Laissez faire may be a word you associate with governments and economies but the famous French phrase can also be attributed to a niche style of leadership — a style of leadership that is hands off and allows those that are being ‘led’ to, well, lead themselves until they can’t.
There is no shortage of theories on what makes a leader good, bad or great. Some consensus though, at least in recent times, exists in an aversion to micromanagement. Laissez faire leadership exhibits and leads with that same aversion.
Like most things in life, there’s a time and a place for a laissez faire attitude. What we’re doing in this article is evaluating whether that time and place is in the managers of the modern workplace or whether it’s better to encourage other styles of leadership.
Here’s what you can expect:
- To understand the characteristics of laissez faire leadership
- To identify the opposing leadership style
- To discover the advantages and disadvantages of applying laissez faire leadership in the workplace
- To know when and how you should encourage your organisation’s management to adopt this style of leadership
What is laissez faire leadership?
Let’s break it down. The translation of the term laissez faire is ‘leave alone’ and that’s exactly what managers who take on this style do. This means that people who report to this leadership style will be left to their own devices and to independently problem solve.
Leaders who favour this type of management believe that their people are capable of managing their work including tasks, group projects, deadlines and conflicts. Processes are not rigid, because as long as the job gets done, and done in a way that works, they don’t need to be.
There are some known characteristics of laissez faire leaders:
- Excellent delegators. They spread responsibility amongst their team members to create autonomy and ownership of various aspects of the workplace and projects
- Great team builders. They can easily spot strengths in others and identify weaknesses in themselves to create a balanced and capable team
- Thoughtful and reflective. They often will pose questions back to you to encourage critical thinking and problem solving
- Trusting. Laissez faire leaders place trust in their team to work well independently and together. They also trust that an individual will source help from the group or their superiors with problems when needed.
And just for fun, let’s look at some famous leaders who were known for their hands-off laissez faire approach:
- Queen Victoria 🇬🇧
- Warren Buffet
- Former US President, Herbert Hoover (no, not related to the Hoover in your closet 😉 )
- Andrew Mellon
- Steve Jobs
Laissez faire vs. autocratic leadership
If we were to imagine leadership styles on a spectrum, we would place laissez faire leadership on one extreme and autocratic leadership on the other. Autocratic leadership favours direct control and oversight in the work environment.
Rather than having one person making every decision, a laissez faire leader will let their employees direct progress and manage solutions for their organisation. This leader creates an environment where teams manage many tasks and projects on their own, and will only interject or play a major part when decisions are at a standstill or there is a general lack of direction and where guidance is required.
However, one could argue that autocratic leadership has its place in the world. Some subordinates may even prefer the oversight and guidance autocratic leadership provides. There are situations, too, where progress is stalled, potential solutions are gridlocked or capability is limited. In those situations, even the laissez faire leader has to look to adopt some of the personality of an autocratic leader.
This means that they will need to lend some level of oversight, and will always need to offer support and take responsibility. A leader is a leader, after all.
It is important to note that a laissez faire management style is only successful if the right people are the direct reports, otherwise, it will quickly dissolve into chaos and mismanagement.
But we need to look at more than just the definition and antonyms, we need to outline the advantages and disadvantages of laissez faire leadership so that you can come to your own conclusions… in a true ‘leave alone’ spirit.
What are the advantages of laissez faire leadership?
There are four main points that come to mind when thinking about the benefits this style may have on your organisation. It encourages personal growth among team members, it fosters creative solutions and innovation from top to bottom, it capitalises on the strengths of the team and it allows for autonomy.
The advantages of laissez faire leadership can lead to employees with high job satisfaction, which can lead to staff-wellbeing, which can lead to job retention and greater output. So, when laissez faire leaders are efficient in their management, the group as a whole stands to benefit.
Sometimes, the best way to learn is to do. The laissez faire leadership style ensures that this is the case. But it’s not just that there’s an indirect allowance for personal growth, it’s that this type of management actively wants people to grow into their roles through staff development.
A laissez faire leader doesn’t want to micromanage or take on tasks that others aren’t doing. They want those they manage to rise to the challenge, up-skill and grow into capable and confident team members who aren’t afraid to own their development and their role.
Creativity and innovation
Such a focus on personal growth and a general trust in the capabilities of individuals creates room for innovation and to be creative without the fear of failure, or rather the fear of the consequences of failure. When mistakes are allowed to happen and when people are trusted to contribute in big ways, creative people can flourish. This is a clear advantage for the team and the company as a whole.
A leader who holds on to too much authority and ownership of tasks risks missing out on the expertise of highly skilled employees. A laissez faire leader doesn’t have this problem. They are able to capitalise on each team member's strengths so that the project, team and business can operate to the best of their ability and strive for success.
Under the laissez faire approach to management, employees feel that they have the autonomy to make their own decisions, solve problems and work how they work best. They’ll be happier at work, they’ll work harder and they’ll have the autonomy to make decisions quickly.
What are the disadvantages of laissez faire leadership?
It’s rather simple, not everyone will flourish under this sort of leadership, especially those who are new to the world of work and unfamiliar with their role, responsibilities and the processes that the organisation is accustomed to. Thus, this style may prove disadvantageous to certain personalities and projects.
Low confidence in inexperienced teams
In team environments where the experience level is low, the loose reins of laissez faire leadership could prove disastrous. It could damage the confidence of the team as they may feel like the responsibilities left up to them are things they should already be able to do, and do well, without guidance from anyone in senior roles. When they can’t achieve that they feel like a failure, even though they’re not.
Less experienced team members require more nurturing and more frequent communication. A good leader should be able to read the needs of their team members and adjust to them based on what will help them to succeed. It may not be that laissez faire leadership needs to be abandoned completely but rather merged with other leadership styles.
It’s not one-size-fits-all
Not every project is suited to laissez faire leadership. Laissez faire leadership and it's hands off approach isn't necessarily appropriate for a project that is vital to the success of the company, to something that requires high level decision making or to something that is progressing without any sense of direction.
It’s a big responsibility
The laissez faire style needs to fit the personality of both the leader and those that answer to that leader. If there are members of the team who will take advantage of the freedom laissez faire leadership affords then the leader will struggle to manage these employees.
Perception of indifference
Employees may feel capable enough to make their own decisions but the hands off approach of their leader may leave them feeling neglected anyway. They also may feel that their manager is indifferent to their contributions and the outcome of their work. This can then have a domino effect on the members of the team who adopt their own indifference to the work they do.
When should you encourage laissez faire leadership in your managers?
A laissez faire leadership style has to suit the group as a whole and it has to exist in the right environment. Leaders need to be happy and comfortable with the characteristics of this style of leadership while the people who are being led need to be confident in their own capabilities.
Expectations need to be made transparent from both a top-down and bottom-up approach. Leaders need to be communicating clearly with direct reports and direct reports need to be reciprocating that. That communication needs to extend to lateral transparency as well. It’s best to use this style with experienced teams who work cohesively and collaboratively and where decision making comes easily.
If the company culture leans towards a laissez faire attitude, you'll find it much easier to attract and source leaders who already own this style. Laissez faire leaders at the senior level will probably cultivate autonomy in their employees and in effect will nurture future laissez faire leaders.
To find out if this leadership style works well at your organisation, you can compare the characteristics of laissez faire leadership and the characteristics of your organisation’s culture. If they match up, it’s probably suitable to encourage managers and employees to engage with the laissez faire attitude.
Style is personal, even when it comes to management. If you want to encourage your managers to take on this form of leadership then you should hire or promote for it, rather than trying to fit individuals into a mould they have no business being in. Laissez faire leadership has certain characteristics that don't come easily to everyone.
Of course, it is a style in which someone can develop the soft skills needed to embody it. By offering learning and development opportunities, new, old and potential managers can up-skill to suit the needs of the role and the organisation.
Manager training, books on leadership qualities and resources can be a great place to start when cultivating laissez faire leadership in your organisation.
The laissez faire leadership style isn't for everyone and it isn't perfect but when implemented correctly it can lead to companies with employees who demonstrate high job satisfaction. It emphasises autonomy in the way it leaves members of the group to make decisions, unlike its counter style, autocratic leadership.
The laissez faire attitude works well in companies with cultures that promote autonomy, value creative points of view, and prioritise personal growth among employees.