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Autocratic Leadership Style: Its Disadvantages and Why to Lead Authentically

What is your leadership style? Are you leading or seeking to control? How would you describe your leadership style? And are you aware of your impact on employees as a leader?

These are vital questions to ask yourself as a leader. To be effective, you must understand yourself and your impact on others. In fact, successful leadership is rooted in mutual respect and an equitable relationship. Without self-awareness, a leader is leading blind.

Estimated reading time: 4.5 minutesAn autocratic leader reprimanding an employee who sits at a computer.

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If you bark orders, micromanage, overwork, and under-appreciate your employees, this autocratic leadership style squelches initiative, stifles a growth mindset, and dampens a company’s culture. However, taking a more authentic leadership approach that emphasizes coaching, development, and trust-building will promote resilient employees, higher productivity, and a thriving company culture.

What Is a Leadership Style?

You’ve probably heard the term “leadership style.” Let's define it to ensure we’re on the same page.

A leadership style is the pattern of behaviors engaged in by a leader when dealing with employees and their business. Most specifically, how the leaders motivate their employees, handle mistakes, give direction, and communicate.

There are several primary leadership styles: autocratic (or authoritarian), participative (or democratic), and laissez-faire (or permissive), although many have drilled down to various subcategories. We're examining only the first style and its disadvantages.

Related reading:Why Emotional Intelligence Is Crucial in Business Today.”

What It Means to Be an Autocratic Leader

An autocratic leadership style is where the leader makes decisions unilaterally without employee input. This type of leadership is a top-down management style; the leader most often exerts high levels of control and authority over their team or organization. There are times when this leadership style can be effective such as in emergency or urgent situations when a quick reaction is critical, and there is no time for discussion or debate.

However, when used too often, this style is generally ineffective in the long term because it creates an environment of obedience invoked by fear of getting reprimanded or, worse yet, losing one's job. When a leader controls this way, they often give the message that they always know best, so do as you're told; “no need to think for yourself because I have all the answers.”

Autocratic Leadership Disadvantages

There are several disadvantages of autocratic leadership. First, this leadership style can stifle creativity and innovation as employees feel they cannot contribute viewpoints, ideas, or suggestions. A core need of individuals and effective teams is autonomy. Employees will get this need met directly through empowerment by leaders or indirectly through nonproductive behaviors, such as resisting, bucking, or ignoring direction, instruction, and decisions. Therefore, whenever there is control or micromanagement by leaders or managers, you will often see an increase in power struggles.

Common employee behaviors who are resisting micromanagement or autocratic leadership include:

  • more frequent mistakes by employees
  • increased defensiveness
  • procrastination and delays in project completion
  • wasting resources
  • disrespectful interactions with customers as “payback” to the company
  • withholding information
  • tardiness to work or meetings; or increased sick leave
  • disengagement or poor-quality work 

Autocratic leaders can create a toxic work environment when employees don't feel heard, valued, or trusted. This lack of rapport undermines employee morale, depletes motivation, and lowers employees’ sense of ownership, leading to stress and burnout

Finally, this leadership style can lead to remarkably high turnover when employees become unengaged and dissatisfied. Internally motivated employees will likely feel they’re in handcuffs. Why? Because when employees try to improve the work environment, take initiative, or make independent decisions, they get shut down or are “in trouble,” which can lead to discouragement and promote a culture of hesitancy and passivity.

Autocratic Leadership Curtails Prosocial Behaviors

Studies show that helping behaviors (often referred to as prosocial behaviors) are affected detrimentally by autocratic leadership, while inclusive leadership promotes them. 

Examples of helping behaviors that are discouraged by the autocratic style include:

  • empathy and compassion
  • responsiveness to others’ emotions
  • support and acceptance of diversity and differences
  • collaboration with team members
  • willingness to assist fellow employees
  • brainstorming and open discussion of ideas and solutions
  • encouraging and positive feedback to others
  • aligning with and promoting company values and mission

When reviewing the list above, it’s a fair conclusion that prosocial behaviors are critical for a company that depends on communication, teamwork, and customer service for its success. For these effects and others previously mentioned, autocratic leadership often results in lower productivity and a less safe environment.

Autocratic leadership in action!

A Peek at the Benefits of a Stricter, Authoritarian Leadership Style

However, autocratic (or authoritarian) leadership should not be disregarded entirely or shown only in a bad light. Authoritarian leaders give their subordinates clear structure and roles, clarity of responsibilities, and well-defined limits, budgets, and behavioral boundaries.

Autocratic leaders typically have concise and deliberate communication, which is extremely helpful as a surgeon when the risk factor is high. Also, this kind of leadership is often found on construction sites of large building projects where clear directions and exactness matter.

These leaders tend to be extremely reliable, too. This manner of leadership:

  • eliminates elaborate time necessary for true collaboration
  • causes fewer miscommunications
  • streamlines operations for quicker, more efficient decision-making
  • supports employees in performing tasks effectively
  • the company can meet tight targets or deadlines without group input

It's conducive when speed and efficiency outweigh collaboration or innovation. Also, when safety is a priority, this type of leadership can be necessary.

Also, most autocratic leaders have an incredible dedication to duty and take their responsibilities very seriously. Maybe, too much sometimes, since they can have difficulty delegating. And because they leave little room for others’ independent problem-solving and actions, this leadership style tends to squelch critical thinking. And work is frequently delayed when the leader is unavailable for answers, input, and approval.

So, what's an effective alternative? The authentic leadership style.

Authentic Leadership Course

Advantages of the Authentic Leadership Style

Authentic leadership is a style of leadership that emphasizes trust, respect, and transparency. Authentic leaders create an environment where employees feel safe to share their ideas and suggestions. They also focus on coaching and development to help employees reach their full potential. This type of leader creates a positive work environment and builds a strong team spirit.

Authentic leaders are also more likely to create resilient employees and more significant commitment and loyalty when hard times or challenges arise. Resilient employees can adapt and thrive in the face of a fast pace with lots of change. An area where authentic leaders shine! Building trust and rapport with their employees creates a sense of safety and security.

The authentic leadership style fosters a growth mindset in employees while encouraging them to think out of the box and collaborate. When employees feel they are part of a team and have a stake in the company’s success, employee engagement increases. Yet, when necessary, these leaders can also make tough decisions quickly, and they know when to involve others or when a unilateral decision is best for the company.

If you're looking to create a thriving culture in your organization, authentic leadership is the way to go!

The bottom line is that autocratic leadership has its time and place, but generally, it's not an effective long-term strategy. If you want to build relationships and collaboration, create a resilient workforce, and encourage an ownership mindset, focus on being an authentic leader!

Related reading: "How to Skyrocket Your Results with Authentic Leadership."

For more tips on leadership, teamwork, and effective communication, contact us today.

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Jennifer A. Williams / Heartmanity for BusinessJennifer A. Williams / Heartmanity for Business
Jennifer, the Heartmanity founder, is an Executive Coach and Relationship Strategist. Her decades of expertise in training leaders and teams give her amazing insights. Jennifer's primary focuses are authentic leadership, effective communication, and emotional intelligence in the workplace. Jennifer teaches a holistic approach, specializing in transforming unproductive behaviors into emotionally intelligent actions, which creates thriving work relationships and catapults a company to success.

Posted in Business and Leadership

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