In praise of autocratic democracy

Jan 19 2011 by Myra White Print This Article

As we sped down the large superhighway from the Hongqiao Airport to the center of Shanghai, it was difficult to believe that I was in China. When I was invited to speak on leadership at an HR Summit in Shanghai, I had envisioned a very different China - one with crowded streets, tightly packed buildings and overt signs of poverty.

Instead the roads were better than those in Boston, my home base. The city's broad streets were clean. Elegant skyscrapers were scattered along the Huangpu, the large river that winds through the middle of Shanghai, in a pattern that ensured that no one building overshadowed another. At night artfully positioned lights highlighted the special architectural features of buildings and enhanced the contrasts between the old and new buildings.

Impressed I marveled to my host about how China had accomplished this in such a brief period of time. He responded that an autocratic democracy has its advantages. This made think about the difficulties that U.S. companies have in implementing change. Is their embrace of democratic management practices putting them at a disadvantage in a world where rapid change is the norm?

Interestingly, U.S. management practices were much more autocratic, like those in China, during the period following World War II, a period in which the U.S. made itself into a major economic power. Employees respected the authority of their managers and readily complied with their directives.

In turn management did what it believed was best for the company without feeling that it needed to involve employees in these decisions or to spend large sums of money on programs designed to cajole employees into adopting its change agendas.

This changed with the introduction of modern participative management practices which have served to democratize the U.S. workplace and undermine management authority. Students at U.S. business schools are now taught that being a "manager" no longer carries much authority. They are instructed that they can no longer tell people what to do. Instead they must use influence tactics to motivate and manipulate the employees whom they manage into doing their jobs.

Practices, like 360 evaluations, in which employees critique their managers, have further eroded any lingering authority that managers may have. If an employee doesn't like his manager or thinks that he is too demanding, he can give him a bad evaluation. As a consequence, managers who push for high performance can find themselves having to explain to their bosses why they received negative comments on their 360 evaluations.

A side effect of this empowerment of employees and disempowerment of management is that personal conflicts are now considered a normal part of the U.S. workplace. In this new culture of equality employees seem more comfortable expressing the unpleasant aspects of their personalities and giving full vent to their negative feelings towards colleagues.

One of the consequences is that managers must now devote a large proportion of their time to psychologically tending their employees. They are expected to be psychological gurus who both counsel their employees while at the same time probing their psyches to figure out how to motivate and energize them to do work without incurring their ill will.

Another problem with too much workplace equality and democracy is that it is costly and reduces productivity. Allowing everyone to participate in decisions is time consuming and doesn't always result in the best decisions.

It can also create a culture in which employees who are self-motivated and committed to doing a good job can become workplace pariahs. A recent psychological study at Washington State University found that employees who work hard and willingly take on unpleasant tasks without complaining are disliked by both their coworkers and managers. Coworkers resent them and managers find them unsettling because they don't know how to deal with employees who don't need to be psychologically conned and manipulated into doing work.

From this perspective it is no wonder that China's economy with its more authoritarian approach is booming. In China respect for the authority still exists. It begins at school where teachers are respected and held in high esteem and continues in the workplace where the managers serve as employees' new teachers. As a result, managers are freed to focus on the work of the company rather than the psychological tending of their employees.

If U.S. companies want to compete in the new rapid-paced economy, they may need to reintroduce some authoritarianism into their workplaces. This does not mean a move back to the dehumanizing labor conditions that once existed. Sports teams and the military demonstrate that more authoritarian management practices are often valued by employees. People who work for such organizations take pride in being a part of them and contributing to their success.

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About The Author

Myra White
Myra White

Myra White teaches managing workplace performance and organizational behavior at Harvard University and is a clinical instructor at Harvard Medical School. She is the author of "Follow the Yellow Brick Road: A Harvard Psychologist's Guide to Becoming a Superstar", a book based on her research into how over 60 well-known people became superstars.