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The Autocratic Leadership Style—and Why It Doesn’t Work!

Are you fed up with a boss making you jump through hoops only for them to find fault and chew you out? Do long workdays with zero appreciation sound familiar? Did you know that autocratic bosses and managers are one of the leading reasons for leaving a job?

The autocratic leadership style is a one-way street; they often don't listen or respond to their employees in productive ways. Ordering, correcting, and reprimanding are common so resentment builds in employees.

Estimated reading time: 4 minutes

An autocratic leader reprimanding a team.A colleague relayed the following story to me:

On the first day of my new job, a single thing remained in my assigned cubical from the prior resident. A whiteboard with a single quote read in red letters: “Because that’s the way we’ve always done it.” I asked a co-worker what the phrase meant, and he quickly said, “Oh, you’ll see!”

Wow, was he right. The phrase summed up the blanket leadership approach that I experienced for my tenure with that company.

When employees shared ideas or presented possible solutions, instead of listening, we heard “because that’s the way we’ve always done it.” Managers were unwilling to challenge policies or processes of the executives or even look at new ideas—because that’s the way we’ve always done it.

What Is Autocratic Leadership?

The above experience is highly indicative of an autocratic leadership style, which is inadequate—and ineffective—most of the time. To handle the many sides of the business and the continually fluctuating nuances of people and situations, this type of leadership falls short. This leadership style often creates uncertainty in teams and trepidation and fear in employees.

Autocratic leadership is one form of five leadership styles: Autocratic, Authoritarian, Democratic, Permissive, and Authentic leadership. The terms Autocratic and Authoritarian are often used interchangeably; however, there are some differences in their use. In this blog, we’re only going to be discussing autocratic.

The term “autocratic” derives from the words auto (Greek for self) and cratic, which implies rule. This style of leadership is characterized by a primary leader with fixed rules and mindsets. An autocratic type of leader holds the authority to make decisions without involvement or input from other employees or team members.  

Autocratic leaders create highly structured and rigid environments. These leaders dominate team members, work methods, and processes. Their tone with employees and teams is often blunt. They bark orders and give little autonomy. These leaders are often highly competitive and a common flaw of theirs is taking credit for the ideas and solutions of others. Typically, very little trust exists in teams and employees lead by autocratic leaders. These kinds of leaders usually micro-manage and give continual direction to keep employees on task.

The Consequences of Autocratic Leadership  to Relationships with Employees and Teams

Autocratic leadership does not welcome group solutions. These leaders give feedback that is often discouraging and alienates highly skilled and self-reliant employees. Over time, these interactions create an environment of poor morale and discouraged employees who fear for their jobs. They rarely raise concerns or share ideas due to fear that they may face humiliation and criticism. Employees do not feel safe and rarely trust their leaders. Employees often become compliant versus creative and solution-oriented. Employees can begin to resist in ways that are unproductive and harmful to the health of a business. An autocratic approach promotes secrecy and dishonesty between leaders and employees.

In the experience of my colleague above, she quickly learned that her questions and ideas would meet a wall: “because that’s the way we’ve always done it.” Whenever ideas that would save time and money or create ease were offered, she was told to drop them.

When autocratic leadership is used too much in business, employees learn to stay in their own lane, keep their heads down, and work hard. They don't need to think for themselves because they will be told how to think. Employees survive but generally don't thrive.

With the autocratic leadership style, employees often create allies and build a false sense of camaraderie with each other through unproductive conversations involving complaints about leadership and the discouragement that comes with feeling unheard. Their workplace is rigid, and they have no power to change what could benefit the company.

The consequences of long-term employment in this form of leadership are "yes" people who fear reprimand and rarely step out of the rules of engagement. The huge downside is that employees develop a habit of passivity to degrade critical analysis and creative thought. In addition, the harshness of autocratic leaders is a negative and external motivator. This behavior demolishes employees' internal motivation because they must keep an eye on the threats of their bosses' negative reactions. Thus, their desire—and ability—to engage and provide valuable input is greatly diminished.A medical emergency warrants autocratic leadership.

When Is an Autocratic Leadership Style Appropriate?

The autocratic leadership qualities talked about so far might lead you to believe that there aren’t any redeemable characteristics of this leadership style. However, when used effectively and selectively, i.e., critical decisions needed in a financial crisis, it can be useful. When this style is overused or asserted inappropriately in situations, the strain on relationships of employees with leaders, within teams, and overall culture, is stifling.

There are limited situations where an autocratic approach has a place; a few areas where this leadership style works and can be very useful. When decisions need to be made quickly and definitively, requiring immediate action, autocratic leadership is warranted.

For example:

  • A company with poor performance is in need of a quick turnaround.
  • Companies going through a merger where teams need firm changes and clearly defined expectations.
  • When a leader has the most knowledge on a subject or situation, and their experience far outweighs others' limited perspective.
  • When lives are in danger, such as the leadership role within the military.
  • Medical emergencies when fast action is required to save lives.

In the above cases, the actions of a leader are time-sensitive and quick action is imperative to create stability and safety. Quick decisions with heavy consequences such as safety issues or financial crises often can be best addressed by an autocratic approach. Autocratic leadership can be effective when well executed, although it is rarely the best approach in many instances of business.

What is the best leadership approach in business? The most effective leadership style is dependent on the nature of the situation. Let’s briefly explore this concept.

Related reading: "How to Be an Authentic Leader"
Successful leadership considers the situation

Choosing Leadership Styles Based on Situational Leadership Theory

The situational leadership theory is the idea that no single leadership style is ideal for all situations. Each situation determines the best response versus approaching all situations with the same leadership style. Successful leaders flow through all leadership styles as required by individual situations. This approach creates a more responsive and effective culture and supports a collaborative environment. Leading in this way requires situational awareness and emotional intelligence skills.  

“Because that is the way we’ve always done it” certainly had some applicable situations. Policies were in place to protect people and the company. Public responses to product supply because of natural disasters required pivoting quickly. However, it is likely that autocratic responses mismatch the situation.

Skilled leaders who dynamically utilize different leadership styles in their responses to situations are the most effective leaders.

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

Successful leaders require the right set of tools. Do you want to increase your leadership skills? Heartmanity specializes in situational leadership and emotional intelligence. Check out our programs at Heartmanity for Business. We offer customized support and executive coaching along with leadership and team training to help businesses thrive.

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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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