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Autocratic versus Democratic Approaches in the Workplace

Autocratic versus Democratic Approaches in the Workplace

Even though there are a variety of quite subtle approaches any leader can take, many management experts suggest that most of the time it boils down to only two – an autocratic or a democratic approach. In other words, we tend to find in practice that most managers and leaders adopt one or other of these approaches in general (even though some may switch between them in different circumstances at times).

The Autocratic Approach

When using this approach, the leader takes most decisions without consulting others and taking most of the decisions by him or herself (at least for the most part). An autocratic approach works when there is little or no need for input on the decision, where the decision would not change as a result of input, and/or where the motivation of people to carry out subsequent actions would not be affected, whether they were or were not involved in the decision-making.

The Democratic Approach

When using the democratic approach (sometimes also called a consultative or participative approach), the leader involves people in discussions and final decision-making. People usually appreciate being consulted, especially if they have been used to more autocratic decisions with which they disagreed in the past. However, this approach can be problematic when there are a wide range of opinions and there is no clear way of reaching consensus or when there is a lot of time pressure. 

Perhaps most famously, the researchers Tannenbaum and Schmidt put these two approaches in one single diagram to show the differences.

Tannenbaum and Schmidt Diagram

Another management writer that talks a lot about autocratic and democratic approaches was Douglas McGregor, although he called it Theory X (autocratic) and Theory Y (democratic). McGregor distinguished to two approaches as follows: 

Theory X (Autocratic)

Theory Y (Democratic)

Manager’s View of Work  Work is a source of dissatisfaction. We must compensate for this through pay and benefits and telling people what to do most of the time. Work can be satisfying and challenging… a major opportunity to test people’s talents and develop them more fully.
Manager’s View of Employees or Followers Employees want less responsibility and challenges. They are dependent on supervisors to make decisions, solve problems, set goals, and keep them productive. Employees want more responsibility and challenge. They are capable of making decisions, solving problems, and setting goals for themselves if we but let them.
Motivation Used by Manager Carrot and stick: set up system of rewards and punishments to entice and coerce employees. Work is inherently appealing: use it to give challenge, sense of achievement, recognition, responsibility, and growth.
Expectations This manager expects less of people than they are capable of – and often gets it! ”Expect the worst and you won’t be surprised.” This manager expects more of people than they knew they were capable of – and often gets it! ”Expect the best (not perfection) and people will give their best effort.”
The Working Relationship ”Employees are here to extend my effectiveness.” ”I am here to extend the effectiveness of my employees.”
Motivation of Employees  They spend most of their energy keeping the boss happy, harvesting the carrots, and avoiding the stick. They invest their time meeting goals and standards that they and the manager have agreed to jointly.
The Goal of the Organization for Employees   To have workers trained as well-oiled machines that make few errors, require little maintenance, and function as highly dependable “automatons within a narrowly prescribed area of operations. To develop people to the point where each is a manager of his/her own time and talent, solving problems and making decisions within an expanding area of freedom and responsibility.

As we can see from both Tannenbaum and Schmidt and McGregor’s work (which are still very much utilized in the present day) these approaches are very different and will clearly vary greatly in their overall attractiveness in different organizations and cultures. The “trick” for a leader then is to appreciate which approach is likely to legitimately work best in each situation in which he or she find him/herself and to appreciate the impact it is going to have on their employees.

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About Dr. Jon Warner

Dr. Jon Warner is a prolific author, management consultant and executive coach with over 25 years experience. He has an MBA and a PhD in Organizational Psychology. Jon can be reached at

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About the Editor and Primary Author

Jon Warner

Jon Warner is an executive coach and management consultant and in the past has been a CEO in three very different companies. Read more

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