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Get a grip? Is autocracy ever helpful?

October 3, 2022 - 13 min read

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What is autocracy?

Autocracy characteristics

What makes an autocratic leader?

The two sides of autocratic leadership

Benefits of autocratic leadership

Cons of autocratic leadership

The bottom line

When crisis strikes, what’s the most effective type of leadership

The COVID-19 pandemic has certainly brought this question into focus. From 2020 onward, organizations have adapted to changing conditions caused by the virus.

People learned to work from home, supply chains succumbed to labor shortages, and a global recession disrupted the economy. As the situation evolved, businesses had to accommodate rapidly-changing public health recommendations with each new wave of infections.

Most organizations will have some kind of emergency response plan. But in a genuine “crisis” there's even more uncertainty. A company can prepare for specific issues. But before 2020, few companies were ready for the impacts of COVID-19. 

To adapt, business leaders made tough choices — and each overcame their challenges differently. Some healthcare teams used an autocratic approach to execute their response quickly. Other groups took their time, gathered information, and used more democratic leadership styles.

Every management style has strengths and weaknesses. And in times of crisis, autocracy is an appealing choice. It allows for rapid decision-making, clear communication, and straightforward expectations for staff. But it may not be the right fit in other circumstances.

If you’re considering a job at an autocratic workplace, you’ll have to make some sacrifices. Or, if you plan to become an autocratic leader, you’ll have to deal with some of the shortcomings of this management style.

Let’s examine autocracy’s pros and cons to help you decide what’s best for your workplace.

 

What is autocracy?

An autocratic leadership style follows a top-down approach. Like in the military, a leader issues a command and expects subordinates to follow it.

These strong leaders rely on strict rules, policies, and procedures to manage the workplace. They make decisions independently, with little or no input from other team members.

Autocracy examples are easily found in professional kitchens. A head chef directs their cooks to follow strict hygiene and worker safety procedures. They must also serve food at a consistent level of quality.

And they do all this at breakneck speed, serving a never-ending stream of customers. In this fast-paced environment, autocracy is necessary because there’s no time for democracy.

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Autocracy characteristics

Work environments all differ from one organization to the next, but most autocratic workplaces tend to feature these characteristics:

  1. Clear expectations for employees. Autocratic workplaces clearly distinguish the roles of individuals. Every team member understands the scope of their responsibilities and acts within those parameters.
  2. Consequences for not meeting expectations. With clear job descriptions come transparent performance reviews. Autocratic environments will let employees know when they don’t perform as intended.
  3. Clearly defined rules and decision-making processes. Every task must follow a pre-defined procedure. Even during emergencies, management expects staff to abide by protocols and manuals.
  4. Highly structured work environment. Employees complete important tasks in a certain order, at a certain time. They also track their progress with rigorous documentation.
  5. A clear divide between leaders and subordinates. Autocracies are all about hierarchy. Clear "bosses" and "employees" make up the chain of command.
  6. Rigid workplace hierarchies. Organizational problems should follow a clear path of escalation. High-level autocrats or senior managers trust lower managers to deal with smaller issues. By the time it reaches the big desk, it’s a big issue.
  7. Well-defined boundaries between team members. Clearly defined roles mean very little overlap in workplace responsibilities, reducing redundancies and increasing efficiency.

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What makes an autocratic leader?

The word “autocracy” might conjure images of angry political figures in dictatorial countries. But in the business world, authoritarian leadership can have positive qualities. These are the positive characteristics of autocratic leadership:

  • Reliability. Autocratic leaders enjoy total control of most aspects of an organization. This creates a system of dependence, where others can’t complete their work without the leader’s input. Good autocrats know this, so they always make themselves available to others.
  • Confidence. Unilateral decision-making requires faith in oneself. Autocrats trust that they can make tough strategic decisions, which helps them avoid second-guessing themselves.
  • Consistency. Highly-structured work environments require an even-handed application of the rules. Subordinates need to trust their leader will treat everyone fairly, and good autocrats do exactly that.
  • Efficiency. Absolute power allows for quick decision-making, which can help organizations adapt during times of crisis, uncertainty, and rapid change. The best autocrats can easily handle this rapid pace.

These leaders do well in environments where routines and processes are very important. For example, the executive branch of the U.S. government spends tax dollars, makes decisions in the public interest, and depends on various departments to enact them. 

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Department bureaucrats swiftly enact policies and keep records of their work in case someone requests them. Autocratic managers are ideal for this kind of work; they are aware of the correct procedures and make sure everyone follows them.

The two sides of autocratic leadership

Autocratic leaders can be charismatic individuals. Their positive characteristics instill trust in their direct reports and maintain order among the ranks.

But even with the best leaders, autocratic workplaces excel in some areas and underperform in others. Here are some of the autocracy’s pros and cons.

Benefits of autocratic leadership

Here are some of the pros of an autocratic leadership approach.

1. Provides a clear sense of direction

Anyone who’s worked on a class group project knows the value of having a leader. This person:

  • Assigns tasks
  • Keeps everyone on deadline
  • Focuses on the big picture
  • Makes sure everyone contributes equally
  • Mediates discussions and has the final say in arguments about the project

This kind of leader creates an efficient workflow for team members. Without them, projects wouldn’t finish on time, and details would slip through the cracks.

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2. Relieves employee stress

Having a clear chain of the command removes responsibility from team members and places it on their managers. This provides space for staff to excel in their duties without worrying about additional stressors. 

In high-pressure situations, such as during military conflicts, each person is responsible only for the tasks given to them. If they execute their jobs perfectly, but the mission still fails, their commanding officer takes the blame instead of them.

3. Provides structure

Autocratic structures help people see where they fit in relation to others. They know where their responsibilities start and end, which helps avoid confusion among the ranks. This is particularly useful in inexperienced teams, where group members may have less ability to self-direct.

This also gives space for everyone to specialize in a particular area. Because a person is only responsible for one kind of job, they’ll learn to excel in it. This will eventually benefit the entire group or organization.

4. Creates quick results

Centralized command structures allow for faster decision-making. This is particularly useful in times of crisis, where speed is usually of the essence. Autocrats can use their unilateral power to help organizations overcome adversity.

Cons of autocratic leadership

Here are the disadvantages of autocratic leadership.

1. Lack of group input

Sometimes the best ideas come from group discussions. One suggestion flows into the next until it’s refined into a perfect course of action. Autocrats don’t get to benefit from these kinds of brainstorms. These leaders make decisions independently, which means they risk leaving great ideas on the table.

2. Less feedback from subordinates

Autocracies’ top-down approach to management can also discourage feedback from lower-level employees. These people are responsible for executing the work and thus have a good line of sight on small problems that can hurt the organization. But if management refuses to hear it, small issues can turn into big ones.

3. Employee morale can suffer

Autonomy at the workplace is important. It fosters creativity and helps boost employee happiness and well-being. But autocratic workplaces are prone to micromanagement. This leaves them little room for independence, which can lead to a lack of trust in leadership and breed disengagement.

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4. Leaders feel the pressure

In autocratic environments, leaders take the brunt of the pressure. This can cause them stress, pressure, and overwhelm — all of which can lead to burnout.

If an autocratic CEO departs on stress leave, this negatively affects the rest of the team. No one else holds decision-making power, which means very little gets done until the leader comes back or is replaced.

The bottom line

The pros and cons of autocracy show us that, even though it sounds intimidating, it has a lot to offer as a work environment. It provides clarity to workers, removes the stresses of decision-making, and can help you specialize in a particular skill. 

Plus, autocratic leaders, despite dictatorial stereotypes, are extremely talented people. They take a lot of pressure on their shoulders and work quickly and decisively for their organizations. And if the pandemic taught us anything, this can be particularly useful when there’s less time to make crucial choices.

But you’ll have to decide whether the advantages of autocratic leadership outweigh the disadvantages. If you want an environment that fosters autonomy and better communication, you may not enjoy the command structures common in authoritarian-style workplaces. Instead, you may want to pursue other leadership styles, like:

But if you don’t mind independent but regimented work, the autocratic style of leadership could be a great fit for you.

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Published October 3, 2022

Elizabeth Perry

Content Marketing Manager, ACC

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