What Is Laissez Faire Leadership?
Laissez faire is a French term that gained popularity in the 18th century, used to describe a political ideology that called for freedom of government interference in economic and industrial activity.
It translates to English as ‘leave alone’, or more specifically, ‘let you do’, suggesting that businesses would be better off if left to their own devices, as opposed to being subject to bureaucratic intervention.
Over the years, it has evolved to refer to a specific managerial style known as laissez faire leadership.
The definition of laissez faire leadership is not far removed from the term’s original meaning.
Those that adopt this management style take a hands off approach, leaving employees to use their own judgement on how best to achieve business objectives.
This stands in stark contrast to other types of leadership style, like bureaucratic or autocratic leadership, where employees are micro-managed – constantly observed and directed in their day-to-day performance.
It’s important to note, however, that laissez faire does not remove leadership involvement completely.
Managers are still present and aware of business operations, but they trust in those they’ve delegated responsibility to to make the right decisions in the best interest of the company.
Provided their actions do not have damaging consequences, individuals and teams are granted autonomy in their work and left to determine the best course of action.
Characteristics of a Laissez Faire Leader
All effective managers possess a set of leadership skills that enable them to motivate and encourage those below them to achieve their best.
Whilst it may seem on the surface that the laissez faire approach requires little by way of skill, those who implement it effectively actually demonstrate strengths and qualities that can be hard to master.
The typical characteristics of a strong laissez faire leader include:
When assigning roles and responsibilities, laissez faire leaders look at their workforce objectively to determine who is best suited to any given task. This ensures skills and experience are used in the best way possible.
They also understand the difference between being productive and being busy, and delegate in such a way as to create manageable workloads that maximize engagement.
Offers Freedom of Choice
A key trait of a laissez faire leader is trust. Once an employee or team has been assigned their duties, they are free to decide how to fulfill them.
As long as their decisions bring about positive results, a laissez faire leader will not interfere with day-to-day activities.
As well as trusting their staff, laissez faire leaders also empower them by providing the tools and resources needed to optimize performance, be it innovative new software, additional team support or professional training.
Give Constructive Feedback
Another key skill of the laissez faire leader is the art of constructive criticism. While they give employees full autonomy, they’re also there to give valuable feedback wherever they feel improvements could be made.
It’s a key skill, because they’re able to do so without diminishing the employee’s sense of professional freedom.
Laissez faire leaders encourage staff to apply problem solving and decision making skills by managing challenging situations on their own. They’re there to offer guidance if needed, but personal ownership is promoted as the norm.
Laissez faire leaders may not be actively involved, but they are actively observant. They’re aware of what’s going on at ground level, recognizing and rewarding accomplishments to keep employee motivation high.
Steps in Where Necessary
A hands off approach can only be successful if the leader in question knows when it’s time to take control.
Whilst they won’t make a habit of it, a good laissez faire leader will step in if they feel the circumstances warrant it.
When mistakes are made or things don’t go to plan, a laissez faire leader will not shy away from their responsibilities, but will take ownership of any failings that have occurred.
What Are the Advantages and Disadvantages of Laissez Faire Leadership?
Just as with any leadership style, there are pros and cons to the laissez faire approach, and while it is well suited to certain professional environments, there are others where it may prove disruptive to productivity.
Advantages of Laissez Faire Leadership
Promotes Creativity and Innovation
Since the laissez faire working environment is free from strict rules and procedures, creativity is allowed to flourish. Employee’s can bring their own ideas to the table, and experiment through trial and error, which often leads to them breaking new ground.
Quickens the Decision-Making Process
When the workforce is given the freedom to choose, it means they don’t have to jump through hoops to seek approval. Decisions can be made and actions implemented quickly, bringing about faster results.
When expectations are removed, it creates a relaxed atmosphere.
Employees benefit from lower stress levels, greater personal freedom and a healthier work-life balance, which can boost engagement.
Rather than being pushed to succeed through pressure, the workforce is motivated by a sense of personal accountability.
They want to do well in their roles, because they have been entrusted to do so, and are driven by the desire to prove their own ideas successful.
Loyalty and Retention
When employees are granted the freedoms that come with laissez faire leadership, they develop a stronger sense of loyalty to their employer. They feel valued in their opinions and output, and, as such, are more inclined to contribute to business success.
Disadvantages of Laissez Faire Leadership
Lack of Routine
Those working under laissez faire leadership must have strong organizational skills to manage their own workloads.
This is not everyone’s preferred working style, and some employees may struggle without a fixed structure and routine to their working day.
For laissez faire leadership to work, individuals and teams must communicate with each other effectively, since there’s no one there to ensure consistency across the board.
Without effective communication, messages may be lost in translation, key details missed and work damaged as a result.
While good leaders will attempt to delegate appropriately, in some cases the hands off approach may lead to disproportionate workloads and employees becoming overwhelmed.
If there are team members who aren’t particularly motivated, others may be left to pick up their slack without a leader stepping in to fix the issue.
Whilst a benefit of laissez faire leadership is increased motivation, if the workforce is already disengaged, this managerial style is likely to make things worse.
Left to their own devices, staff may become complacent and apathetic in their work, lowering productivity as a whole.
Lack of Strategic Thinking
Those who disagree with the laissez faire style do so in large part because they believe effective decisions can only be made by those with top level experience – those who understand the strategic direction of a business and how best to keep it on track.
When Does Laissez Faire Leadership Work?
Effective leaders adapt their managerial style to suit those under their supervision. In the case of laissez faire leadership, there are certain individuals who can thrive under this approach:
Those Who Are Highly Creative
Creative talent does not respond well to strict rules and micro management, so the laissez faire environment is ideal for those who need to explore ideas, think differently and take a creative approach to problem solving.
Those Who Are Highly Experienced
Not all leaders have more experience than their subordinates, nor do they always have the same level of skill and knowledge.
In these instances, the hands off approach enables leaders to focus on the bigger picture and the day-to-day decisions in the care of those who know best at ground level.
Those Who Are Highly Driven
High achievers tend to excel under laissez faire leadership, because it’s in their character to want to succeed. Presented with complete freedom and control, they’re able to challenge themselves to go above and beyond, exceeding all expectations.
With these characteristics in mind, laissez faire leadership tends to work best in the creative industries like fashion, advertising, design and entertainment.
For example, in the fast paced fashion industry, top level leaders may not necessarily have the skills to predict future trends to the same extent their buyers do, so it is best to leave these decisions in more capable hands.
It’s also effective in areas like science, technology, and research and development. In the latter case, leaders are usually brought in for their financial acumen and investment experience rather than their research skills, so it’s in their best interest to allocate a budget and set responsibilities to their experienced workforce.
Industries where laissez faire leadership can prove detrimental include those who work to impeccably strict quality control measures, like any form of manufacturing or production, or any business where adherence to tight deadlines and regulations is an absolute must.
It’s also likely to prove ineffective when dealing with employees who need structure, guidance and coaching to achieve their best.
Laissez faire leadership places control in the hands of the employee, and is a relatively relaxed managerial style compared to more authoritative forms of leadership.
However, it takes a lot of skill to implement effectively, and is only suited to particular environments and particular employees.
It is best used in conjunction with other leadership styles such as visionary, transformational or coaching approaches.
Ultimately, good leadership comes down to understanding what is required in any particular circumstance and adjusting the way you work accordingly.