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What is Laissez-faire Leadership?

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As part of our ongoing blog series, we’re going to focus on a different style of management each week. Last week, we looked at the autocratic style, where managers exercise complete control over their team. This week, we’re going to be looking at the opposite style: laissez-faire.

Like the economic system, laissez-faire management is characterised by allowing your team to manage themselves, without interfering. Adopting this style of leadership means handing over complete control and autonomy to your team. You will provide them with the resources and equipment necessary to carry out the work, but how the work itself is carried out is up to them. Although it is not suitable in every situation, laissez-faire leadership can be an effective way to manage your team, given the right circumstances.

When is it Effective?

Not all teams are suitable for laissez-faire managers. In general, this style is most effective when you are supervising teams of highly skilled individuals. In many cases, team members will have a higher level of skill than you, or even be skilled in an area you are completely unfamiliar with. It is this combination of practical skill but lack of leadership skills that enables the laissez-faire style to be so effective; while you are expected to establish the goals, targets, and deadlines, you trust that your team is talented enough to make the best decisions in their area of expertise to achieve these objectives.

Although laissez-faire management is typically as detached as possible, you are still ultimately responsible for whatever the team produces. For this reason, the style is best reserved for teams in which you place complete trust. They are responsible for any creative decisions, problem-solving, and quality control, so if you don’t trust their judgement, it won’t work.

What are the Pros and Cons?

The biggest advantage of the laissez-faire style of management is that it can produce a much higher quality of product or service. By giving people creative control over their area of expertise, you enable them to use their knowledge and passion to produce work that is much more innovative than anything an outsider could suggest. This can improve morale and job-satisfaction among people who have high levels of skill, self-motivation, and passion for their line of work.

Unfortunately, there are a few ways the laissez-faire style can break down. One is using it with the wrong team. People who are inexperienced, unmotivated, or disinterested will not react well to laissez-faire leadership, and you’ll end up taking the blame. Another risk is that a lack of clearly defined roles could cause people to lose their focus, or certain tasks to be overlooked entirely. Laissez-faire leaders can also be seen by their team as distant or uninvolved which can lead to resentment or apathy among team members. For this reason, it is important to make it clear that they are being given autonomy because you trust them, not that they have been forgotten about.

Like all leadership styles, laissez-faire management has its advantages and drawbacks. While it can help highly skilled and passionate teams go above and beyond in terms of creativity and innovation, it can also cause others to become lost, or feel neglected. In the end, making effective use of this style comes down to knowing who to trust. Not every team or situation can be trusted to look after themselves, and it’s up to you to decide when you feel comfortable letting others take the reins.    

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