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An essential part of being content in the workplace is to have some awareness of the underlying personal dynamics that govern the environment, especially of your managers.

One of the hardest management types for gifted and analytically savvy people to work for is the authoritarian. This is the person who replies: “Just do it!” when you ask for advice or suggest you need more resources. You sit there baffled, because it’s precisely because you can’t do it that you brought it to his or her attention in the first place.

There are less direct but still clear indications of the authoritarian manager. I remember interviewing a New York sales manager who’d hung a framed poster on his wall. It showed a subordinate being kicked in the backside by his boss. The caption read: ‘Management isn’t a democracy!’

These signs of the authoritarian should be regarded as warnings to you if you tend to respond to this style in a negative way. You’d better stay clear because to take a job with this person promises nothing but misery for both of you. And, if you are the subordinate, it’s your backside that will eventually be kicked.

Most gifted people would be at risk in this environment. They are typically much too questioning and independent in their assessments and would therefore threaten the authoritarian type. They most thrive – and thus most benefit their employer – when their autonomy is respected.

However, there are many people for whom clear lines of authority and black and white thinking offer a sense of security. They can be most relaxed – and thus most effective – in an authoritarian environment which also offers unambiguous performance measures. For them, these signs of authoritarianism might be seen as positive.

Whichever personality type your are, if you find yourself in a subordinate role to an authoritarian manager, it is necessary to be self-protective. This is best achieved by ‘managing the manager’ from a point of dynamic understanding.

Inadequacy: the root of authoritarianism

The authoritarian approach, even when in everyone’s best interest, is always rooted in inadequacy. The manager who shouts: “Just do it!” is essentially saying s/he doesn’t know how to do it, doesn’t have the resources to work out how to do it, or simply doesn’t have the time to explain how to do it.

The person who shouts “Run!” as the ceiling begins to fall is similarly short on resources – mostly the ‘time’ resource – and resorts to an authoritarian approach in order to save lives.

The military is the classic example of institutionalized authoritarianism Here, the commanders and the commanded have essentially entered a tacit agreement that orders will be followed unquestioningly. This is understood to be in the interests of mutual survival because resources such as time, information, and perhaps IQ are likely to be short on the battlefield.

This agreement only breaks down when less competent officers are put in charge of more competent men, as recurred during the Vietnam war. Fragging inevitably ensued, again in the interest of survival of the larger number. This is not recommended in the conventional workplace . . .

Openness: the root of Authoritativeness

The authoritative manager, on the other hand, is the one who is sure enough within themselves to admit to ignorance when appropriate. They might then seek input from their staff to help arrive at a course of action, giving public credit to contributors of information and ideas.

Gifted and other thoughtful people gain a great deal of work satisfaction working with and for authoritative managers. They feel appreciated and respond by delivering far more than their contract demands. They also gain pleasure from their own growth in their role and from their sense of making a valued contribution.

Step with care

Ideally, you should ascertain at your job interview which kind of manager you’re likely to have. Ironically, the authoritarian might deny your right to ask such a direct question where the authoritative one might commend you for it.

If you feel you have to take a job under an authoritarian manager for its CV-building capabilities, or an authoritarian boss is put above you after you have taken a job, step with care.

If they are deeply anxious about their own adequacy they will probably quickly discern your skeptical attitude toward them and will resent you for it. Remember that the authoritarian approach is rooted in fear, and that frightened animals, including us, are potentially dangerous.

However, if you are able to recognize that their inadequacy doesn’t significantly impact you, you might consider making yourself indispensable to them. Learn to recognize where their shortcomings lie and provide them with the information and even the course of action they need to follow in their – and your – best interests.

Sooner or later you will have to move out from their jurisdiction, but you will feel better about this if you can plan it for yourself and bring it about in your own way.

Go on . . . Just do it!

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