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What Is Laissez-Faire Leadership?

Jun 29, 2020

Let go. Let it be. This is what the term laissez-faire means when translated. Laissez-faire is often used to describe an laissez-faire economics or political policy, but is also used regularly in the business world to describe a leadership style. 

Laissez-faire leadership is fairly self explanatory. Laissez-faire leaders have an attitude of trust and reliance on their employees. They don’t micromanage or get too involved, they don’t give too much instruction or guidance. Instead laissez-faire leaders let their employees use their creativity, resources, and experience to help them meet their goals. This kind of leadership is very hands-off—managers trust their employees and are confident in their abilities. They give guidance and take responsibility where needed, but this leadership style means that subordinates and team members have the real lead.

Not all leaders and employees like this leadership style. Different leaders are likely to choose different management styles that they feel will work best for their organization. In order to find the very best common leadership style, it’s important to understand all of them and how they work. Learn more about the laissez-faire leadership style and how you can implement it as a leader or manager in your organization. 

Characteristics of laissez-faire leaders.

There are many common characteristics of the laissez-faire leadership style including:

  • Little guidance from leaders

  • Employees have the ability to make decisions

  • People are expected to solve their own problems

  • Access to many resources and tools

  • Constructive criticism from leaders

  • Leaders take charge when necessary

  • Leaders take responsibility for overall actions and decisions

These leadership characteristics may also be found in other leadership styles, and many elements of leadership are fluid and work across management styles. 

Examples of laissez-faire leadership.

There are many famous examples of laissez-faire leaders who stand out and have made an impact in their industry. The examples include:

  • Herbert Hoover. Our 31st president was well-known for having a laissez-faire approach in politics. He used this leadership style as he trusted his teams and their experience and was extremely successful with this leadership approach. 

  • Queen Victoria. The Victorian Period is named after her, and this time is known for a laissez-faire attitude. The Victorian Era is also known as the Age of Individualism, and people were encouraged to use their own skills and talents to make England a prominent and strong country.

  • Warren Buffett. Warren Buffett is known for great success, surrounding himself with people he trusts. He uses this leadership style to make sure the people he works with can do their jobs efficiently so he doesn’t have to worry about it, only intervening when it’s absolutely necessary. Buffett is known for letting people make mistakes so they can learn from them, a huge benefit for many. 

  • Steve Jobs. Steve Jobs was known for the way he would give instructions to the team, and leave them to figure out the best way to fulfill his wishes. Members of his team often said they got to use their creative skills and try new things while they worked for Jobs.

Advantages of laissez-faire leadership.

There are many advantages of laissez-faire for employees and managers alike, including:

  • Higher retention. Laissez-faire leaders often see greater retention from their subordinates. Employees who are trusted feel confident in their work and want to stick around in an environment that makes them feel relaxed and relied on.

  • Accountability. Laissez-faire means that subordinates are accountable for their work. This is a great way to ensure that they do the best they can—ultimately they are on the line for their project, so they want to do the best job possible. 

  • Relaxed company culture. Laissez-faire leadership often leads to a more relaxed company culture. People don’t feel micromanaged or that a manager is constantly looking over their shoulder. This helps them relax, enjoy their work, and interact well with their peers.

  • Creative environment. Creativity thrives under laissez-faire. Employees feel they have permission and authority to try new things, think outside the box, and do things they are passionate about. Hands-off leaders help creativity thrive by not giving too many instructions or expectations for how a goal is reached.

  • Motivation for employees. Employees are highly motivated by laissez-faire leadership. They aren’t motivated by the specific expectations or instructions, rather they are motivated by their own thoughts and ideas. They know they have autonomy over their part of the project, and feel excited about showing what they can do.

Disadvantages of laissez-faire leadership.

While many people thrive under laissez-faire leadership, there are some drawbacks to this management style including:

  • Difficult for newcomers. Subordinates who are new to the organization or to the workforce in general may struggle under this kind of leadership. Newcomers often need more direction and instruction than laissez-faire leadership allows, making it harder for them to adjust.

  • Confusion about who is in charge. With laissez-faire leadership there can sometimes be confusion about who is in charge in situations. Sometimes more dominant personality employees will try and take charge, creating miscommunication and issues. 

  • Lack of structure and support. In laissez-faire leadership it’s not uncommon to see a lack of structure and support for subordinates. This leadership is very hands-off, so there isn’t often a set plan, check-in meetings, group organization, etc. This can sometimes be difficult for team members to navigate through.

  • Accountability passing. In laissez-faire leadership, sometimes employees will try to pass accountability back onto the manager or other employees because they say they didn’t understand the goal and the ask. It’s also difficult for groups and teams to take accountability because it’s very individual.

  • Problematic for groups. Again, laissez-faire leadership can be difficult for groupwork. It’s a very individual-based leadership style, so groups may not be able to work well together in this setting. 

  • Leaders can seem uninvolved. Sometimes laissez-faire leadership can be difficult on morale because leaders may seem uninvolved. Employees want to know that they are seen and their work is appreciated, and when leaders aren’t directly involved in a particular project it can rub employees the wrong way.

Who works best under laissez-faire leaders?

There are certain types of employees who work best under laissez-faire leaders. These people usually are more creative, and appreciate being left to let their creativity run things. They usually have been around the organization or industry for a long time, so they really understand what they are doing and don’t need a lot of direction to do things well. Self-motivation is a key characteristic of someone who thrives under laissez-faire leadership—they don’t need to be watched constantly or reminded to get going. They will usually have a proven record of achievements that help make them trustworthy, and regularly demonstrate excellence that allows their leader to give them more free-rein of their work.

Businesses that attract laissez-faire leaders.

Some businesses are better suited for laissez-faire leadership than others. For example, retail buying is a business that can thrive with laissez-faire leadership. It’s a very creative industry and most of the employees have been involved with it for a long time. They can handle themselves, and their leaders know that.

Similarly, the entertainment industry is known for hands-off leaders. Directors tell actors and crew members to try something new, surprise them, and think outside the box. 

IT departments are another area where laissez-faire leadership rules. Many IT projects are individual, and the employees in the field are often excellent at what they do. This means leaders can hand them a problem and they can use their creativity to solve it, without being micromanaged.

Advertising agencies rely on the creativity of team members to thrive. They need free-rein to work in whatever way suits their creativity.

Research and development industries and teams often need a hands-off approach to dive deep and find new things that are interesting or important. These professionals know what they are looking for and many have unique ways of finding it. So hands-off leaders are best for letting them do their job.

Tips for laissez-faire leaders.

If you’re studying business and considering laissez-faire leadership, it’s important to know how to properly implement this leadership style in your organization. Some tips include:

  • Observe performance. Laissez-faire leaders can help connect to employees by observing their performance from a distance. They can then find opportunities to talk to them about it, and let them know they’ve been seen. It also helps leaders stay involved with what is going on and offer correction if needed.

  • Address problems. While hands off, laissez-faire leaders don’t just let problems slide. Address problems as soon as you see them to help course correct so an employee isn’t frustrated that they didn’t know of issues sooner.

  • Incentivize. Laissez-faire leaders can use incentives to help employees feel motivated and excited about their role. While they don’t micromanage, they can observe positive performance and reward it, encouraging more of that in the future.

  • Delegate. Laissez-faire leaders help reduce structural confusion by delegating tasks to certain people, and ensuring everyone knows who has what task. This helps allay confusion about leadership and structure that can cause issues.

  • Be available. While laissez-faire leaders are very hands-off, it’s important that employees know you are available if they need help. Be ready to answer questions, give advice, check the status, etc. All of this will help employees feel that they have free reign and support when they need it. 

Consider a business degree from WGU to help you prepare for a management or leadership role in your organization.

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