How to Avoid Hiring Autocratic Leaders

When hiring for managerial positions, the way you ask interview questions is especially critical.

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Apr 12, 2023

It will come as no surprise to most readers that employees generally don’t love autocratic, controlling, or dictatorial leaders. In fact, research shows that the least desired leader is one who monopolizes decision-making and strictly dictates how tasks should be executed.

And yet, every single organization has at least a few leaders (if not more) who exemplify that approach. So one of your tasks is to pinpoint folks with that style of leadership before they join and wreak havoc within your company.

Start by asking management candidates a question like, “Could you tell me about a time when one of your employees was missing deadlines?”

It’s an almost painfully open-ended question, and that’s by design. According to the report “Six Words That Ruin Behavioral Interview Questions,” most interview questions add phrases at the end of the question that de facto give away the “right” answer. For example, imagine that I asked a management candidate, “Could you tell me about a time when one of your employees was missing deadlines and you coached them to better performance?”

Those words at the end, “and you coached them to better performance,” tell the candidate that I don’t want to hear about a time they were frustrated with, or angry at, an employee. Those extra words also clearly connote that I only want to hear about cases where their coaching worked wonderfully. The problem is that if I’m going to learn whether the candidate has autocratic leanings, I’ll only learn that through their failures, not by hearing about their coaching successes.

Once you have a sufficiently open-ended question, your next step is to listen closely to the candidate’s response. Here’s an actual response that a managerial candidate gave to the question, “Could you tell me about a time when one of your employees was not meeting expectations?”

My job as a manager is to make sure that all of my subordinates meet or exceed my expectations. Ours is not a department where any missed deadlines are tolerable. But about a year ago, I had an employee who used to be a good performer start falling behind and missing deadlines. I called them in for a meeting and detailed all of the specific areas they needed to pick up and improve. We had check-ins every other day and tracked every one of their deadlines. There were a few times when they started to backslide and tried to make excuses, but I had clearly detailed everything with HR, so we had clear records, and they couldn’t shirk accountability.

It’s not hard to find serious warning signs in that answer. The use of the word “subordinates” doesn’t give off collaborative vibes, nor does “shirk” or “check-ins every other day.”

But perhaps more troubling is that the candidate doesn’t explain why their formerly good performer suddenly started missing deadlines. A manager with more of a coaching style would be very interested in understanding what precipitated the drop-off in performance. Was there a change in their job or life? Was burnout setting in?

It’s also interesting that the candidate doesn’t provide an ending to the story. Did the employee turn around and return to their previous good levels of performance? Did they end up on a performance improvement plan? The fact that the candidate doesn’t volunteer a resolution says a lot about them.

It’s true that the question didn’t require them to offer a resolution, but that’s a feature, not a bug. Some people are naturally solution-oriented and will automatically, with no prompting, offer solutions and resolutions. But candidates not similarly inclined will describe the problem and nothing more. When you’re hiring a manager or executive, which candidate would you rather hire: the natural problem-solver or the problem-bringer?

With an almost painfully open-ended interview question and some intense listening, you can spot managerial candidates inclined toward a dictatorial or autocratic style. Indeed, knowing how to avoid hiring autocratic managers is a critical skill for the vast majority of organizations.

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