As Ray Dalio, founder of the largest hedge fund in the world, writes in his book of management principles:
“Even the most benevolent leaders are prone to becoming more autocratic, if for no other reason than because managing a lot of people and having limited time to do it requires them to make numerous difficult choices quickly, and they sometimes lose patience with arguments and issue commands instead.”1
Even if you consider yourself benevolent (who doesn’t?), there is an ever-present impulse to be more autocratic—an impulse exacerbated by the situation. As a leader, if you want to encourage speaking up to improve decision making and team member satisfaction, you need to be more mindful of overcoming autocratic impulses and openly soliciting ideas from others. To openly solicit ideas from others is to be more democratic.
The distinction between autocratic and democratic leadership styles has a long history in applied psychology and was the focus of one of the “founding fathers” of the field, Kurt Lewin, who studied these leadership styles in the late 1930s. Understanding the consequences of these styles was of great personal and practical importance to Lewin. He was born in Poland and lived in Germany through most of his life, serving in the German army in World War I.
As a Jewish individual, Lewin fortuitously left Germany in the early 1930s and would work the remainder of his career in the U.S. As a scholar, he wanted to shed scientific light on the political turmoil that was happening in the world, such as the rise of Nazism in Germany. Thus, studying the effects of democratic and autocratic leadership was of utmost importance and an area of study that could use more precise evidence. As he asks in a 1939 publication, “Is not democratic group life more pleasant, but authoritarianism more efficient? These are the sorts of questions to which ‘opinionated’ answers are many and varied today, and to which scientific answers, are, on that account, all the more necessary.”2
To develop a scientific answer, Lewin and colleagues experimentally created three “social climates”—authoritarian, democratic, and laissez-faire. To create these “social climates,” an adult would act in accordance with one of these styles while leading a group of 10-year-old boys. To be authoritarian, the leader would determine all the policies of the group and dictate the work task. To be democratic, the leader would encourage group discussion about policies and facilitate group decision making. Laissez-faire leadership allowed complete freedom for the group with little or no participation from the leader. Accordingly, a laissez-faire style of leadership was deemed so ineffective for group functioning that it was abandoned in future studies as a leadership style.3
In Lewin’s studies, they found that when leaders were present, performance was roughly equal between the autocratic and democratic groups, but when the leaders left, performance declined for those in the autocratic group but not for the democratic group.4 They also found, as one might guess, more submission of group members to authoritarian leaders and a greater need for instructions and directions.
They also observed more hostility in the autocratic compared to the democratic group, most notably when the leader was absent. Among many factors, Lewin and colleagues surmised this was a result of the “tension” created in the group (what we might now call “stress”), and that this tension needed an outlet which was through hostility.5 While Lewin and colleagues were interested in how leadership styles promoted aggression, one might conclude that a more hostile environment with more submission is not a climate where individuals will freely speak their minds.
Although Lewin’s studies were with children, (with obvious drawbacks to interpreting the results in the workplace), the conceptual distinction between autocratic and democratic leaders was a major advance that helped leadership scholars in future decades. More recently, in a meta-analysis of 23 studies on the impact of leadership styles on productivity, democratic leadership was found to be more effective (compared to autocratic leadership) on “moderately or highly complex tasks.”6 In these tasks, you need the wisdom of the group to be fully used in comparison to the dictates of a leader.
In summarizing the field, John Gastil defined democratic leadership as “giving group members responsibility, improving the general abilities and leadership skills of other group members, and assisting the group in its decision-making process.”7 The below table offers an outline of the key features of autocratic and democratic leadership in their “pure forms.”
While autocratic leadership can be viewed more charitably–as occasionally being directive and making decisions with little input from others–it can be portrayed with stronger moral overtones. This includes being demeaning and abusive to subordinates and demanding loyalty and submissiveness.8 This, of course, can be a dangerous form of autocratic leadership, but as Dalio notes, a central point is overcoming autocratic impulses, which even the most benevolent of us might have given the circumstances. Thus, I am stressing how we might overcome being a “good-natured” autocrat, who, for whatever reason, is slipping towards being too directive and is making decisions with little or no deliberation from others.
While being autocratic or democratic is described in its pure form, we can, of course, switch styles given the dictates of the situation. When is being autocratic functional? When is being democratic functional? By and large, democratic leadership has many advantages. However, in some instances, the situation may warrant autocratic impulses, especially if there is time pressure. In addition, a leader’s judgment may be well-grounded given his or her experience in a domain, and thus his or her expertise and judgment is better than others.
Although in some situations this may be true, in others you need to harness all the knowledge and expertise of a diverse group to make the best decision possible. This requires, of course, a realization that you don’t know everything. A certain degree of intellectual humility is needed to realize that in most situations, but not all, the collective or majority will make a better decision than a single individual. This humility may be hard to come by but can often result from past failures where we realize our limitations.
While we can be both autocratic and democratic given a situation, we are also likely to be predisposed to one style over another. In an overview of the factors increasing the likelihood of being autocratic, Peter Harms of the University of Alabama and colleagues outline several factors. These include, among others, being less agreeable, having a high need for power, being less emotionally stable (e.g. suspicious), and being narcissistic. These are suggestive traits that impact one’s likelihood of being autocratic. One’s predisposition to be autocratic would be a very complex mix of someone’s inherited predispositions, life history, and situational conditions.
Thus, to improve performance on your team and encourage speaking up, ask yourself: Am I more autocratic or democratic? Only indulge your autocratic impulses at strategic moments. Avoid laissez-faire leadership at all costs and be mindful of being more democratic in your leadership style.
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1. (Dalio, 2017, p. 532).
2. (Lewin, Lippitt, & White, 1939, p. 271).
3. (Gastil, 1994a).
4. (Harms et al., 2018; White & Lippitt, 1960).
5. (Lewin, et al. 1939).
6. (Gastil, 1994a, p. 402).
7. (Gastil, 1994a, p. 403).
8. (Harms et al., 2018).
Dalio, R. (2017). Principles: Life and work. Simon & Schuster.
Gastil, J. (1994a). A meta-analytic review of the productivity and satisfaction of democratic and autocratic leadership. Small Group Research, 25(3), 384-410.
Gastil, J. (1994b). A definition and illustration of democratic leadership. Human Relations, 47(8), 953-975.
Harms, P. D., Wood, D., Landay, K., Lester, P. B., & Vogelgesang Lester, G. (2018). Autocratic leaders and authoritarian followers revisited: A review and agenda for the future. Leadership Quarterly, 29, 105-122.
Lewin, K., Lippitt, R., & White, R. K. (1939). Patterns of aggressive behavior in experimentally created “social climates.” Journal of Social Psychology, 10, 271-299.
White, R. K. & Lippitt, R. (1960). Autocracy and democracy: An experimental inquiry. Harper Brothers.
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