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How to Handle an Autocratic Manager

Question:

I work for a manager who is a retired, very successful Captain of a submarine for the US Navy. There are 45 people under this manager varying in age from 21-50, and we are losing people from our team left and right due to his autocratic management style. This management style worked very well for him as a Navy Captain, but in the civilian world we don’t know what to do. What can our team do to work together and change this so that we can enjoy coming to work again?

Answer:

Military officers have a distinct “command and control” management style. In the military this type of management style is encouraged and rewarded, so the former Captain is managing in a way that’s familiar and comfortable for him.

Before the manager changes his management style, he has to see that it’s in his best interest to change. Since the old style was effective for him and he knows no other approach, he won’t even consider anything else until and unless he understands his autocratic style is not acceptable in his new environment.

It’s quite possible that this manager won’t hear any constructive criticism from anyone “under” him in the “chain of command.” He may listen to a person he considers a peer and will listen to his immediate supervisor or someone in a higher-level position. For this reason, you should have a representative of the team meet with either the manager’s boss or the top HR person. In sharing the team’s concerns, the representative must be very specific. What is the behavior that’s causing problems? What are specific examples of instances that have caused team members to be dissatisfied or disrespected? Do you know for certain that former employees resigned because of this person? Would they be willing to say this to the manager’s supervisor? Be sure to balance the criticism with areas where the manager is strong, such as his expertise or insights based on experience.

The manager would undoubtedly benefit from one-on-one coaching from a person he respects. If he is to change from his autocratic management style, he needs to have some new skills. The best coach for him would be a seasoned peer that he trusts, his supervisor, a top-level HR person within the organization, or an external consultant.

In the meantime, team members should speak up when the manager is too directive without sharing why he has issued orders or hasn’t asked for input from the team before making decisions that affect the team. Be sure to say why you’re making suggestions or asking questions, i.e. to ensure that the product or service is of excellent quality for customers, etc. Otherwise, the manager may feel that his authority is simply being questioned and this is very threatening for a person with his background and training.

Having good employee relations is key to effectively managing (and retaining) your workforce. Employees want to feel valued and may not perform up to standards, or stick around very long, if they don’t feel they are needed. Strategic HR, inc. understands the value of your workforce and having good Employee Relations. We’ve helped companies create reward and recognition programs and have coached managers on providing support and mentoring to their employees. Learn how we can help you with your employee relations needs by visiting our Employee Relations page.