The term laissez-faire in French literally means ‘let do’ or leave it alone. In other words, being more relaxed and letting things progress with minimal interference.
A laissez-faire leadership style has a hands-off approach to management and leaves employees in charge of decision making. However, the company vision and objectives will already be in place. A laissez- faire leadership style is desirable because it gives employees autonomy, which is a greater motivator for people in the workplace today, replacing survival and rewards as primary motivators.
Warren Buffett is one of those people who has had a lot of success with the laissez faire leadership model. In the Berkshire Hathaway’s 2010 Annual Report, Buffett said, “We tend to let our many subsidiaries operate on their own, without our supervising and monitoring them to any degree.
Most managers use the independence we grant them magnificently, by maintaining an owner-oriented attitude.”
During Queen Victoria’s reign, Britain was a leading world power. Some people have attributed that to her laissez-faire leadership approach. The government mostly stayed out of business affairs unless necessary and vice versa. While it might look like laissez-faire leaders just sit back and let their teams do all the work, there is a lot more involved and not just anyone is suited to this role.
Characteristics of laissez-faire leaders
They are excellent recruiters
As the team in the laissez-faire leadership model is crucial, this is important. It is not enough to get the smartest people, leaders are also able to pick those who can work well with others. As Netflix CEO Reed Hastings put it, they do not tolerate ‘brilliant jerks’; those individuals who are good at their jobs but affect the group dynamic.
They are resourceful
As their main role after recruitment is to support their teams, these leaders have to be adept at finding solutions without interfering with their employees’ work. This should be a skill that they can pass on to their teams so that they in turn can learn to solve problems creatively.
They are great at delegating
This hands-off management approach means that leaders have to be comfortable letting others be in charge. This doesn’t mean totally disengaging but rather focusing on the bigger picture. This is easy to do when you hire the right people. As Steve jobs once said; “It doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and then tell them what to do; we hire smart people so they can tell us what to do.”
They are confident
This enables leaders to step aside and let their employees work without making them (the leaders) feel irrelevant. It also comes in to play with trusting that they made the right hiring decisions and recruited people who will achieve results. Confidence is also contagious and if it rubs off on the teams, that can only be a positive.
A big part of attaining success under this model is by hiring the right people. Some characteristics of laissez-faire employees include the following:
They are independent and can self-manage. These types of people are able to set up schedules, having broken down a job into small tasks, and follow them.
They have strong problem solving skills and the ability to look at obstacles from different angles. The Mckinsey problem solving framework details steps to sharpen problem solving skills.
They are highly skilled but are open to continuous learning.
How leaders make laissez-faire leadership style work
They trust their employees
After a rigorous hiring process to zero down on candidates who can self-manage, are highly skilled and require minimal supervision, it would be a waste not to trust them.
They invest in training
Laissez-faire leadership is hands off but it doesn’t mean leaving employees hanging. This leadership model requires equipping employees with the tools to do their work. This might be in the way of upgrading education skills, on job training and more.
Mistakes are spring boards
Fear of failure stifles innovation and creativity. That is why laissez-faire leaders foster workplaces where mistakes are not job threatening. Instead, they are viewed as experiments to be improved on or ones that lead to the next innovation.
The leader is held accountable
The previous points all support this one. Because the leader will be accountable at the end of the day, the employees have the freedom to focus on their work.
The pros of laissez-faire leadership
It gives employees a lot of room to grow
Because the leadership is so hands off, the employees have a chance to be hands on. This environment facilitates growth and development. Workers put their skills to the test and can improve them. In addition, the freedom employees get can encourage creativity and innovation.
It frees the leader up to focus on other things
Because leaders are not constantly monitoring their staff, they have a chance to be productive in other areas of the business. They can take on new projects and also prioritise their own growth and development.
Faster decision making
In some management styles, there are several approval steps which can be can be frustrating and affect productivity. Employees under laissez-faire leadership have the autonomy to make their own decisions.
It creates a high level of job satisfaction
With the added autonomy, employees feel like they are in charge of and are masters of their futures.
The cons of laissez-faire leadership
The leader may be seen to be indifferent
Depending on how the leader conducts himself or herself, they may be seen as uncaring and unconcerned. With no one to look to for guidance, this attitude can spread to the team members as well causing them to be apathetic about projects.
Undefined roles within a team
Ideally, you will have people of different expertise in each team. If a manager did not clearly define the channels to communicate with him/her, team members may look to each other for a leader. This can create a number of conflicts, from someone appearing to boss the rest around, to the team gravitating to an individual not equipped to provide leadership.
Loss of accountability
The leader is meant to take responsibility. This can lead to a recklessness among teams because they know they are insulated. On the extreme end, the leader can also unload the accountability role on the individuals in the teams. This will create a fear of taking risks and negatively affect output.
While laissez-faire leadership works well in some creative industries it is dependent on both the teams and their leaders. To balance out most of the cons it is important to have strong communication.
Employees need to have ways to reach their leaders. And the leader needs to be able to instill team meetings and one-on-one check-ins with individuals to stay on top of the projects and offer guidance where needed.