Autocratic Management: Is there a place for it in the modern workplace?

Quite clearly there is no place for constant and repeated highly directive and ‘one way communication’ behaviours in a modern workplace. While the NSW and Victorian OHS guidelines allege that the autocratic management style heightens the risk of workplace bullying and harassment claims, the real issue is that smart employees don’t want to work with an autocrat. Autocrats like to think people appreciate their ’hard-nosed’ approach and revere them as business legends but these days they are just out of date dinosaurs that people avoid when possible. That’s why some of us have had to change our behaviour.

April early 1980s: I remember sitting in the dressing room waiting for the coach to address us. It was a blustering windy Autumn day. The first official game of a new football season and I was to turn 19 years of age the next day. We were 47 points behind (which in an Australian Rules football game is quite a margin). I had kicked the first 2 goals of the game but had hardly got another kick. The team looked exhausted and we were depressed. The coach began his rant. He explained that we had not honored the jumper, that were not even deserving of the wooden plank like seat upon which we sat and that if we continued to perform in such a way ‘heads would role’. He then began to individualise our poor performances. Two or three of us copped it. He included me by screaming ‘Bell you are a squibber (Chicken)! Five times I have watched you avoid hard contact. You should be f***ing ashamed of yourself. I don’t know how you can look your mates in the face!’. I felt humiliated and stupid. I was young and probably over sensitive. True, I went back out in the second half of the game and became far more daring. Running for the ball at a fierce almost ridiculous pace swearing at my coach with every hard tackle that I laid. I hated him. Then 10 minutes after half time the ball found its way between me and two huge bodied opponents, I ran toward the ball head down. They ran toward me and hit me with a foul blow to the head and body. Then the lights went out. I was knocked out and carried from the field. Apparently after the loss we suffered the coach singled out my courageous acts to the others. But he’d lost me forever. A few times more he humiliated me at team functions when he was full of beer. He was old style. He was eighties style when coaches, managers and politicians thought it was ok to throw insults or objects at people without fear or consequence. I didn’t want to play for him let alone give any discretionary effort.

A year later I was playing under a new coach. He used to ring me two nights before each game and talk to me about how he had visions for me as a leader at the club. He reminded me of the great things I had done the week before and things that I could improve about my game for the coming week. He was a young guy in his late 20’s and was coaching a very young side.

I loved playing for Mark. I improved significantly that year until a barrage of leg injuries cut short my time. But I always remember him. He was one of the first managers (in the form of a football coach) I ever observed who could maintain a consistent message but individualise the communication style to suit his audience. I wanted to play for him because he made me feel like my contribution was important. That the team would be worse off without me and that he actually cared about how I felt. He would constantly ask for my opinions on team performance and tactics and would ask me to try new tactics and positions on the ground. Mark was the first manager who could motivate me. He was more than just a coach. He was a leader.

Reflex Management Postures and Behaviours

In my leadership programs, I emphasise a concept of ‘Reflex Postures and Behaviour’. These are the management styles and behaviours we revert to under pressure. And because managers are often under pressure in work situations our people often observe these. The styles (postures) range autocratic to avoidance; the behaviours dominating to indecisive. What I say to my participants is that you need to be clear about what your reflex postures and behaviours actually are. As Clint Eastwood once said ‘A good man knows his limitations’. If you don’t know them you are unlikely to be able to ever adjust them and, for those of us who are natural autocrats, we become irrelevant. The message clearly being that being predominantly autocratic in style will no longer cut it in the modern workplace. Yet to change personality is extremely difficult. To change behavioral patterns is hard but more possible. Strangely enough I am beginning to believe with behavioural change we can actually achieve a personality shift.

Education and technology have significantly contributed to the perception that an engaging workplace is one where the employee feels empowered to take some level of control of his or her work and environment. If your reflex style is autocratic then you have some work to do…just as I did.

Two Critical Behaviours for the Natural Autocrat or Dominant Personality

There are many people who are naturally autocratic in style. They like to keep control and are not overly comfortable with handing that control over to others. This may be because of their experiences and influences throughout life and / or a personality that is simply controlling by nature; or even a work ethic that tells that them that get autocratic style behaviours mixed up with accountability. For those of us with this natural style it is important is to recognise and accept who we are and to learn to work with it. Quite clearly, if you act as an autocrat in a modern business environment, the majority of people won’t want to work with you. While some around you may admire your hard-nosed commitment, generally educated people will shun you and see you as ‘old news’ and potentially a bully. Their behavior will generally be to work around you not with you.

Therefore, I have discovered, given my own naturally forceful nature, three behaviours that are critical to me achieving better engagement with the people that work with me.

1. When possible, listen before talking. Whether one on one or in a meeting situation with our people, this sounds easy, but for those of us with a controlling disposition it is extraordinarily challenging. An autocrat’s reflex behavior is to do the talking because we feel our control can’t be challenged. Of course it’s not, it simply feels that way. The power of this behavior is that it encourages people to talk to you, listen more intently when you do speak to them and gives them a sense that you value their opinions and ideas. The result is greater engagement that leads to higher levels of discretionary effort and confident decision making thus lifting performance. The natural autocrat will get it wrong sometimes but keep trying and it will become habit.

2. Let others have a turn chairing the meetings. The autocrat will feel on the back foot straight away with this one. It will be really uncomfortable for you at first but empowering to others. Remember your reflex behaviour is to take charge because you see that as your responsibility and / or it is a deep need. However, sharing the chair will encourage accountability and a sense of value among those who take on the role (not all will want to). That will naturally encourage leadership and build confidence and ultimately lift performance.

3. When possible (and if authentic) tell others that you trust them to make a decision. You can’t make trusting someone up, but when you do trust them say it. Your reflex feeling is not necessarily to trust others and your reflex behaviour is either to do it yourself or direct people on how to make a decision. If people don’t feel trusted they won’t feel valued. In any workforce undervalued employees feel less motivated and less engaged thus having a negative impact on performance. Without doubt, these three behaviours won’t come easy, but they will be culture changing and allow you to focus on what a leader should be. That is, taking the organisation forward.

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