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Working under an autocratic leadership style

We’ve all dreaded this; but sometimes in our working careers we experience a leader who exhibits an autocratic leadership style. What do we do? Do we curse, bemoan, play victim to such a leader – or do we make adjustments within ourselves? I think the latter is more appropriate.

What is an autocratic leader?

A leader who wants to be in control; does things his or her way; enjoys being the sole decision maker; holds assumptions about subordinates and their ability; holds superior beliefs about his or her abilities; a leader who likes to “tell – command and control – my way or the highway”.

Why would a leader be autocratic?

It is important to understand that there could be several reasons why a leader may display an autocratic style of leadership. These could include the following:

  1. Personality style. We are born with certain tendencies, traits and predispositions. Our environments could have certainly influenced these two. Regardless, we find ourselves influenced by these factors in response mechanism or influence style. Some people are just bossy, whilst some are inclusive and others passive and slow in their approach.
  2. Work Environment. Sometimes a leader comes into a team where performance is average or below average. To such a leader, performance, targets. output or turning the situation around may be his or her mandate. In their pursuit to reach these goals, a directive style is imposed on those who may be viewed as slow, satisfied with the status quo, or just not doing enough.
  3. Pressure from their senior or direct manager. A leader may lose a sense of empathy when his or her senior or direct manager above is demanding of targets and numbers. The pressure from above overrides relationships, empathy, compassion and understanding. Results becomes all is what it is all about.
  4. Incompetent staff or team members. It may be the case that staff are incompetent or not able to perform independently their functions that a leader will adapt to the environment at hand. In this situation, the leader commands, controls, directs, checks, double checks, requires constant reporting and does a lot of “hand holding” to speed up the ability of team members.
  5. Emotionally unaware/ intelligent. Whilst a person may be educated, experienced and qualified – such a person may not be high on emotionally intelligence. This means, can the individual “perceive, understand, manage and use” emotions positively. Can such a person be proactive when required or is such a person constantly reactive.

“It is not the most intellectual of the species that survives; it is not the strongest that survives; but the species that survives is the one that is able best to adapt and adjust to the changing environment in which it finds itself” – Charles Darwin

We cannot directly control others and their responses. We can however influence them. The key to dealing with an autocratic manager lies in our ability to adapt to such a person.

Here are a few suggestions:

  1. Control. Allow them to be in control. Always be prepared with options and alternatives to present to such a leader – doing so limits their range of options, gives them a sense of control – whilst not realizing that you may be in control. Options and preparedness are key.
  2. Results. Adapt your communication by keeping in mind how efforts and enabling activities lead to the bottom line. Talk in their terms. Talk with achievements in mind.
  3. Prove your competence and ability. The responsibility is yours to prove that you are able and competent; flexible enough to earn the respect of such a leader. That means raising your game and questioning “do my best”. Is your best really best? Once you’ve earned the respect of such a leader, you will earn trust and more latitude.
  4. Speak/ communicate with a sense of urgency. In interpersonal conversation, be to the point. Be direct. In electronic or email correspondence, acknowledge their correspondence speedily. Reply. Share your thoughts. Do what is required. Unbeknown to you and despite direct or cold tone, you will come up with creative and best efforts that you did not initially suspect. Always pause when you receive a demanding or direct email. Let the feeling pass. Use logic.
  5. Appreciate them. Stroke their ego. Let them know of their accomplishments; their impact, their turnaround strategies, implications and consequences. Autocrats may not be as hard and cold and emotional-less as you suspect. Beneath the veneer may be a loving father or mother, a concerned humanitarian, a doer of good to society, a struggling person suffering from something temporary.

Don’t assume that you know it all about a leader who may appear to be autocratic. This may be situational; this may just be their unaware self. What is more important us our response than our concern and energy on the stimulus. And, empathy may very well reign as the most useful interpersonal skill we all develop.