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What is laissez-faire leadership?

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines laissez-faire leadership as: "A philosophy or practice characterized by a usually deliberate abstention from direction or interference, especially with individual freedom of choice and action."

Laissez-faire leadership emphasizes trust and reliance on employees. A laissez-faire leader is the opposite of an autocratic leader. They don’t micromanage their team or get too involved in deliverables or decision making. Instead, they let their employees use their own talents, experiences and skills to deliver results. On a team led by a laissez-faire leader, decisions are made by the group instead of by one central authority figure. They may say: “You can do whatever you want, as long as you get your job done and done correctly.” 

Characteristics of laissez-faire leadership.

  • More specifically, what are the characteristics of laissez-faire leadership? Here are a few examples of what laissez-faire leadership looks like in a day-to-day setting: 
  • Employees receive little guidance from leaders on day-to-day activities and projects. 
  • Employees are given the authority to make their own decisions and come to their own conclusions. 
  • Employees are expected to solve their own problems and deliver their own solutions.
  • Resources and information are democratized; Employees have access to many resources and tools to get their work done, rather than leaning on a leader to use certain tools.
  • Employees receive constructive feedback from leaders that guide their independent decision making in the future.  
  • Leaders monitor employees’ progress from afar and take charge of projects or deliverables when necessary. 
  • Accountability falls to the leader despite most of the decisions and details being managed by employees. 
  • Leaders are comfortable with calculated risks and things not working out; Failure is seen as an important lesson and not a failure of this leadership style

Advantages of laissez-faire leadership. 

Laissez-faire leadership can result in many benefits, including the following: 

It allows for quicker decision making and greater productivity. 

Employees operating under laissez faire leadership often avoid the red tape associated with more autocratic leaders, allowing them to make quick decisions and complete work with ease. They spend less time talking about how they should do something and more time doing it, which can be great for organizational productivity and employee morale

It allows for greater innovation. 

Taking a hands-off approach to leadership allows your employees to approach their work as they please, allowing each individual mind to tackle a project differently and opening up the possibilities for different final products, processes and other lessons that can be gleaned from their individual work. 

It allows for employee growth and retention. 

Employees under laissez faire leaders feel ownership over their work and satisfaction that they can work as they please. They may also have the ability to take on new challenges and try new things as they solve problems that arise and take on responsibilities without strict oversight. All of this combined results in strong employee morale and development. 

It’s worth noting that reaping these benefits from laissez-faire leadership does require certain priors to be met. This leadership style works best when employees are self-motivated enough to innovate and be productive, and knowledgeable enough to make decisions and do work with little oversight. 

Disadvantages of laissez-faire leadership. 

There can be certain disadvantages to leading this way, especially if the above priors are not met by your team. The following are some examples of what laissez-faire leadership looks like when it’s gone wrong: 

Poor organizational clarity. 

Sometimes, laissez faire leadership can be confusing to employees. They may not understand where their role starts or stops because they’ve been given the freedom to define their own limits. They may also not understand how their contributions address the team or organization’s goals, and lose out on the chance to perform as highly or impact the organization as much as they may be able to under more clear guidance. 

Poor employee engagement. 

Employees with hands-off leaders may struggle with feeling left behind or disconnected from their manager or the organization writ large. They may feel that no one sees their contributions or that their contributions are unimportant. These struggles can decrease motivation and productivity, and lead to issues with employee development and retention. 

Low accountability. 

The laissez faire approach often allows bad managers a way to escape accountability and blame others for their own failings as an ineffective leader. The struggle to hold the right person accountable can result in organizational inefficiencies and low employee morale. 

Businesses where laissez-faire leaders thrive.

There are certain types of businesses and teams that especially benefit from this style of leadership. 

Businesses where individual contributors are highly knowledgeable of their work and are people managed by a leader who is less knowledgeable about the work are perfect candidates for laissez-faire leadership. In this case, team members are able to quickly and productively produce results with light guidance from their managers, who are then able to invest their time in other aspects of the business. 

Business made up of self-led teams, like freelancers or contractors, are also often strong fits for laissez-faire leadership. This form of leadership allows managers to reap the benefits of outsourcing work — like saving time — while leaving the details to the experts they’ve selected to contract. 

Lastly, creative fields tend to be places where this form of leadership thrives. The laissez-faire approach allows managers to give employees the time and space to create intentional creative products, from designs to articles. 

There are also certain businesses where laissez-faire leadership should not be the primary approach. Work that requires great precision in high-stakes and high-stress situations may require extra once-overs and more precise direction. Additionally, teams made up of folks without a depth of knowledge or experience in their line of work may require a more hands-on approach. 

Successful laissez-faire leaders.

There are many famous business leaders who are known for using the laissez-faire approach. Here are a few examples, and how they implemented this style in their business. 

Warren Buffet

Warren Buffet is credited with saying "Pick out associates whose behavior is better than yours and you'll drift in that direction." And he follows his own advice. Buffet is known for taking a hands-off approach when he acquires or invests in businesses, allowing them to lead themselves. He canvasses an industry to make the best selections of businesses and talent, then trusts them to operate alone with his resources and occasional insights — the perfect example of the laissez faire leadership style. 

Steve Jobs

While it is contested whether the late Apple founder and famous businessman Steve Jobs was a laissez faire or autocratic leader, I believe he demonstrated aspects of both forms of leadership. Jobs emphasized hiring extremely qualified and motivated employees who could operate largely independently, giving those he trusted free reign to ensure room for innovation and creativity. However, he could be meticulous about detail and often had a strict vision for how he’d like products to operate or look, cutting down on some of the benefits of a true laissez faire environment. 

Donna Karan

As the founder of DKNY, Donna Karan is known for being an attentive observer of  the fashion industry who leads with insights and suggestions instead of a hands-on leadership style. In a 2013 article by The Center for Association Leadership, the author notes that Karan is known by her employees as trusting managers to make their own decisions while focusing her attention on monitoring their progress and offering feedback. The highly creative business leader is known for emphasizing space for gut decisions and creative intuition. 

5 tips for laissez-faire leaders to see success. 

1. Observe performance and act accordingly. 

While laissez faire leaders may not be observing the details of their direct reports’ day-to-day, it’s critical that they’re tracking their employees’ performance and acting accordingly. Rather than allowing employees to report back when work is done or give their own impressions of how something went, strong leaders will keep track of projects, make suggestions for efficiency and improvements, and offer constructive feedback when a project is over. They will also gauge how challenging the work was for the employee and delegate in the future according to strengths, weaknesses, growth potential and the organization’s needs. 

2. Set clear expectations and update them regularly. 

One of the most common complaints about laissez-faire leaders is that they can lead to organizational chaos. Their employees may not know what is expected of them and miss out on deadlines, details and even major innovations or insights as a result. To keep this from happening to your team, be sure to establish clear expectations for projects or deliverables that you update regularly. Ensure that your team knows what your overarching goals are and how their work fits into the big picture. Make sure they know what deadlines they’re working with and why they're important. This way, you can make sure they’re doing what needs to be done without your close oversight. 

3. Address problems sooner rather than later. 

While this leadership style does require a hands-off approach, no one benefits from things being delayed when tasks are done wrong. Don’t be afraid to step in and offer solutions when you see an employee struggling to perform, or when there is a challenge that will be difficult for them to overcome. 

4. Be mindful of employee engagement. 

If you lean into laissez-faire leadership too much, you may miss out on opportunities to keep your employees engaged and performing their best. Ensure that your employees feel like valued members of a team by giving them constructive feedback on their performance and celebrating their good work. Even when prescribing to a hands-off approach, you can bring your employees together for team meetings, loop them into overarching conversations and make them feel like they’re part of something to increase motivation. 

5. Remember that good leadership sometimes requires falling on the sword. 

Even if your individual team members are largely responsible for their own work, it’s important to keep them engaged by taking accountability when something goes wrong. Ultimately, you are the one writing the story, even if your direct reports are doing the work. Take responsibility for their mistakes and they will reward you with loyalty and the willingness to do better next time. Blame them and they may resent you or retreat from taking risks and doing high quality work. 

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