Many of us may balk at the idea of autocratic leadership, where one individual wields complete control over the rest. You may argue that in a collaborative business environment where the shared decision-making and collective efforts of teams are imperative to success, there is no place for an authoritarian who dictates what needs to be done and how. That participative style is best, ensuring respect for and breeding trust among every individual employee. It may very well be, but not everyone is buying that group-based decision-making is the best and only style for the modern workplace.
The Advantages and Disadvantages of Autocratic Leadership
There is no one style of leadership that is ideal; the most effective leaders are those who are able to adapt their decision-making and behavioral style to different situations. Today’s complex, ever-changing and unpredictable environment calls for situational leadership, based on the wisdom of ‘you gotta do what you gotta do’.
What then, are the circumstances where absolute power must be exercised by the man/woman in charge?
Command and control works best in these situations
- When some team members are evading their responsibilities
Poor hiring decisions may result in unmotivated employees who bank on their colleagues to complete projects and rarely take ownership of their work. If you cannot afford to fire these work shirkers immediately, you should focus on motivating them to do what is expected of them. By adopting an autocratic style of management, you can drive the message home quickly and unambiguously. Don’t be condescending or dictatorial; allocate tasks and communicate individual responsibilities firmly. Monitor their work and keep up the pressure to ensure that everyone completes their share committedly.
- When the team comprises entirely of inexperienced members
Autocratic leadership is advantageous when you’re tasked with managing a team of novices and you need to get the ball rolling. By assigning roles, responsibilities and tasks to everyone, and directing them closely during the early phases of the process or project, you can get a lot done in a short period of time. You can relinquish control as people come to grips with the project and ease into their roles. By leading the team closely, you will be able to identify high-potential members to whom you can delegate work in the future, and create a command chain that keeps everyone in check and drives the progress of projects.
- During a time of intense pressure or contingencies
A number of unexpected situations can pile the pressure on teams, and unless members are experienced professionals, the onus of navigating challenges falls on the manager/leader. Here too, an autocratic style can ensure quick actions and motivate teamwork to solve problems to meet milestones without much stress or loss of time. Participative, shared-decision making can take longer as it involves discussions, consensus-building and deliberate actions. When time is of the essence, the leader must call the shots and accept responsibility for his/her judgment and decisions. By leading from the front in tough times, you can enhance your influence and build greater trust among employees.
Drawbacks of autocratic leadership
Studies cite high levels of absenteeism and turnover in rejecting the authoritarian leadership style. Intuitive reasoning also tells us that Gen X and Millennials definitely won’t take too kindly to dictatorial leaders, no matter how gently persuasive or calmly enforcing they may be. Younger employees prioritize experience over pay, and crave collaboration and creative thinking over towing the line. By indicating to employees that their opinions don’t matter or at least not as much as that of senior management, autocratic leaders end up digging a hole for themselves.
In an autocratic leadership environment, backlash from employees can come in many forms:
- A defiant attitude
- Unhealthy rivalry among team members
- Fear turning into hostility and aggression
- A lack of confidence and low motivation
- Perpetual stress, affecting reasoning, attitudes and behaviors
- No scope for constructive criticism, leading to poor decision-quality over time
- A curb on independent thinking can provoke errors in the absence of close leadership oversight
In a worst case scenario, authoritarianism can create toxic employees who only pretend to respond to you, while doing the exact opposite of what you expect. While this is bound to last only a while until they’re caught out, the damage done can be irreversible or take long to fix.
Tips on being a less autocratic leader
You can stay in control without intimidating or angering your employees. Leadership presence and effectiveness is as much about taking charge and making key decisions as it is about telling people that their opinions matter and shared decision-making is essential to success.
To transition from an autocratic to a more democratic style of functioning, consider these tips:
- Be inquisitive, not prescriptive
Self-reflect to determine how much time you spend listening to others. Are some of their recommendations more effective than your ideas? A healthy curiosity in the capability and creativity of your employees can bring you closer to them and promote healthy discussions that ultimately benefit everyone.
- Be socially aware
Understand how people feel about your constant need to enforce decisions. How do they react to your attitude and words? What is the impact of your autocratic style on different members of your team? These are important questions to answer as they will tell you what exactly people think of you – effective leaders don’t demand but command respect, they’re not just known for getting the job done, but also for their popularity and influence among those they lead.
- Recognize the role of subordinates
It doesn’t take long for autocratic leaders to lose their best talent and get stuck with irresolute employees who always seek direction and cannot work autonomously, all to the detriment of the organization. Evaluate if you have given subordinates enough control and encouragement to make decisions, and explore ways to inspire innovative thinking from your team.
When you embark on this transformation, there is a good chance that people will view you with suspicion. By making consistent efforts, you can create a positive work environment, improve morale, and earn the respect of your employees.