Weighing the Pros and Cons of Autocratic Decision Making

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When it comes to project management, autocratic decision making can be a valuable tool for achieving success. But it is not without its drawbacks; the pros and cons of this style must be carefully weighed before implementing any decisions.

In this blog post, we’ll look at what autocratic decision making is, when you should use it in your projects, how it fits with leadership styles, strategies for successful implementation within the workplace, and more! Join us as we explore the complexities of autocratic decision making.

What is autocratic decision making?

Autocratic decision making is a style of management where decisions are made unilaterally by one person, without input from other stakeholders. This type of decision-making is often seen in authoritarian environments and can be beneficial when time is of the essence or when a quick response to an issue needs to be taken.

The decision-making process is barely a process. It involves a single individual having complete control over the decision. The individual has full authority to make decisions without consulting with anyone else or taking into account any opinions from others.

It is typically used in situations where there isn’t enough time for consensus building, such as during emergencies or times of crisis.

That makes it not a brilliant choice for most project-related decisions, to be honest. Yes, there are some crisis moments on projects where you need the sponsor to take control and just make the call.

But mostly, projects are better where you work collaboratively to uncover issues and review all the potential solutions with input from all stakeholders.

Examples of autocratic decision making

An example of this decision-making style would be if an organization needed to quickly respond to a customer complaint and had no time for discussion among all parties involved; the manager could make an autocratic decision on how best to handle it without seeking input from other team members.

Another example would be if a project was running behind schedule and needed immediate attention; the project manager could decide which tasks need priority and instruct the team to work on those.

One benefit of autocratic decision making is that it allows for quick responses in urgent situations, which can help prevent further damage or losses due to delays in action. This is helpful in situations where time is money.

For example, we have had contracts in place with suppliers that include penalties for late delivery. Every day the supplier is late, they pay. That would certainly focus the team to do some quick decision making and get their aspect of the work back on track.

Drawbacks of autocratic decision making

As you can imagine, this style of getting things done is not without its challenges.

Autocracy does not allow room for creativity or collaboration between different teams within an organization. That could undermine your change activities, engagement work, ability to deliver and lead to rubbish results.

When the person making the decision doesn’t have all the facts, the skill or the expertise to make a judgement call, that’s bad. And unfortunately, it happens. Complex decision-making and autocracy don’t feel to me like very good partners.

Have you ever felt like your opinion (which was a good one) was overlooked by the decision maker? Yes, I’ve been there too. I think this experience leads to resentment among team members who feel like their opinions were disregarded. In turn, that could lead to low morale within the team and decreased productivity over time as well as high turnover rates amongst employees who do not feel valued by their leaders.

Do you want to take that risk?

Personally, I think the drawbacks in a project setting outweigh the benefits (speed, single point of authority) but let’s look now at some times where it would be appropriate to go with this management style.

So, are there any benefits?

Benefits of using autocratic decision making

The primary benefit of autocratic decision making is speed.

The decision-making power sits with one person so choices can be made quickly without consulting anyone else. That can help keep projects on track and ensure deadlines are met.

Additionally, since only one person makes all the decisions, it eliminates any potential disagreements between team members about how things should proceed which helps maintain focus and efficiency within a project team.

But, meh. If you’ve done proper planning, you should have enough time (except in a major issue situation) to engage stakeholders for the vast majority of decisions.

Read next: The Impact of Framing in Decision Making

When to use autocracy

Autocratic decision making may be appropriate when quick action needs to be taken and there isn’t enough time for consultation with team members or stakeholders.

This could include emergency situations such as natural disasters or security threats, or urgent deadlines on projects that require immediate attention from the leader. In these cases, autocratic decision making allows the leader to take control of the situation and make decisions quickly without having to wait for input from others.

It’s helpful too where the decision maker has enough or more experience than others. That gives the rest of the team a bit of confidence that they know what they are doing and they’ll make the right call.

Equally, sometimes you just have to make a decision to keep the work moving. Having someone who can make an ‘executive order’ so your project doesn’t stagnate can be a good thing.

As decision-making methods go, it has its place.

How does autocratic decision-making fit with leadership?

Leaders – which would be all of us, as leadership is a skill you can demonstrate at work without any formal leader-y role – make decisions all the time, often decisions that affect other people.

An autocrat leader makes all the decisions and expects their team to follow them without question. Sounds fun.

Autocrat leaders typically have strong personalities, are confident in their own abilities, and can be very persuasive when it comes to getting people to do what they want. Have you met any in your organization?

They often rely on their own experience and knowledge rather than considering other perspectives or input from those around them. They also tend to be highly organized and efficient, as well as results-oriented.

One advantage of having an autocrat leader is that decisions can be made quickly since there’s no need for discussion or debate among team members. This type of leadership also encourages efficiency since tasks are completed with minimal time wasted on debating different options or strategies.

This style of leadership can help create a sense of order within the organization by setting clear expectations for employees regarding how things should be done and who has authority over certain tasks or projects.

But doesn’t that sound like micromanaging to you?

The downside of an autocrat leader is that they may not always make the best decisions as they do not take into account other opinions or ideas from their team members. This could lead to missed opportunities or mistakes due to lack of information and insight from those involved in the project or task at hand.

And let’s stress how negative it can feel to work under an autocrat who tells you every little thing to do and there is no freedom of action.

Strategies for taking autocratic decisions

OK, let’s say you are in a project leadership role, perhaps as a sponsor, senior project manager or program manager – someone who has full authority over the project. How do you go about taking an autocratic decision?

Let’s say there is no need for consultation. The client has come to you with a problem and it needs to be fixed. You could do a long root cause analysis investigation, but you’ve seen this problem before and you’re 99% sure that you know what will fix it. It’s worth a try, right?

Let’s make the decision without upsetting too many people.

1. Communicate the decision clearly

Tell people what you have decided and why.

2. Tell people what is expected of them

Make sure everyone knows what is expected of them, especially around the tasks to do and deadlines.

3. Listen to feedback

Yes, even though you’ve already made the decision and issued the directives, it is worth listening to feedback. Provide opportunities for team members to give input into these choices whenever possible.

4. Let them do the tasks their own way

You’ve made the decision. You don’t need to mandate how they enact the decision.

Let people have some freedom of action over how they meet the goals or deliver the task.

By setting clear expectations, communicating decisions effectively, and providing opportunities for employee input and feedback, you can make sure that should you have to take a decision alone, you are doing it in the nicest way for the team and with the best outcome for everyone involved.

Use with caution!

Though the autocratic style of leadership may seem appealing due to its ability to deliver results quickly, long-term use can be detrimental to a project team and an organization more broadly. People don’t show up to work to be ignored, not consulted and told exactly what to do for every little thing.

Sometimes this style is appropriate, but mostly it’s not the best way for project teams to work as it isn’t collaborative or engaging and it goes against pretty much everything I write about in my book, Engaging Stakeholders on Projects: How to harness people power.  

I would strongly advise project professionals to use consensual decision-making and to wield your decision-making power really carefully. It’s up to you to make the right call, in every sense.

Key takeaways

  • Autocratic decision making can be beneficial in certain situations, such as emergencies or times of crisis, where quick responses are needed.
  • It’s important to recognize its limitations and ensure that creativity and collaboration between teams is not sacrificed for the sake of speed.
  • Without taking into account other perspectives or input from team members, decisions may not always be the best ones and morale could suffer if employees feel their opinions are not valued.
  • Consider the pros and cons before opting for taking a decision by yourself. If you need to, make sure people understand why you have made that choice, what the decision is and what they need to do next.

Quick FAQs

What is an example of autocratic decision-making?

This style of decision-making often results in the leader having complete control over the project and its outcome, with little to no consideration for other team members’ opinions or ideas.

Autocratic decision-making can be beneficial when quick decisions need to be made, but it can also lead to an unbalanced power dynamic within a team and ultimately hinder creativity and collaboration.

What are the 4 decision-making styles?

1. Directive: This is the autocratic style and involves making decisions quickly and decisively, with the leader taking full responsibility for the outcome.

2. Analytical: This approach requires gathering data, analyzing it carefully, and then making a decision based on facts and logic.

3. Consultative: Here the leader seeks input from others before making a decision but still retains ultimate authority to make the final call.

4. Participative: Leaders involve their team in all aspects of decision-making by encouraging open dialogue and collaboration among members to reach consensus on solutions or outcomes.

How does an autocratic manager make decisions?

An autocratic manager makes decisions unilaterally, without consulting or considering the input of others. They rely on their own judgement and experience to make decisions that they believe are in the best interest of the organization. Autocratic managers typically have a top-down approach, where employees must follow orders without question or discussion. This type of management style can be effective when quick decision making is needed, but it often leads to lower morale among team members who feel unheard and unappreciated.

What is directing autocratic leadership?

Directing autocratic leadership is a style of management in which the leader has complete control over decision-making and delegates tasks to subordinates. This type of leadership focuses on top-down communication, with decisions being made by the leader without input from team members. The leader’s authority is absolute and their decisions are final. Directing autocratic leaders may use rewards or punishments to motivate employees, but ultimately rely on their own judgment when making decisions for the team.

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