferred managerial styles – the managerial style measure (MSM) – that can be useful to enhance and strengthen the qualitative findings from this research project. some relevant action points were identified to enhance managerial style awareness (see Table III). Research implications This study was a first step in the direction of enhanced qualitative understanding of cognitive style differences. Understanding the interplay between people’s preferences and their day-to-day workplace behaviour is crucial for designing and implementing effective individual development efforts (Berr et al. without taking into account contextual factors. A next logical step will be to link it to performance. On the other hand. by integrating organisational context elements in future research. In this regard. to be authentic in your management behaviour means that you have to develop your own style in accordance with your personality and character. Leonard and Straus (1997) also found that people tend to develop those areas in their jobs they like and that they try to avoid those aspects they dislike. Riding and Rayner. 2005). A necessary next step will also be observing and interviewing people in organisations. but rather learning about the consequences of having a particular style. it will also be possible to take managerial effectiveness into account. However. part of managerial work is determining its own boundaries (Tett et al. supervisors). This study has not examined the influence of preferred managerial styles on effectiveness. as they are in a unique position to provide valuable behavioural assessments for two reasons (Berr et al.e. colleagues are often affected by the consequences of the focal person’s actions. 2000). but differences with regard to level and function could not be taken into account in the analyses. this does not imply changing one’s style. 1998). for instance. they can observe this behaviour over time and in a variety of situations. As cognitive styles are considered to be fairly stable characteristics of people (Clapp.2 information. mixed-method) approach. The findings of this study can be useful in this regard. This means in their perspective developing self-awareness on the basis of a thorough analysis of one’s strengths and weaknesses.. 1993). 2006. This study was based on written testimonies.ET 50. as cognitive styles influence the tasks people will emphasise most in their job.. People can be trained to adopt strategies to overcome the weaknesses of their styles in specific situations (Armstrong and Sadler-Smith... much attention has been devoted to the importance of the organisational context in organisational studies (Johns. 110 . further research will be needed combining both quantitative and qualitative (i. Furthermore. Additionally. 2000). There is currently considerable interest in the assessment of managerial performance and the development of managerial competency models (Tett et al. 2000). Whetten et al. Given the largely ill-defined nature of the managerial role. (2000) emphasised the importance of intrapersonal skills for effective management. to increase the relevance and rigour of these findings. Recently. A wide variety of people were involved in the study. On the one hand. peers. it can also be of interest to study managerial styles from the perspective of co-workers (subordinates. Lamond (2004). Practical implications According to George (2003). 2000. 2006). Hough and Ogilvie.

restructuring the planning of the planning: focus and go for it Stimulate your creativity: learn to think more out-of-the-box. just enjoy Learn to balance your direct and rational style with more emotional connection Cognitive styles and managerial behaviour 111 Table III. Do not impose your ideas Task-oriented behaviour Speed of decision making: do not try to gather all possible information. Learn to understand other people’s “logic” Empathy: learn to be less demanding to yourself and others. Speed is as important as the quality of a decision Effective Decision ¼ Quality £ Acceptance: work on “selling” your decision to make sure people are convinced that it is the “right” one Stimulate your creativity: do not directly ask for proof. Open up to other approaches. Listen.Knowing style Flexibility and change: learn to be more open to unforeseen situations and innovations as not everything can be planned beforehand Action! Stop planning. give ideas a chance People-oriented behaviour Empathy: not everyone thinks in the same rational. rethinking the planning. give ideas a chance Planning style Creating style Project finalisation: commit yourself to both the conceptualisation and the implementation phase of projects Effective Decision ¼ Quality £ Acceptance: check the underlying facts before moving on with an idea Balance your creativity: check your ideas for their feasibility with someone else Empathy: learn to have understanding for people who need more details or procedures as you need them to implement your ideas Be open to the ideas of others. even if you would have done it differently Relax! Let yourself go from time to time. Increasing one’s style awareness: practical implications . logical way as you.

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(1998). 13 No.A. Fulton. European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology. He is a professor at the Faculty of Economics and Business Administration of Ghent University and teaches Educational Interaction and Communication at the Teacher Training department. (Ed. and Murphy. E.. 9 No. S. is partner of Vlerick Leuven Gent Management School. Cognitive Styles and Learning Strategies: Understanding Style Differences in Learning and Behaviour. P. M. 47 No. Eva Cools is the corresponding author and can be contacted at: Eva. and Dickson. “Cognitive style: some human resource implications for managers”.J. K. C. To purchase reprints of this article please e-mail: reprints@emeraldinsight. Symon.. team research. Her current research activities focus on cognitive styles. 1-64. 457-62. Developing Management Skills for Europe. G. 205-51. Vol.A. Sadler-Smith. R. Adaptors and Innovators: Styles of Creativity and Problem Solving. PhD. Harlow.be Herman Van Den Broeck.J... where he is head of the People and Organisation Department.D. C.2 114 Riding. C. D. PhD earned a KU Leuven Masters degree in Pedagogical Sciences in 2000 and graduated as a Doctor in Applied Economics at Ghent University in September 2007. 185-202.. Journal of Managerial Issues. “Field-dependent and field-independent cognitive styles and their educational implications”. change management. 91-113. “Expanding our research and practice through innovative research methods”. About the authors Eva Cools. “Managerial competence and style”.com/reprints . Pearson Education. 4. Whetten. (2000).. (1977). Goodenough. pp. Tett. H. Routledge. Moore. “Selecting employees for fit: personality and preferred managerial style”. “Development and content validation of a ‘hyperdimensional’ taxonomy of managerial competence”. pp. Belgium. H. 2nd ed.ET 50. D. Bleier. R. She works as a researcher in the People and Organisation Department at Vlerick Leuven Gent Management School. Human Performance.M.A. (2000). and Cox.P.emeraldinsight. NY. and Rayner.. (1994). Cassell. and entrepreneurship. 1. pp.R. and Woods. Guterman. A. Witkin.W. R. (2000). 1. New York. Vol. Cameron. Vol. and Ash. Vol. P. 3.). 9 No. pp. Schroder. (1998). Vol. in Kirton. R. 4. International Journal of Human Resource Management. pp.Cools@vlerick.A. H. M. Stevens. (2001). London. 500-17. XIII No.com Or visit our web site for further details: www. Review of Educational Research. pp.

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