Identifying the leadership methods that your team will respond the best to is an essential skill for any manager. Thoroughly understanding a variety of leadership styles can be a great way to build up this skill.
We all know the common stereotype of an overbearing boss that loves to micromanage, but what about the managers that are on the other end of the spectrum?
Those are the types of leaders that we will discuss in this article, leaders that prefer to step back and let things happen as they will. This is known as Laissez-Faire leadership.
What is Laissez Faire Leadership?
The Oxford Dictionary defines the term Laissez-Faire as “a policy or attitude of letting things take their own course, without interfering.”
With this in mind, we can see that leading with the Laissez-Faire leadership style is a very hands off approach. Leaders will provide little direction and allow their employees to direct their own workflow and make their own decisions.
Someone using this style of leadership will only step in if something has gone wrong or to provide critical feedback on how work could have been done better. Laissez-Faire leaders are more focused on the results rather than how they were reached.
This allows the people performing the work to have complete freedom over how things will be done. These leaders trust in the knowledge of their employees to find the best way to do something. With the right team, this freedom can be incredibly effective. However, if the employees are ill equipped for the tasks at hand, operations can become chaotic.
The early 20th century German psychologist Kurt Lewin is often credited with outlining the Laissez-Faire leadership style. He is well known for his work on how different leadership methods affect work climates.
As Lewin has described it, Laissez-Faire leadership is the opposite of Autocratic leadership. These are the two styles of leadership at the extremes of the spectrum. Autocratic leaders are the only ones making any decisions, and Laissez-faire leaders leave all of the decision making to others.
Characteristics of Laissez Faire Leaders
There are many common characteristics that can be observed in people that are using this style of leadership.
The most obvious one is that they will take a very hands off approach to management. These leaders will not interfere with the daily operations of the business. By trusting that their subordinates are capable of completing their tasks independently, they avoid needing to get involved with how the work will be done.
Laissez-Faire leaders will usually select a team of exceptionally qualified employees to work for them. Because of their lack of involvement, the people under their leadership must be highly capable on their own.
Constructive criticism is a crucial part of this leadership style as well. Normally this will be given after the completion of an assignment. Instead of interfering with work as it is happening, these leaders will discuss what worked and what didn’t with staff when their goals have been accomplished.
- The Leader will not get involved
Because this style of leadership is marked by a leader that will not interfere, a person trying to utilize it must be ready to let go of control. Aside from delegating tasks to individuals or groups, the person in charge will not have any say in how things will be done. This can be difficult for some people and will not be a viable leadership style for every personality.
- The staff has been adequately trained
Success under this leadership style will depend on having a body of staff that has been well trained. When employees have a high level of knowledge, they are well equipped to make decisions that will benefit the company. Access to appropriate training and information that is helpful to the work must be provided by the Leader.
- Workers are self motivated
Since the Leader will not be as directly involved with daily operations, the people performing the work must be able to remain focused and motivated on their own. Employees need to possess the desire to perform high quality work without direct supervision.
- Encourages growth
- Employees that are allowed to make their own decisions become more confident in their own skills. With adequate access to training and information, employees can take the initiative to increase their knowledge on their own and come up with innovative ideas and solutions. This style of leadership will also help to foster leadership skills among lower level employees.
- High employee retention
- When workers feel like they are trusted, valuable members of the company, they are more likely to stay there for more extended periods of time. This style of leadership fosters a sense of dedication and personal responsibility. When staff are allowed to act on their own, they are able to bask in the satisfaction of making good decisions.
- Allows for fast decision making
- Without a lengthy approval process or needing to wait for the go ahead from a manager, employees can take action quickly. Decisions about work can be made without consulting others. If there is a problem or an inefficiency identified by an individual worker, they can immediately address it.
- Potential lack of accountability
- Some people may use Laissez-Faire leadership to avoid taking responsibility if things don’t go according to plan. If a deadline is missed, or the work produced is not high quality, this Leader could push all of the blame onto their employees. The wrong type of person using this leadership style may simply be attempting to dodge all accountability for work outcomes.
- Communication issues
- Because there is not one person responsible for making decisions, stronger personalities within the workforce may dominate. This can cause bad coworker relations as well as muddy communication. Without a clear cut chain of command, some groups may lose focus or let their schedule be derailed.
- Loss of productivity
- In some cases, employees may see the detachment of a Laissez-Faire leader and mirror it themselves. An attitude of “they don’t care, so why should I?” has the potential to develop. The passivity of this type of Leader can spread to the whole organization and cause a drop in productivity. It may be hard for some employees to find motivation without being provided with more explicit instructions.
How to make Laissez-Faire Leadership effective
- Provide some direction
Delegating tasks to certain individuals or groups can aid in the overall workflow. Staff will still be able to decide how they want to complete the tasks that they have been given but will have an idea of where to begin and what is expected of them. This can help avoid confusion about what needs to be done.
- Give praise for good work
Because Laissez-Faire leaders are so detached from work, they can often let successes go unnoticed. Making an active effort to reward and praise employees when they perform quality work will keep them motivated. Giving positive feedback is just as important as giving criticism.
- Stay Engaged
Although employees will largely be left to work independently, it is still important for the Leader to be present with them on occasion. Getting to know and engaging with your staff will help offset any impression that you might be using this leadership style out of laziness or lack of knowledge. It is always beneficial for staff to feel comfortable with talking to their manager regarding their questions or concerns.
When should it be avoided?
- With large workgroups
Without a leader to provide some direction, large groups working on a project may become disorganized. If there is little to no hierarchy, a group might struggle to come to a consensus on how to solve issues or best complete the work. Without some structure, communication can become inefficient and employees may not know where to go if they need help.
- With an inexperienced staff
If the staff are not well trained, they may not actually know how to perform the work without direct supervision. In this scenario, a Laissez-Faire leader will not succeed. If workers are expected to perform above their skill level without any opportunities for learning, they can grow to resent the Leader. Employees may feel like they are being set up for failure.
Examples of Laissez-Faire Leadership
Ad agencies often use Laissez-Faire leadership. Because these agencies usually have highly trained staff, it is extremely effective in these scenarios. Employees are given assignments and expected to be able to produce results independently.
Other industries where Laissez-Faire leaders are often seen are law firms, tech startups, and architectural firms.
In businesses such as these, the members of the work teams are already highly trained. There is usually a baseline requirement for a higher level of education to get the job in the first place. People who have already proven themselves to be highly skilled and competent will thrive under this style of leadership.
Large scale infrastructure projects are also well suited to this style of leadership. In these circumstances the Leader may not possess all of the specific knowledge for the task at hand. The person in charge will set the goal, and teams of experts will determine how to accomplish it.
Famous Laissez-Faire Leaders
- Warren Buffet
As one of the richest people in the world, Buffet’s success as a businessman cannot be denied. He is well known for taking a very hands off approach to managing those that work for him. By hiring competent management teams, he can trust that they will know the best ways to move forward in their decisions. He has said that taking this approach allows his employees to have an “owner’s attitude,” meaning that they feel personally responsible for the outcomes of their work.
- Dwight D. Eisenhower
When he became president in 1953, Eisenhower knew he wanted to create an interstate highway system. This project is often used as an excellent example of Laissez-Faire leadership. Eisenhower knew what he wanted to accomplish and allowed his people to use their expertise to complete it. This led to the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 and the creation of the highway system that we have in the United States today.
While it may seem counterintuitive to some, there can be major advantages to having a leader that steps back and is not as involved with daily operations.
Placing trust in workgroups to make their own decisions and determine their own work flow can lead to an increase in overall morale. Given the opportunity to show their skills, well trained employees will develop a deeper level of dedication and drive under a Laissez-Faire leader.
Creating a work climate that encourages personal growth and individual initiative can be an extremely effective way to manage the right team. Allowing highly trained employees to act as they see fit can be a great way to let your brightest stars shine to their fullest potential.