Laissez-faire leadership is a leadership style that grants followers a high level of autonomy. The term comes from the French term “laissez faire,” which means “allow to pass” or “leave it be.” In practice, laissez-faire leadership is a laid-back, hands-off approach to leadership that promotes independent problem solving among team members. A primary tenet of laissez-faire leadership philosophy is that with minimal guidance, team members become more effective at developing their own goals, strategies and solutions.
In essence, laissez-faire leadership represents the absence of leadership. However, this does not mean the lack of a leader. Laissez-faire leadership involves one or more leaders acting as resources for their subordinates, who are largely left to their own devices and are expected to manage their assigned tasks independently. A laissez-faire leader is the opposite of a micromanager.
A laissez-faire leadership example is an individual who owns multiple franchise restaurants within a city but leaves all operational decision making to the individual managers he has hired for each of the restaurants. These managers choose the corporate promotions in which to participate, which job applicants to hire and the operating hours for each restaurant. Additionally, the individual managers in this scenario are responsible for ordering all supplies and reporting all financial data for their respective restaurants.
Other laissez-faire leadership examples include:
- A gym manager who allows personal trainers the autonomy to determine their own training routines for members.
- A lead programmer who does not require employees to be in the office at specific times, only requiring that they submit assignments on time.
- A private school principal who does not require teachers to follow any specific curriculum.
- A law firm headed by partners who do not interfere with associates’ cases or clients, instead offering guidance when requested but not giving explicit advice.
There are three recognized coaching methods: laissez faire, democratic and autocratic. These leadership styles are not just found in the world of sports coaching. They can be found in any scenario where subordinates depend on a leader for direction. These include workplaces, religious organizations and even parents and children within a household.
Another type of coaching, holistic coaching, is an approach where the coach gives direction on every aspect of the follower’s lifestyle rather than his role on the team. For example, a holistic sports coach might give team members a recommended diet and exercise plan to follow. A holistic leader in the workplace might recommend specific industry seminars for employees to attend.
Laissez-faire leadership is perhaps easiest to understand by contrasting it with other leadership styles. Out of all recognized leadership styles, laissez-faire leadership involves the least amount of leader involvement in employees’ work.
It is characterized by the leader giving little or no instruction on how employees are to perform their jobs, little to no workplace structure in terms of the workday schedule or assigned tasks outside employees’ job duties and a lack of motivational efforts, both positive or negative, from the leader. This often means there are no consequences for employees’ incorrect actions beyond their natural consequences, like losing commissions by failing to meet sales benchmarks.
Autocratic leadership exists at the opposite end of the spectrum from laissez-faire leadership. An autocratic leader makes very specific demands of his subordinates and expects total compliance with his orders.
When an autocratic leader heads a team, there are no discussions about how work is to be performed or which direction to take. The leader makes all decisions, and the team is expected to follow his lead. With an autocratic leader, all rules, expectations and processes are clear.
Democratic leadership falls somewhere between laissez-faire and autocratic leadership. A democratic leader solicits input from team members on proposed strategies and directions but has the final say in all decisions and asserts her role as the leader when necessary.
With this type of dynamic, team members feel valued and comfortable sharing their thoughts, while the leader does not feel her role as the head is undermined. Democratic leadership is characterized by open team discussions and mutual respect up and down the company hierarchy.
Some coaches draw from two or more coaching styles to develop their own unique styles. Others draw from two or more of these styles to customize their coaching to their teams’ needs, which can vary from year to year as players come, go and develop in their own sports careers. This is an important principle for managers to keep in mind because no employee exists in a vacuum, and no workplace has the exact same dynamic year after year.
Understanding that in many cases, a blend of multiple leadership styles is necessary, supervisors can assess their teams’ specific needs to create leadership strategies that meet these needs. A manager heading a team largely comprised of entry-level workers might intentionally decide to rely on autocratic strategies early in her tenure to set a tone of clear boundaries, respect for authority and her role as the team’s resident expert and then as time passes, gradually relax into a more democratic leader as the team’s skills develop.
Another way a manager might blend leadership styles is taking a democratic approach to developing long-term strategies but using a laissez-faire approach to day-to-day operations.
Laissez-faire leadership requires the ability to choose motivated, competent individuals to be part of a team. This is because a relatively structureless management style free of external motivation is only effective when employees impose structure on themselves and find internal motivation to perform well.
The primary difference between laissez-faire leadership and democratic leadership is the leader’s role in making decisions. A democratic leader asks employees for their input on the right decisions for her to make, while a laissez-faire leader does not get involved in team decisions at all, leaving this task to the employees. Key traits of a laissez-faire leader are:
- A relaxed approach to leadership.
- An eye for finding and retaining talent.
In the workplace, an effective laissez-faire leader makes employees feel comfortable coming to her with their concerns and questions. She might not actively advertise herself as a guide for employees but makes herself available to them when they need guidance regarding the challenges they face. While employees figure out their own tasks, the laissez-faire leader focuses on her own job duties. A laissez-faire leader has to be confident in her own ability to lead the team as well as her employees’ abilities to regulate themselves and perform their job duties properly with minimal oversight.
Because laissez-faire leadership represents the absence of leadership, many employees initially think this is the ideal form of management. For many workers, laissez-faire leadership is the perfect choice for encouraging innovation, independent thought and skill development while respecting the workers' desire for privacy.
Employees and teams that tend to benefit from laissez-faire leadership include:
- Highly skilled employees and teams.
- Established teams who know how to work together effectively.
- Highly motivated employees.
- Workplaces where innovation is crucial to success.
Some employees and teams need hands-on leadership. Although laissez-faire leadership can be a very effective way to manage teams where every member has a highly specialized skill set or in workplaces where each role operates largely independent of the other roles present, it is ineffective in workplaces where team members need to communicate frequently and in workplaces where there is no room for hesitation or questioning the right way to perform a task.
One notable type of work environment where laissez-faire leadership can be detrimental to operations is emergency medical services. In an emergency, every second first responders spend trying to figure out how to handle the situation is a second that the victim is not receiving care, which can potentially mean a worsened outcome or even death for the victim. Emergency responders and other workers in fields where immediate, automatic action is critical to success, like hospitals and prison security, tend to be best served by autocratic leaders.
Other workplaces that tend to fare worse under laissez-faire leaders are workplaces where a large portion of the workforce is relatively new to the industry or even to being in professional settings. For example, a manager leading a team of entry-level employees needs to give clear directions and guidance because her team relies on her not just to lead them but to teach them and help them develop their professional skills. Workplaces where safety is critical, like manufacturing and construction, also typically need an authoritarian leader who emphasizes the correct way to perform work-related tasks.
When laissez-faire leadership is used appropriately, it can have immense benefits for the entire workplace. Benefits of laissez-faire leadership include:
- Employees feel respected and valued as individual contributors.
- Employees can become more creative.
- Employees are more willing to take on leadership roles as needed for specific projects.
- Teams can work efficiently when every member focuses on her own tasks.
Like every other type of leadership, laissez-faire leadership has its drawbacks too. These drawbacks are typically most apparent when it is used in a workplace better suited to more hands-on leadership, but they can appear in any workplace. Laissez-faire leadership’s drawbacks include:
- Employees can become confused about leadership roles.
- Employees might fail to take accountability for their own mistakes.
- Employees might blame others for things that go wrong.
- Employees can become unmotivated and lazy.
- Employees might avoid the challenges they face.
Beyond the pros and cons of laissez-faire leadership’s effect on employees, managers who are considering adopting this style should consider how it reflects on them. There are positive and negative ways that taking a laissez-faire approach to management can reflect on a leader, and whether this strategy is well-received by his team depends on how he implements it and how well it meshes with the team’s needs.
A few examples of ways that laissez-faire leadership can reflect on a manager include:
- It can make him seem aloof and detached from the team.
- It can make employees feel that he thinks highly of their abilities.
- Employees might feel that he does not care if deadlines are met or if operations are performed correctly.
- Employees can feel that he treats them with respect.
- Employees might question his competence and feel that he is a weak leader due to the lack of structure.
Any manager who is considering working laissez-faire principles into his management strategy should keep in mind that while laissez-faire leadership represents the absence of leadership, it does not mean being a weak or unapproachable leader. It simply means opting to grant employees the highest level of autonomy they can handle with the goal of giving them room to identify their own passions, strengths and weaknesses and independently develop their skills.