Exploring the dysfunctional autocratic behavior of leaders who believe that employees should innovate because they tell them to.

If you’re frustrated as to why your employees haven’t come to you with new ideas despite your repeated encouragement to innovate, you’re not alone. Many leaders have jumped on the “innovation” bandwagon without considering what this actually means to employees or to their organization. They’ve read it’s important and something a leader needs to do to be a “good” leader and to succeed. Autocratic leaders tend to believe what they think without really looking at all of the other factors involved. Their fixed beliefs and lack of self-awareness can cause them to shut innovation down rather than increase it in their organization.

A working definition of innovation is “the practical implementation of ideas that result in the introduction of new goods or services or improvement in offering goods or services. Changes to an existing process or system that results in improved efficiency”. There are also other definitions, but most have the common elements of newness, improvement, and output of ideas. Innovation is similar to, but not the same as invention. Innovation involves the practical implementation of an idea to increase the efficiency or effectiveness of what currently exists.

There is a time in the life cycle of an organization for innovation and other times when innovation and experimentation with too many new things simply lead to chaos and instability. This is caused by the Autocratic Leader’s “I think therefore I am” mentality. It results in the leader being more attached to his/her idea or image of what is important rather than knowing and being present to the needs of the business to lay a solid foundation and for employees to feel secure.

Leaders can inadvertently set employees up for failure when they attach to fixed ideas and beliefs. This article explores some of the reasons why employees resist innovation and the fixed beliefs of Autocratic Leaders that lead to power struggles and employee demotivation.

Here are a few fixed beliefs of the Autocratic Leader and how employees respond:

Innovation is Easy

The fixed belief that innovation is easy Is one of the key reasons leaders don’t get the response they anticipate from employees. When they promote the importance of innovation to employees, they believe employees will automatically model their behavior and just be innovative. Their image of themselves is one of embodying best practices for innovation and that they are actually walking the talk. What employees experience is often very different. This type of leader is often themselves stuck in conforming to the status quo and will reject new ideas or ideas they haven’t come up with themselves.

Employees react to this notion that innovation is easy with fear and anxiety. For example, if they don’t find it easy, and don’t come up with anything, what does this say about them? They might be too busy just keeping up with the amount of work on their plate to have any time at all to think about how to improve things. They end up feeling like they are failing, embarrassed that they have nothing to contribute, and are demotivated and deflated by the notion they still aren’t getting it right. Stuck in simply surviving in their role, adds to the burden they already carry when there are other unrealistic expectations, or when the company is in chaos because the leader loves and prioritizes innovation more than building a secure foundation for the company and employees.

Everyone is Innovative

The notion that everyone’s brain is wired to innovate is a limiting fixed belief that belies the reality of how many people’s brains are organized. Autocratic Leaders who believe that if it is easy for them, it should be easy for everyone else will judge employees who think differently than them as “stupid” or “resistant”. They don’t look at what employees need to become innovative or see it as a skill to be learned. Instead, they compare employees to themselves with the employee coming up short. Operating from this belief allows them to abdicate responsibility for getting further involved with employees and from their responsibility to teach, coach, and cultivate innovation. They can blame employees for not being innovative instead of showing them what it means in the employee’s role and how to think about something in an innovative way.

Everyone is not naturally innovative and many brain styles perceive the way things have been and are and can’t imagine possibilities. Many leaders who think they are innovative often don’t know the meaning of the word and what it requires to inspire innovation in employees. Innovation requires the cultivation of an open mindset receptive to new ideas and the psychological safety needed to eliminate the fear of trying new things. When a leader operates from autocratic fixed beliefs and promotes “shoulds” instead of responding to where employees are actually at, they shut innovation down by increasing fear. Most leaders don’t know how to create psychological safety, and Autocratic Leaders often have the belief that their employees trust them without actually ever asking to find out if it’s true. When employees are expected to be innovative just because the boss says they should, it increases anxiety and fear, diminishing psychological safety and decreasing the potential for innovation.

No One Should Be Afraid to Put Ideas Forward

One of the top limiting beliefs of Autocratic Leaders is that employees shouldn’t be afraid. Their notion of themselves as being open and approachable is not necessarily the experience of employees. In addition, leaders have no control over what employees project onto them due to their relationship with authority and if this is discounted, leaders end up saying things like, “I told them I have an open-door policy, but no one ever comes and asks me anything.” or “I told them to bring me their thoughts to the meeting and no one contributed.” To really tap into the potential of employees to innovate, leaders need to create a system and culture where trust, transparency, and collaboration are not just ideas but are emulated by all leaders and managers. Autocratic Leaders who don’t see innovation in this way will become frustrated by employees, not looking to themselves as the cause of the fear that is shutting people down. Their lack of emotional self-awareness and empathy causes them to dismiss emotional drivers of employee behavior.

I Can Say What I Want because I’m the Boss

Autocratic Leaders who lack empathy don’t realize how harmful their words are to an employee’s psychological security and trust in them. A few common fixed beliefs such as “I can say whatever I want because I’m the boss;” Employees shouldn’t feel embarrassed if I tell them their idea is stupid;” or “Why are you wasting my time; we’ve already tried that” cause employees to feel embarrassed or ashamed for having the courage to try. Because Autocratic Leaders feel disrespected when employees don’t act the way they want them to, they will act out of frustration or they may honestly think it’s a way to correct their employee’s performance or behavior not realizing it is doing the opposite.

Employees who see that there are two different sets of rules for behavior — one for the boss and another for everyone else — are less likely to innovate. This duality diminishes trust and shuts down initiative and innovation. Saying shaming things and not taking responsibility for how it destroys morale is a blind spot for the Autocratic Leader and one they have a lot of trouble seeing or owning. It leads to power struggles, hostility, and passive-aggressive behavior from employees to name a few. It takes leaders further from the goal of getting employees to engage in helping the company improve its overall performance and market share.

What to Do…

If you truly want your employees to innovate, you have to realize that as a leader, you can’t just tell employees they have to and then wait for them to innovate. Nor can you label your culture “innovative” or say it is one of your company’s core values and expect it to magically happen. If you don’t define it and look to your own behavior to see how you are shutting it down with your fixed ideas and behavior, you will never get your expectations met. Getting people to share their ideas and take risks requires the building of trust and psychological security.

In the absence of trust in their boss, they will be afraid to come forward and share their ideas. A lack of trust in the culture overall creates silos with everyone hunkering down and surviving; where employees won’t take even small risks let alone big ones. Autocratic Leaders will never get innovation out of their employees as long as they don’t see themselves as a part of the problem. It is within the power of any leader to create a culture that makes it safe for innovation and get the innovation they want. However, it must be seen as something created over time with a clear process and system; a psychologically safe context for employees bringing ideas forward. And if leaders fail to create that culture, they are destined to continue to complain about it, blaming employees for their own failure to lead. If leaders want innovation, they must consider the human side of the equation and foster psychological safety by not shaming or penalizing them for their attempts to innovate. They must build trust by building interpersonal bonds, encouraging employee authenticity by being authentic themselves.

While it’s not spelled out in a role profile or job description, it is a leader’s job to create a culture where trust diminishes fear. This is the key to innovation, employee engagement, and keeping the organization competitive. Challenging their mindset and fixed beliefs opens the Autocratic Leader to the reality of what employees and the organization need.


Anne and Heather are organizational and leadership development experts at Caliber Leadership Systems, a boutique consulting firm specializing in dismantling of dysfunction in organizations.  They are dedicated to empowering individuals, leaders, and organizations to achieve their potential by leveraging their expertise in the neurobiology of human development combined with system thinking approach. They wear many hats – Consultants, Executive Coaches, Trainers, Speakers and Authors – adapting their expertise and solutions to meet the needs of their clients. They bring a unique depth and breadth of knowledge and experience that gives clients the benefit of all of our disciplines to help them achieve their goals.

As experts in human development and behavioral change, leadership and organizational transformation, interpersonal dynamics and the achievement of potential, Anne and Heather have worked with thousands of leaders and individuals from around the world, been featured in dozens of publications, spoken at professional conferences, and written several series of books on personality type and the brain based on the Striving Styles® and Myers-Briggs Type Indicator®.

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