How an Authoritarian Leadership Style Blocks Effective Negotiation

An authoritarian leadership style tends to cut off communication, information sharing, and trust building. As a result, it can backfire on the powerful and prevent win-win agreements.

By Katie Shonkon / Leadership Skills

authoritarian leadership style

Those who favor an authoritarian leadership style, also known as an autocratic leadership style, tend to believe their approach to management is more efficient and decisive than a more collaborative leadership style. But because a top-down approach can heighten the power differential between leaders and those who report to them, it often backfires, generating resentment and ill will among followers. In particular, highlighting the role of leadership in negotiation, an authoritarian leadership style may cause leaders to miss out on opportunities to reach mutually beneficial agreements, both inside their organization and beyond.

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A Top-Down Style

Since taking office in 2019, Florida’s Republican governor, Ron DeSantis, has worked with the state legislature to consolidate power at the state level while also blocking local public-health mandates during the Covid-19 pandemic, as an article on DeSantis’s leadership style in the Washington Post reports.

Many Republicans in Florida and beyond view DeSantis as an effective leader who has pushed back against what they view as overreactions to the Covid-19 pandemic by mayors and other officials. But some local leaders in Florida have been frustrated by what they see as DeSantis’s top-down leadership style and insufficient communication. For example, speaking to the Post, Hialeah mayor Carlos Hernandez, a Republican, called DeSantis “a dictator,” while Democratic St. Petersburg mayor Rick Kriseman said he had never been able to reach the governor on the phone.

Lack of communication, a hallmark of an authoritarian leadership style, frequently backfires on leaders, as followers often resist complying with orders they don’t understand or support.

Unchecked Power

A top-down, or authoritarian, leadership style is often carried out in a fully professional manner. But at times, an authoritarian leadership style can cross the line into unfair and even abusive behavior.

Take the case of another recent U.S. governor, Andrew Cuomo, who resigned after numerous employees accused him of fostering a toxic workplace culture. According to a state investigation, Cuomo sexually harassed 11 women while in office. And many people who worked for Cuomo, men and women alike, have accused him of creating a toxic workplace where he regularly yelled at and insulted employees.

Cuomo’s replacement, Kathy Hochul, told the New York Times she would bring a “collaborative approach to government,” saying she was “hard-wired to view everything that Albany does through the lens of a local town, city, county official.” She added, “I know that is going to be a breath of fresh air.”

How Does an Authoritarian Leadership Style Affect Negotiation?

Notably, an authoritarian leadership style is often at odds with best practices for leadership and negotiation. Consider that those who favor an authoritarian style tend to be powerful leaders negotiating with less powerful parties. In their approach to negotiation and leadership, the powerful often veer toward asserting their will—and make the following mistakes:

  1. They underestimate those with less power. Powerful negotiators tend to discount the power of less powerful players, Notre Dame professor Ann E. Tenbrunsel and the late Northwestern University professor David Messick found in their research. Overly self-confident perceptions can lead powerful negotiators to offer fewer concessions than needed to get a deal and to treat others with less respect and recognition than they may deserve. The result? Impasse, suboptimal deals, or retaliation by the less powerful.

  2. They are less prepared. The key to negotiation success is preparation, yet powerful negotiators often tend to undervalue the need to thoroughly prepare to negotiate, according to Tenbrunsel. Those with power are more likely to fall back on cognitive shortcuts when processing information—which leads them to ignore their counterparts’ interests and pass up opportunities to create value for both sides. The powerful, including authoritarians, may also end up being out-strategized by counterparts who spent more time preparing to negotiate.

  3. They fail to anticipate a backlash. Power can trigger resentment, jealousy, and competitiveness in those with less power. As a result, parties with less power are likely to approach negotiations with more powerful parties more aggressively than they would negotiations with less powerful parties. But the powerful are often unaware that they tend to inspire animosity, Tenbrunsel and Messick found in their research; in fact, the more powerful people are, the more trustworthy they expect others to be. Yet those with an authoritarian leadership style are unlikely to take the time needed to build trust with negotiating partners. As a result, they could find that their counterparts are less trustworthy than they expected them to be.

For these reasons and others, an authoritarian leadership style is typically antithetical to effective negotiation. Generally, leaders will benefit from taking a more collaborative approach to leadership and negotiation. That includes taking time to build trusting relationships, preparing thoroughly for negotiation, and never underestimating counterparts. In addition, it means approaching both leadership and negotiation with humility, understanding that everyone has something to contribute and that power can be measured in different ways.

By shifting their stance toward collaboration and cooperation, the powerful will not only set themselves up to construct win-win agreements but also embody more effective leadership.

Have you had experience with an authoritarian leadership style? If so, how did it affect negotiations in your organization or industry? 

Claim your FREE copy: Real Leaders Negotiate

If you aspire to be a great leader, not just a boss, start here: Download our FREE Special Report, Real Leaders Negotiate: Understanding the Difference between Leadership and Management, from Harvard Law School.