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What is Laissez-Faire Leadership?

The term laissez-faire is defined as “leaving things to take their own course, without interfering”. It is a term that can be applied to politics and economics, but it is also a well-known leadership style. Laissez-faire leaders are leaders that take a step back from their employees and leave them to make key decisions about projects and other work tasks.

Wondering if laissez-faire leadership would work for you? Or if it is a leadership style that might suit your business? Here is everything you need to know about the laissez-faire leadership model:

What is Laissez Faire Leadership?

Laissez-Faire leadership is sometimes also referred to as delegation leadership. Laissez-faire leaders are at the most relaxed end of the leadership scale because they choose to take a very hands-off approach to leadership. Laissez-faire leaders will give their employees the freedom to set their own schedules and make their own decisions. That doesn’t mean that they don’t do anything; whilst they may be hands-off on a day-to-day basis, they are team leaders that will give their team members the tools and support that they need to complete a project before they take a step back.

This is a leadership style you’ll commonly find in creative settings, such as advertising agencies or startups, due to its encouragement of independent thinking. It is not a leadership style suited to formal environments, such as banking, or regimented expert-driven working environments, such as manufacturing.

Characteristics of Laissez Faire Leadership

You will recognise laissez-faire leadership from a series of very specific characteristics. These include:

  • Leaders that take a hands-off approach. Employees are given the space and the freedom that they need to manage their own workloads and control their own projects. Employees rarely need to seek approval or validation from laissez-faire leaders.
  • Laissez-Faire leaders don’t simply ignore their employees, however, leaders that follow this model will need to provide employees with all of the training and support that they will need to complete their roles effectively and efficiently.
  • Employees are given the freedom to make their own decisions. They are awarded a significant amount of trust and responsibility.
  • Laissez-faire leaders are comfortable with mistakes. They understand that, via this model, their employees won’t always get everything right and they are prepared to take the time, and spend the money needed to rectify any mistakes when they are made.
  • Under the laissez-faire leadership model, ultimate accountability will always fall to the leader. They may not take a hands-on role on a daily basis but knowing what is going on in their team and ensuring that tasks are completed on time and on budget is their responsibility, and their responsibility only.

Most people assume that laissez-faire leaders are completely hands-off and that they do not build relationships with their team members. But actually, the best laissez-faire leaders remain fully open and available to their employees and team members. They will give their employees the tools they need to complete a project before it begins, and then they will assume a more hands-off approach. This means that team members can do their jobs competently without the leader, but this is because of the initial support and expertise the leader has given.

Laissez-faire leaders trust the team members they employ. This trust is absolutely essential because a good leader cannot step back and leave their team to work independently unless they are confident in their abilities and trusting of their productivity and their work ethic.

Highly motivated employees

Positives of Laissez Faire Leadership

There are many advantages to adopting a laissez-faire leadership approach. These include:

  • Opportunities for Personal Growth and Motivation. Because laissez-faire leaders take a hands-off approach to managing their teams, this can give self-motivated team members the ideal opportunity to embrace their own personal growth. They can focus on achieving their goals and on staying highly motivated without the distraction of a leader, or the constraints many leaders can impose.
  • Increased Learning and Development Opportunities. Without an overbearing leader in place to do everything for them, employees with laissez-faire leaders are given more opportunities to learn on their own. This on-the-job learning means that they are more likely to achieve learning and development goals faster than employees who are given less freedom to demonstrate and utilise their skills.
  • More Employee Freedom. Another employee benefit of the laissez-faire leadership model is they are free from the decision-making of their superiors. Laissez-faire leaders allow their team members to make their own decisions. Whilst this can sometimes feel daunting, it can also encourage innovation. Productivity often increases in situations where employees are given increased freedom, and this could also lead to better employee retention. Employees are more likely to remain in environments where they have freedom and are not dominated by overbearing leaders.
  • The Decision-Making Process is Faster. When they don’t have to seek approval from their laissez-faire leader, employees can make decisions much faster under the laissez-faire leadership model. Employees feel empowered by their laissez-faire leaders to tackle problems head-on, and to make decisions without approval. There are many benefits of this approach.

Negatives of Laissez Faire Leadership

Whilst there are advantages to laissez-faire leadership, there are also disadvantages to this leadership model. Some of these disadvantages include:

  • Too Much Focus Placed on the Employee. If your employees lack knowledge or experience, then the laissez-faire model will fail. Without a robust team who are highly trained and highly knowledgeable, this business model could lead to decreased productivity and increased numbers of mistakes.
  • Employees Can Feel Confused. Without clear leadership and guidance from a visible leader or manager, employees may not always know what they’re supposed to do. Their job role or the specific tasks that are expected of them may not be immediately clear, and it is unlikely that there will be anyone available to offer them support or guidance when they need it.
  • Employee Morale Can Be Reduced. When team members are working independently, without the proactive support of a line manager, they can sometimes feel isolated. They are not provided with access to team-building events, and they may even be less committed to their work projects. Humans are not meant to spend long periods of time in isolation and doing so can have a very negative impact on a workforce. For this reason, laissez-faire leadership is rarely recommended for very small teams.
  • Leaders Don’t Take Accountability. When used in the wrong situations, or by the wrong people, some incompetent laissez faire leaders will use their leadership style as a viable reason to escape accountability for their duties. Instead of taking responsibility when goals are not met, for example, a laissez-faire leader could take a step back and shift the blame to the employees, and the wider team, that completed the work whilst the leader themselves was focusing on another project. For this reason, laissez-faire leadership is sometimes regarded as a leadership model that avoids true leadership. Laissez-faire leaders are passive, and they don’t give their team members the support or the motivation that they truly need. For this reason, the minimal efforts of a laissez-faire leader may mean that they don’t deserve the title of ‘leader’ at all.

Situations When Laissez Faire Leadership Works

Laissez-Faire leadership is a model that works best in situations where the team members are highly qualified and highly skilled. You must already have considerable expertise in your industry to work without the support and guidance of a leader. For organisational success to be achieved with minimal guidance, employees must be competent and confident in their own abilities.

Laissez-faire leadership also works best in situations where teams are self-managed, or in creative fields where out-of-the-box or creative thinking are not only valued but also necessary for continued success. It is a leadership model that values creativity and is designed to give employees the freedom to work at their own pace and use their own unique skillsets.

The fact is that some business types are better suited to laissez-faire leadership than others. Some examples of business situations where the laissez-faire leadership model works include retail buying and the entertainment industry. In both of these industries, employees are treated with a hands-off approach because they are given the freedom to travel extensively and independently, and make key business decisions, without the support of their leader, whilst they are on these business trips.

When to Avoid Laissez Faire Leadership

Whilst there are some excellent examples of where laissez-faire leadership is highly effective and efficient, it isn’t a leadership model that works for everyone. If your business demands extreme employee productivity and high levels of efficiency at all times for its success, then the laissez-faire leadership model might not be the right choice for you, for example. That’s because this model relies on employees being self-motivated and setting their own work schedules and work goals. If just one employee does not do this effectively, then your productivity levels could decrease.

For this reason, even the biggest proponents of the laissez-faire model will often use it in conjunction with other leadership models. And at the end of a project or large body of work, for example, a more hands-on leadership model that involves a certain amount of direction or oversight may be more effective. Instead, use laissez-faire leadership at the beginning of a project, where independent brainstorming or creativity is required. Other situations in which laissez-faire leadership should be avoided include:

  • In work environments where efficiency and productivity are the primary concerns. In these situations, a hands-on leader who can provide continuous support and motivation would be a better candidate.
  • In situations that require a high level of precision and attention to detail. These are often high-stakes and high-pressure workplaces. Where perfection is expected at every turn and there is very little room for error, an authoritative leader might be better placed to help the company achieve its goals.
  • With unorganised or unmotivated workforces. Laissez-faire leadership simply won’t work in situations where employees cannot set their own deadlines or manage their own projects. Giving these employees a laissez-faire leader will only result in missed deadlines, underperformance, and low levels of morale. For this reason, laissez-faire should be avoided in workplaces with unskilled workforces.

Examples of Laissez Faire Leadership

Whilst this piece has focussed on laissez-faire leadership in the workplace, it is a leadership model that can be utilised in a wide variety of situations. Some examples of situations where laissez-faire leadership can be used include:

  • In-School. The primary role of the teacher is to educate and engage the student. But when a teacher takes a laissez-faire approach, they take a step back and observe the students instead. This means that students can do as they wish, explore their own interests, and develop their skills at their own pace. Conversely, using laissez-faire leadership in the classroom can also lead to a lack of expectations and discipline in the classroom, meaning that this isn’t a situation that will work for all students.
  • As we have already demonstrated, in a work environment laissez-faire leaders let their employees work to their own schedules and make their own decisions. Laissez-faire leaders avoid offering feedback or sharing in the decision-making process.
  • In government: It is not unusual to see laissez-faire leadership demonstrated in a political arena. A political leader who exhibits this kind of leadership model would leave decisions to subordinates and provide little direction. They are often a ‘front man’ for the political party whilst other more politically savvy employees do the work.

One of the best examples of a laissez-faire leader in the 21st century is Steve Jobs. Jobs is famous for the laissez-faire approach with which he handled his team. The Apple leader would often give his team clear instructions on his vision, and then leave them to figure out how and when they would be able to turn his vision into a reality.  Members of his team often said they got to use their creative skills and try new things whilst working under Jobs; this ignited their passion for the role and the industry in general.

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