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How does autocratic leadership motivate employees?

The quick answer to how autocratic leadership motivates employees is simple. Autocratic leadership does not motivate employees. It demotivates employees and effectively destroys employee engagement. I’ve gone from specialist to CEO in my leadership career and seen many autocratic leaders fail miserably with employee motivation on the way.

How does autocratic leadership motivate employees?

Autocratic leadership does not motivate employees. Autocratic leadership means that the leader makes all decisions without the involvement of employees. Combined with elements of fear and punishment, autocratic leadership effectively ruins employee motivation unless used very sparingly.

This article explains how autocratic leadership affects employee motivation and employee performance. It will give you ample reasons to avoid autocratic leadership if you weren’t already convinced before.

Autocratic leadership is not situational but rather behavioral, so either you are an autocratic leader or you are not. I explain this thoroughly in my book Leadership Styles Classics: Autocratic, Democratic and Laissez-Faire (Amazon). Good leaders take a situational approach and use commanding/directive leadership for short spurts of decision-making in times of crisis, you can reach about several situational approaches to leadership at our main page: leadership styles. For a complete walk-through of the autocratic leadership style, I recommend our article on the topic: Autocratic Leadership Explained by a CEO. Keep on reading for an in-depth commentary on how an autocratic leader affects employee motivation. Before that, let’s give a brief overview of the autocratic leadership style, and its elements, excerpted from our autocratic leadership article.

The essentials of Autocratic Leadership

Autocratic leadership is based on the following:

  • Central authority is strong, and decisions are taken without asking others (essentially the opposite of democratic leadership)
  • Followers are to a certain level motivated by fear and with awards, threats, and punishment
  • A strong, confident autocratic leader that the followers trust (in some cases at least)

The autocratic leader doesn’t have to be bad, evil, and rude, though, even if it sounds like it when one reads the above bullets. In many cases, an autocratic leader is simply assertive, doesn’t take no for an answer, and expects total and complete obedience – without being a monster.

Autocratic leadership can start with obedience through fear, which can later transition to actual trust in the leader. Trust will build if the autocratic leader honors his or her word and reaches organizational success with clear credit to the leader and the leader’s decisions. After a while, the followers will start to follow orders based on trust rather than fear, and the autocratic leader’s power can continue to grow.
Fear without trust is more likely to lead to the followers refusing to obey, challenging, or even disposing of the leader somehow.

The autocratic leader has to calibrate the fear of punishment and other types of pressure properly. Too much fear and people will leave or revolt, too little and performance will drop. If you build your leadership on obedience, there must be a consequence to disobedience, right?

In the end, unless the autocratic leader is put into place by someone of higher authority, tradition, or by also using charismatic leadership (learn more here: leadership styles), he or she will need some sort of legitimacy for people to obey continuously. The authority to punish is one thing, but having a track record of success for the leader and the followers leads to long-term legitimacy, and that type of autocracy is more likely to survive the test of time.

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There is a certain lure with autocracy and its simplicity. It’s not uncommon to hear historical examples of the strong, autocratic leader, who took power and brought people glory. You can read more about the autocratic leader as a savior in our article on autocratic leadership.

How does autocratic leadership affect motivation?

Employees are generally motivated through involvement, empowerment, and transparency. A great vision, a noble cause, an impact on society (such as in Servant Leadership or Spiritual Leadership, we have articles on both here: leadership styles) can build further motivation and belief in the importance of work. Autocratic leaders generally do the complete opposite.

Autocratic leaders make all decisions. In lighter versions, they consult others before making their decisions. Employees who cannot affect their own situations, their day, what they do, and how they do it, feel less creative and less important. Autocratic leadership affects motivation negatively by reducing empowerment to a minimal level.

Autocratic leaders tend to retain and hoard information resulting in a need-to-know basis type of approach. If the employees are expected to do what they are told, why bother them with information beyond what is necessary to complete the orders and tasks at hand? The autocratic leader makes all the decisions, and giving additional people access to information might threaten the leader’s position. What if others start making decisions on their own? Employees who lack purpose, knowledge of how they fit into a larger picture, etc., are less motivated than those with access to information. (Here is a great story underlining why leaders should listen to others, even if they are in charge: Why leaders should speak last.)

Let us spend a moment on the performance aspect of autocratic leadership.

How does Autocratic leadership affect employee performance?

Autocratic leadership affects employee performance negatively in the long term. Still, it can lead to brief and temporary increases in productivity and performance, especially in transactional work environments that require little skill on the part of the employees.

Just think of the fact that one person makes all the decisions in autocratic leadership. If the autocratic leader is not present or incapacitated somehow, no decision will be made, and performance will drop significantly. (Refer to our article on Autocratic Leadership vs. Laissez-Faire leadership for constrast.)

Let us combine how autocratic leaders affect motivation and how autocratic leadership affects employee performance by addressing the fear and punishment that is so often associated with autocratic leaders.
Autocratic leaders often rely on fear and punishment to ensure their orders are carried out fast and with complete obedience. Punishment could be loss of bonus, working longer hours, getting the worst shifts, or simply being scolded or bullied in the workplace. People can indeed work hard under the threat of punishment, but only when the leader monitors them or when their efforts are easily measured. Since employees rarely believe and trust autocratic leaders (perhaps with the exception of charismatic leadership, which is somewhat related), they tend to do the bare minimum to avoid punishment. Forget about going the extra mile for the leader or the organization. Again, this is an example of how autocratic leadership affects motivation negatively.

How to avoid the detrimental effects Autocratic Leadership has on motivation and performance?

What to do then? What should an autocratic leader do to increase employee motivation and performance? The answer is simple but sometimes tricky to implement: Stop being an autocratic leader. I even offer an alternative to you right here at Leadershipahoy.com. Please read our article on the Six Leadership Styles by Daniel Goleman and learn a leadership framework that leads to engagement, harmony, and extraordinary performance. I have used those styles myself for years with great success. You can access that leadership framework and many other modern ones on our overview page: leadership styles. (We have articles on more than 25 leadership styles accessible there.)

As with everything, there are exceptions also to the statement that autocratic leadership leads to poor motivation and low engagement among employees. Employees with particular expectations can actually enjoy autocratic leadership, but the common traits of such employees do not make you think of great success or strong performance at all. You can read more about that and many other aspects of autocratic leadership in my book Leadership Styles Classics: Autocratic, Democratic and Laissez-Faire (Amazon) or in our main article on the style here: Autocratic Leadership Explained by a CEO: Definition, Pros and Cons, Examples.