Most people have the basic knowledge that laissez-faire means taking a hands-off approach to a situation. While the term is most often used to describe a governmental policy related to the economy, it's easy to surmise how it translates to management, at least on a superficial level. While a hands-off approach to management can result in unmotivated employees who do not know what they are expected to do or how to do it, this technique does have some advantages and can be particularly useful in a handful of situations, particularly those where the employees are very knowledgeable about their duties and are motivated to complete the task at hand.

What Does Laissez-Faire Mean?

Laissez-faire originates from the French phrase "laissez faire et laissez passer," which means "let it be and let it pass." Essentially, the term means "leave it alone." Generally, the phrase is used to describe governmental economic policies that allow business and industry to do what they will, with little or no government interference. Outside of politics, it usually means that someone is taking a hands-off approach to a matter.

What Is Laissez-Faire Management?

When applied to management, laissez-faire means letting employees work on their own and allowing them to set their own goals, processes and deadlines. Laissez-faire leadership (also known as delegative leadership) involves letting subordinates make their own decisions with the boss subtly trying to guide them in a hands-off manner. While laissez-faire leaders hope this approach will inspire employees to become their own managers and step up to any challenges with which they are presented, it often backfires. Generally speaking, employees working under these conditions feel they have no guidance and are left stranded with no direction. While these employees often like their bosses as friends, they often do not respect their managers and will frequently not follow directions on the rare occurrence that they are provided. As a result, researchers have found that this form of leadership results in the lowest productivity levels of the four types of leadership.

The Four Types of Leadership

Aside from laissez-faire leadership, there are three other main leadership styles, though in practice most managers utilize a blend of all four types. The three other leadership styles are democratic (or participative), autocratic (or authoritarian) and paternal. Each management style has benefits and drawbacks, which is why a great manager will institute a well-balanced technique that merges all four, and he will often change leadership styles according to each situation he encounters.

A democratic leader is similar to a laissez-faire one in that she will decentralize authority and let her subordinates make decisions. While a laissez-faire leader generally lets the employees take the reins completely, the democratic leader will still guide the team from the sidelines, often acting like a moderator to direct the ideas brought forth by the team members. Democratic leaders encourage creativity and outside-the-box thinking like laissez-faire leaders, but because they ultimately call the shots, employees feel more direction and are generally more productive. On the downside, some employees may feel ignored if their ideas are never chosen. Employees working for democratic managers tend to have improved job performance, a greater ability to solve complex problems and less absenteeism, and they tend to stay at their jobs longer.

An autocratic leader is essentially the opposite of a democratic leader. He will want to make all major decisions without input from employees, will often tell his subordinates how to do their jobs and may set strict rules about the workplace environment. Autocratic managers can often frustrate workers who feel they are not being listened to and may come across as unlikable and too bossy. While this management style may not work well with experienced or strong-willed employees, it can actually work well when the leader is guiding entry-level workers who are not prepared to make decisions and need more guidance to do their work.

Paternal leaders tend to treat their employees like their children. They may listen to their subordinates superficially, but they still think they know best and often ignore employee input. The paternal leader will offer employees good fringe benefits to try to keep them happy, hoping this will make the employees respect her, better listen to her and work harder out of gratitude. While employees often appreciate the fringe benefits and departmental protections from those higher up, they also often become resentful because paternal leaders can come across as patronizing, condescending and superficially interested in employee contributions.

Laissez-Faire Characteristics

Laissez-faire characteristics displayed by managers using this leadership technique include providing subordinates with very little guidance and allowing employees complete freedom to make their own decisions. In this system, managers provide their workers with the tools and resources they need to do their work, and the subordinates will solve all of their problems on their own whenever possible. Essentially, though the power is handed over to the workers, the managers will still take full responsibility for the group's decisions and actions.

Examples of Laissez-Faire Leaders

Some of the most famous people known for using a laissez-faire management style include Steve Jobs and Herbert Hoover. Steve Jobs was known for telling his team what he would like to see done and then leaving the details up to his staff to determine how the project was actually to be completed. Herbert Hoover is well remembered in history for taking a laissez-faire approach to the economy, even failing to take any action on the Great Depression until it was too late for anything but drastic changes to turn the economy around. He often allowed his senior advisors to take on tasks about which he did not feel he was knowledgeable.

Situations Where Laissez-Faire Works Best

While laissez-faire management is often ineffective, there are situations where laissez-faire management can be the most beneficial, and this leadership style does have some advantages overall. When employees are highly skilled, knowledgeable about the project, able to work on their own and are motivated about their work, a laissez-faire leadership technique can allow the boss to stay out of his subordinate's way so they can get things done on their own. To that extent, laissez-fair leadership is usually the best course of action when a manager is coordinating with a group of self-employed contractors, as these experienced professionals often choose to work for themselves precisely because they are self-motivated and they do not want a manager to tell them how to do their jobs.

Laissez-faire is also a good strategy in situations where the employees know more about a project than the manager. In these cases, it is best for the boss to step back and let her subordinates run the show or at least make the majority of decisions about a project. Even in this case, though, the manager can use input from the employees to make decisions about overall project goals and deadlines while allowing her employees to make up their own minds as to how to meet these expectations.

In any situation involving laissez-faire leadership, it is important that the manager be readily available for consultations and feedback. Without a superior to talk to, employees may come to an impasse and stop making forward progress because they cannot come to a decision on the proper course of action.