Opinion - CNBC | Momentive Small Business Survey

The No. 1 word business owners use to describe Trump's management style

Laura Wronski, research scientist, SurveyMonkey
U.S. President Donald Trump gestures during a rally at the Phoenix Convention Center on August 22, 2017 in Phoenix, Arizona.
Ralph Freso | Stringer | Getty Images

When he was a candidate for president, Donald Trump said he planned to run the White House "like a business." Eight months into his presidency, small-business owners, and all Americans more generally, see more chaos than top-down, effective management.

We asked small-business owners — and everyone else — what they think of Trump's management style. As pollsters, we know the value of getting hard data about politics. For example, 51 percent of small-business owners and 40 percent of the general population said they approve of the way Trump is handling his job as president, according to the third-quarter CNBC/SurveyMonkey Small Business Survey. Those are hard numbers that we track from quarter to quarter, and they're down in this poll. We can benchmark against approval numbers for past presidents at the same point in their tenures.

But on a human level it's incredibly insightful to get information in respondents' own words rather than on a preset rating scale. Particularly when responding to polls online, without human interviewers who may judge them, respondents tend to provide distinct, personal and sometimes colorful answers.

From Aug. 10–17, we asked 12,912 respondents how they would describe Trump's management style — in one word. After combing through the responses, complete with misspellings and some unprintable portmanteaus, we came up with some interesting observations.

More from the CNBC/SurveyMonkey Small Business Survey:
Small-business confidence drops, most notably among conservatives

First, the No. 1 word used to describe Trump's management style was some variation of "chaotic" or "chaos," with a few people disregarding our request for one word to vent their frustrations (e.g., "chaotic mess," "absolutely chaotic and undisciplined," "manage by chaos").
Perhaps this "chaos" means different things to different people, but it's a succinct summary of the whirlwind of the past eight months. The Trump administration has had some notably high-level staffing shake-ups and a rather unconventional way of operating in Washington, both of which could be contributing to the perception of chaos.

Of the respondents, 2,282 were self-identified small-business owners — individuals who should be particularly appreciative of the need for a leader to have a positive management style. When we subset our analysis to examine responses from this population — more than 1,800 of them provided an answer to this open-ended question — we see the same response trends as we do among the general population. Below are the 40 words that were chosen by at least 10 business owners each.

"Chaotic" is mentioned as frequently among small-business owners as it is among everyone, and in fact the top five words used to describe Trump's management style (chaotic, terrible, horrible, strong and aggressive) are identical among small-business owners and everyone else.

To see real differences, as with so much else these days, it's necessary to differentiate by partisanship. Just as Republicans and Republican-leaning independents give Trump wildly different approval ratings than Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents (74 percent vs. 8 percent among the general population for this survey), they also have very different impressions of his management style.

"Strong" was the word used most frequently among Republicans; "chaotic" was the 11th most frequently mentioned descriptor. Among Democrats, "chaotic" was cited the most often; responses from independents were similar to those from Democrats, though the top responses differed.

It's interesting here that Republicans tended to use words that have more positive connotations, while Democrats often chose synonyms with more negative connotations. For example, "bully" and "bullying" are both in the top 10 words used by Democrats, but neither cracks the top 30 among Republicans. However, Republicans frequently mention words like "strong," aggressive, "direct" and "tough," all of which have a similar meaning with a slightly different spin than the word "bully."

Top 5 words used to describe President Trump

Republicans Democrats Independents

Source: CNBC | SurveyMonkey Small Business Survey, Q3

Overall, responses stretch across the full spectrum, from "atrocious," "dictatorial," "flamboyant" and "hands-on" to "magnificent," "passionate," "unusual," "wild" and "wise."

Some respondents say Trump's management is "OK," while others say it is "Orwellian."

Some respondents seem to reject the premise of the question altogether, responding with a question of their own: "What management style?"

Perhaps chaos, then, really is the best descriptor.

By Laura Wronski, research scientist at SurveyMonkey

The CNBC/SurveyMonkey Small Business Survey is conducted quarterly using SurveyMonkey's online platform and based on its survey methodology.