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Living in harmony: tips for authoritarian managers and their subordinates

All high-level managers use an authoritarian management style from time to time. The wisest ones are extremely appreciative of the people who tolerate this manner.

When I was studying organizational structures of companies diverse in atmosphere and corporate culture, a Stanford professor’s diagrams stuck in my memory. Google was shown as a web, where arrows connected everyone with everyone. Apple was characterized by centripetal force with a “core” in the centre. And Facebook was drawn as an empty square with a single dot in the centre. A thorough explanation was given in response to the obvious question in the room: “In this company, there is only Mark Zuckerberg. Everything happens the way he wants it. There are no alternative opinions.” As it turns out, this is quite often how many successful companies operate – do whatever the owner says.

Against the current backdrop of interest in employees’ needs, the demands of Generations Y and Z, battling for staff and maintaining a company’s reputation, business books, the Internet and workshops spread the word about turquoise organizations and various management styles rooted in democracy and liberalism. Managing in the style of a coach effectively “orients” the managers toward their colleagues, elevating the value of empathy and emotional intelligence. Managers study the literature and sincerely try to follow the recommendations aimed at correcting their personal management style. However, at some point they all see the example of Steve Jobs as an extremely authoritarian leader, read Zuckerberg’s orders for all employees to switch to certain operating systems, or hear of top Russian managers prohibiting personal phone conversations. In practice, the authoritarian style cannot be avoided.

A manager’s style is their manner of personal behaviour toward subordinates in order to influence them and force them to do whatever needs to be done. To this end, business literature offers three or four style options, all of which apply to the essential areas of management – decision-making, communicating decisions to those responsible for execution, delegation of responsibility, attitude toward learning and professional development, discipline, and human interactions with subordinates.

I have not seen a single high-level leader who would not, under any circumstances, use an authoritarian style. Its application is a question of the multidimensionality of the management system itself, the complexity of tasks needing to be completed, time, and external factors that employees are generally unaware of. When giving instructions, the manager doesn’t see a need to overcomplicate things with explanations if there is a short and clear path to the goal in his mind. In this sense, authoritarian managers solve the task at hand internally. But if you were to ask them what style he or she likes to use, they would never admit to being a dictator or authoritarian.

When successful authoritarian managers (“do as I say”) use various liberal-democratic methods, we say “he conferred,” “we were asked,” or “he changed his mind after some discussion.” But the latest research suggests that, ultimately, the manager still relies on his or her intuition and experience to make decisions based on the information that he or she received through the process of consulting others, and not by any kind of group consensus.

Risks of authoritarian management

Not all promising prospective employees will want to work for a company where “the only right opinion is mine.” Many will either terminate their employment early on, or will not consider an employer like this at all.

Some people are unable to work under the pressure of a dictator, and the most valuable types of employees are often the most sensitive to leadership style. The lack of these employees, or losing them at a high turnover rate, can render business processes unstable.

Those willing and able to work under a dictator are worse and more difficult employees. To me, this type of employee has the most corrupting influence because their enthusiasm for mindlessly executing the manager’s decisions creates an unbearable environment for employees who are capable of critical thinking and self-starting.

Tips for authoritarian leaders

— If you find like-minded people who tolerate your “authoritarian style,” value them;

— Alter your communication style depending on your goals and priorities, as it may need to vary a lot even within a single style;

— Think about where you would want to allow for different opinions, discussions, concessions or delegation;

— Give positive feedback to those you truly value (provide at least some minimal objective feedback);

— Follow-up on whether employees are actually implementing the decision you made, otherwise you can have a false sense of control and manageability. It’s interesting to consider how Zuckerberg’s ban of iPhones will be executed?

A manager can exhibit good leadership behavior by expressing generosity through words, emotions and other forms of communication, even when they combine this with an authoritarian style. Alternatively, treating the team as lazy and mediocre while playing the role of savior and feeling entitled to unquestioned obedience in exchange for employment is extremely dangerous.

Tips for subordinates of authoritarian managers 

There’s not much help to offer employees working for an authoritarian company under a tyrannical leader. However, I have found that even the younger generations value the combination of professionalism, order, and discipline. That said, if the working conditions within a company are unbearable, the only possible advice is to quit. But this is not always the case in an authoritarian organization, and many people believe in strict hierarchy, clear delineation of roles and responsibilities, and straightforward communication and feedback.

If you start to feel discouraged:

— Strengthen your working and interpersonal relationships;

— Keep your manager updated on your work progress;

— Ask your manager for “permission” when taking action he or she will want to have signed off on ahead of time;

— Demonstrate enthusiasm and willingness upon receiving an order, then use clarifying questions to proceed toward the goal.

Additionally, it’s important to come to an agreement on a “psychological contract” with your manager that covers who is responsible for what and has final say in certain areas.

It is important to remember that authoritarian leaders often feel a large need for power or control, but internally strive to act in the best interests of the company. They are always motivated by personal accomplishments and aren’t committed to building a trusting and strong relationship with you.

It’s unfortunate if the manager in question is at the initial leadership level, and their power is only based on the job title and position. In this case, the tyrannical boss is sure he or she is best positioned to dictate what to do and how to do it. But if the authoritarian leader also demonstrates high-level productivity, achievement and/or development, it makes sense to help them to their ends and use the experience to grow.

The corporate “power” culture exists in so many Russian companies, and it should be accepted understandingly. Whatever your current boss is like (it’s safe to assume you work for them right now for some good reason), any guerrilla resistance in the given circumstances will only prevent cooperation and complicate the case even further.

There is a great lesson from Ray Dalio’s “Principles” – there is always a transition period between the bad “today” and the great “tomorrow.” This transition period is the time to try and see what works and what doesn’t, learn from mistakes, and gradually approach the ideal system.

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