What is laissez-faire leadership?

What is laissez-faire leadership?

From the French for ‘leave it alone’ or ‘let it be’, you could be forgiven for thinking that this is the laziest leadership style going.

It conjures up the image of a manager with their feet up on a desk, hands folded behind their head.

Surely, we’re not going to say that this is an effective way to manage people?

Well, it’s nothing like that (and yes we are).

Although, if you play it right, you might get to put your feet up occasionally.

So what is laissez-faire leadership?

Laissez-faire leadership is the art of assembling a hot-shot team and letting them get on with what they do best, how they do it best.

To make this work, you’ll need a few things.

  • Control over the hiring process, or the utmost trust in your recruitment team and process. Which gives you…
  • Confidence in the ability and aptitude of your team.
  • A strong vision and strategy, and the ability to bring your people on board with it.
  • Clear objectives and responsibilities for each person on your team, as well as the team for a whole.
  • Trust. In your people, and their trust in you, too.

You’ll also need to have the budget and headcount available to have the number and type of people you need on your team, as you can’t afford for people to be doing things they don't want or aren't able to do.

How does laissez-faire leadership work?

This leadership style relies on the intrinsic motivation people have to do their job well. If you set people up to succeed, most often - they will! Your role in this framework is to lead your team towards success and support them to get there. But the way they do so is largely up to them.

Autonomy and mastery at work are great motivators, increasing job satisfaction and productivity. By giving people the autonomy to work how they work best (and how they enjoy working), you increase the chance of them performing well. 

This approach is about results - output - not input.

One of your main tasks as a laissez-faire leader is to facilitate effective communication. We’ve written a tonne about this; three must-read resources for this type of leader include:

  1. How to build psychological safety in your team
  2. Your one-to-one meetings guide
  3. Retrospective tactics

Psychological safety means that your team will come to you when they have a problem. Then, you can help them solve it themselves, or step in if required. More importantly, it means they will come to you when they make a mistake.

One-to-one meetings are a vital component of any employee's development, and help to facilitate that interpersonal relationship that makes this dynamic work.

Retrospectives are vital for ensuring that you and the team a) learn from mistakes and b) understand the impact of their decisions on the wider team. If you want your team members to make decisions (and you do!) they need to know how everyone else will be affected; otherwise, they could create problems - or hesitate, in case they do so.

Advantages and disadvantages of laissez-faire leadership

The advantages of this approach are simple: high productivity, high morale and a great working environment that encourages personal development.

The disadvantage is that, if it’s not done correctly or lacks one of the key components, it's possible for employees to take advantage.

For example, if you’ve got someone on your team who is just there to collect a pay check and isn’t interested in the vision, they may find ways to slack off, which could slip by under the radar.

Another example would be if you have inherited a team that does not include all of the requisite skills, or you’re unable to hire enough people to manage the workload. If everyone is accountable for their own and the team’s success, but the system means that success is not possible… well, that’s a sure-fire way to tank morale.

Is laissez-faire leadership right for me?

Laissez-faire leadership is possible in almost any situation. The only time that you may want to choose something a little less ‘light touch’ in terms of managing how people spend their time is if you work in a highly regulated or dangerous environment. That said, you can still apply the principles of trust and accountability.

If it all sounds a little too modern for you, take a look at ten other leadership styles. In particular, you might like transformational leadership. It’s considered to be highly desirable and looks more traditional, although with a big focus on making positive change happen. And situational leadership includes a little something for everyone!

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