Autocratic Leadership Style

By Charlotte Nickerson, published May 05, 2022 | Fact Checked by Saul Mcleod, PhD


Key Points

  • Autocratic or authoritarian leadership is characterized by the control of an individual over the decisions that impact a group with little-to-no input from group members.
  • Kurt Lewin and his colleagues were the first to characterize autocratic leadership as one of three leadership styles — the other two being democratic and laissez-faire.
  • By most definitions, autocratic leadership involves limited input from stakeholders, a highly structured environment, and clearly defined rules and processes. This generally makes subordinates feel as though they cannot contribute to the process of decision making.
  • Autocratic leadership is useful in certain situations, such as those where decisions need to be made quickly and efficiently — for example, in resource allocation during a natural disaster. However, autocratic leadership can often decrease group member morale and endanger group stability.

Characteristics

Scholars generally agree that autocratic leadership styles share three major characteristics in common:

  • Limited input from stakeholders: autocratic leaders make most if not all group decisions, leaving little room for feedback. This leadership style may voice efficiency when decisions need to be made quickly; however, this can potentially have repercussions on group morale.

    For example, according to traditional management advice (Harms et al., 2018), employees who are not trusted with decisions or important tasks may question the value to bring to a company — a journalist who spends weeks doing extensive research for a story may face lowered morale if an autocratic editor decides not to publish the story simply because it was not to their taste.

  • Highly structured environment: autocratically structured groups and organizations tend to be rigid in a way that clearly defines who has power. This, again, increases efficiency.

    However, the strangeness of autocratic environments may also demotivate those working under the leader. For instance, a team member who knows that their activity is constantly being monitored by their manager may be motivated to complete their job by solely of fear.

  • Clearly defined rules and processes: groups under autocratic leadership tend to have clearly defined roles, rules, and processes.

    This may, however, result in those under the leader feeling as though their input is not valued. Overall, clearly defined rules and processes tend to discourage creativity and differential thinking.

Examples

Autocratic Leadership in Nursing

Traditionally, many nurses have been led using autocratic leadership styles, and these historical influences still permeate contemporary practice (Murphy, 2005). Autocratic leadership can be mirrored in organizational philosophies and disempowered staff.

Several researchers, such as Maboko (2011) have conducted studies of the impact of various leadership styles on nurse performance and morale. According to Koukkanen and Kaatajisto (2003), authoritarian leadership is an obstacle to empowerment in nursing, as it is detrimental to important functions of nursing management such as listening, conflict management champion nurses, communication, and the feeling that workers are agents of change.

Maboko attempted to examine the nursing leadership style at an academic hospital in Gauteng, South Africa, where approximately 37% of nurses leave their jobs because they did not receive support from their managers (Strachota et al., 2003).

The researcher, using qualitative methods, found that autocratic leadership tended to cause resentment among nurses and that the style often arose out of hospitals having limited information about other leadership styles — such as transformational and visionary leadership (Maboko, 2011).

Climate, Wealth, and Leadership Culture

Some scholars have described leadership styles as arising from cultural adaptations to non cultural components of the national environment, such as the harshness of a country’s climate or level or national wealth.

Van de Vliert, in an analysis of managerial survey data from 62 cultures found that autocratic leadership at the organizational level was most prevalent in poorer countries with harsh climates. Meanwhile, autocratic leadership was seen as less effective in rich cultures with harsh climates.

Autocratic Leadership and Job Satisfaction

Numerous studies have drawn links between leadership styles and job satisfaction. Nadarasa and Thuraisingam (2012) studied the impacts of autocratic leadership styles on teachers at public and private and public schools. As in other studies, the researchers found that autocratic leadership styles tended to correlate negatively with job satisfaction.

Autocratic Leadership and Group Stability

Many scholars view autocratic leadership as the most efficient solutions to group conflicts that involve the distribution of scarce resources or the provision of public goods (Hardin, 1968; Hobbes 1651; Messick and Brewer, 1983; Solson, 1965, Vugt et al., 2003). However, researchers such as Vugt et al. (2003) have tried to challenge this view by studying the longer-term consequences of autocratic leadership styles.

In particular, the researchers hypothesized that autocratic leaders would threaten group stability by provoking members to evict the group, thus removing resources from it. In Vugt et al.’s study, people worked together in small groups on a task involving the distribution of public goods. They had either autocratic, democratic, or laissez-faire leaders.

In the autocratic and democratic conditions, participants received success feedback at random, whereas in the laissez-faire condition, they received either fake success feedback or no feedback on outcome at all. After engaging in each investment task, the group members had an opportunity to leave the group and join a different group for a subsequent task.

As predicted those who were in the autocratic condition were more likely to choose to switch groups than those in other leadership conditions. In fact, the proportion of exciters in the autocratic condition was high enough that many groups would have failed due to not having enough members needed to produce the goods.

Thus, at least in conditions where it is straightforward to leave a group, Vugt et al. (2003) argued that autocratic leadership is not a viable solution (Ziller, 1965). These results persisted regardless of whether or not the group ultimately succeeded.

When poled, the group members in the autocratic leader condition tended to give the same reasoning for their stay or exit choices: under autocratic leadership, group members were unhappy about the amount of control they could exercise over the decision-making process (Vugt et al., 2003).

Broader research supports these findings. Some, such as Bass (1990) and Yukl (1989) have argued that the primary difference between autocratic and democratic leadership lies in the amount of control that group members have over the decision-making process.

Researchers have also found that how much people feel like they have control over the process of decision making has more of an effect than how much people feel like they have control over the decisions themselves.

According to the exit-voice hypothesis (Hirschman, 1970), for instance, there is a trade-off in how much people are willing to exit the group and voice their dissatisfaction in a dysfunctional group.

Namely, if group members lack opportunities to voice their concerns, they will resort to exit; in situations where the opportunity to voice concerns is absent, they resort to voice (Vugt et al., 2003).

The autocratic style of leadership, although it has been called “obsolete,” (Weiskittel, 1999) and garners largely negative attention, can be beneficial in some instances, such as when decisions need to be made quickly and without consulting large groups of people.

Provides Direction

Autocratic leadership can provide direction. For example, consider a small group of students that has a tendency to miss deadlines for an upcoming assignment. In this case, a strong leader — perhaps a student particularly keen on receiving a high mark — may either be assigned the role of leader or take on the task on their own.

The student may then break-down the assignment into tasks and assign their peers' clear roles, responsibilities, and establish deadlines, making it more likely that the group will finish a project on time with equal contributions on each member’s part.

Relieves Pressure

Autocratic leadership can also relieve pressure in cases where decisions have potentially momentous consequences. For example, military leadership during a country’s civil war may prefer an autocratic style.

This autocratic style allows group members to become highly skilled in performing their duties — rather than diffusing their time and resources into decision making. Ultimately, this may contribute to group success in instances where the group must perform at a higher level and under greater levels of stress than usual.

Offers Structure

The autocratic leadership style can also offer structure in highly-complex systems. For example, say that a drama teacher must coordinate an entire school play — from the actors to the costuming and set design.

Through a strong leadership style where all group members have been assigned specific tasks, a deadline, and rules to follow, the teacher may be able to assure that the play runs smoothly with less confusion than would occur if the group members came to decisions democratically.

Although autocratic leadership can occasionally be useful for group efficiency and organization, there are many cases where it can be problematic, ultimately leading to low group morale, resentment, and possible group instability.

Discourages Group Input

Autocratic leadership, by definition, discourages group input. In response, group members may feel that they are unable to contribute creative solutions to group problems, and that their individual knowledge and expertise have been overlooked. Research has supported this conclusion.

For instance, Guo (2018) , in a study of supervisors in Nigeria and China, found that there was a significant negative relationship between authoritarian leadership and creativity. This became especially evident in environments where employees feared their workers and chose to be silent, for fear of reprimand.

This relationship also took a strong effect when employees had little “psychological capital” — low scores on traits such as self-assurance.

About the Author

Charlotte Nickerson is a member of the Class of 2024 at Harvard University. Coming from a research background in biology and archeology, Charlotte currently studies how digital and physical space shapes human beliefs, norms, and behaviors and how this can be used to create businesses with greater social impact.

Fact Checking

Content is rigorously reviewed by a team of qualified and experienced fact checkers. Fact checkers review articles for factual accuracy, relevance, and timeliness. We rely on the most current and reputable sources, which are cited in the text and listed at the bottom of each article. Content is fact checked after it has been edited and before publication.

This article has been fact checked by Saul Mcleod, PhD, a qualified psychology teacher with over 17 years' experience of working in further and higher education. He has been published in psychology journals including Clinical Psychology, Social and Personal Relationships, and Social Psychology.

Cite this Article (APA Style)

Nickerson, C. (2022, May 05). Autocratic Leadership Style. Simply Psychology. www.simplypsychology.org/autocratic-leadership.html

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