The Pros and Cons of Laissez-Faire Leadership

A team working together in an office

As a business owner, you will naturally possess authority over your employees. How effectively you wield this power is dependent on several factors, though, such as your personality, the nature of your business, and most importantly, the calibre of your employees.

Of course, there are many different styles of leadership that you can adopt, each with their own benefits and drawbacks. One of the most commonly used is the authoritarian approach, which, as the name suggests, lends itself to those who prefer to be firmly in control. 

Laissez-faire leadership, meanwhile, is a little more cryptic, perhaps due to its name, as well as its lack of popularity in traditional management circles. This doesn't mean that it should be discarded, though; depending on your industry, and how you want to run things day-to-day, it could be an optimal approach when dealing with your employees and devising strategy.

To illustrate what this management style can bring to your business, we've compiled a thorough list of the various advantages and disadvantages of laissez-faire leadership, and why you should – or should not – consider it as an option.

Firstly, What Exactly is Laissez-faire Leadership?

Roughly translating as "let it be" or "leave alone", laissez-faire is a French term used originally to describe favourable government policies for private businesses. Over time, it has acquired significant usage in economics, politics, and management.   

Deemed a liberal style of leadership, it is generally a more "hands-off" approach to management; for instance, a laissez-faire leader will prefer to delegate their authority among subordinates, allowing them more freedom in getting the job done. 

Indeed, the role of the leader in this system is primarily to set policy and objectives. The actual "nitty-gritty" is handled mostly by the team, with minimal intervention from above; Steve Jobs and Warren Buffet are high-profile proponents of this leadership style.

The Advantages of Laissez-faire Leadership

Like all other forms of leadership, laissez-faire has its strengths. But for them to come to the fore, there are certain preconditions. The first one is related to your staff; laissez-faire management places a considerable amount of responsibility on the shoulders of your team. 

If your business is staffed by talented, skilled, and experienced individuals, then a hands-off style could work. This is why laissez-faire is a popular method in professional and creative industries, where employees are often subject matter experts in their field. If you run a graphic design studio, for instance, or a small legal or accounting firm, then this approach will likely be well-received.

If these key points apply to your organisation, then a laissez-faire leadership style will bring with it the following advantages:

It Encourages Innovation

Instead of having all members follow a single voice (yours), laissez-faire management encourages staff to actively voice their own opinions and ideas. With so many different views coming from such a wide variety of minds, there will be an increased output of new and unique directions that your company can take when approaching tasks.

It Encourages Personal Growth

An increased delegation of responsibilities and duties can give team members more chances to improve their skills – including leadership. If they are sufficiently motivated and invested in the organisation, this will provide them with opportunities to develop as individuals, benefiting your organisation in the process.

It Optimises Experience

In an organisation, there are often qualified and experienced individuals who are not at the managerial level. A laissez-faire system gives such employees a chance to bring all their existing skills and experience to the fore, whereas in an autocratic style, such individuals would be left underutilised.

It Increases Job Satisfaction

In general, people are turned off by overbearing or overly-demanding bosses. While a useful tool for productivity, it may backfire in the long run due to heavy attrition. With laissez-faire, however, staff members feel more comfortable, free, and valued. There is less chance of stress, which can lead to improved morale and retention, as well as increased productivity in the right circumstances.

It Can Free Up Your Schedule

The negative effects of micromanagement on employees is well known, but it's also not good for you – especially if you have ambitions for growth and expansion. By delegating to your team, you will have more time free to plan and oversee your various strategies. This doesn't mean that you concede total control of day-to-day operations, either; by being more selective in your interactions with staff, you can still bring your influence and oversight to bear. 

The Disadvantages of Laissez-faire Leadership

There is no doubt that laissez-faire can bring significant disadvantages to an organisation – especially where conditions are not conducive to such a liberal style of management. Its main weakness is that it hinges heavily on the abilities and temperament of your employees. 

It is also not suitable for businesses where efficiency and high productivity are the main concerns. Here are some ways of the ways in which a laissez-faire system can negatively impact your business:

It Can Encourage Laziness

There is no guarantee that individuals will stay productive when given more freedom; indeed, in the absence of constant supervision and oversight, certain individuals may be encouraged to take things easy. If you have staff members who are not committed to the business, this can be bad news.

In the same way, delegating all responsibilities to subordinates can make a leader lazy in the long run. With your team members taking care of the business, you might find yourself relying too heavily on the judgement and ability of others, alienating yourself from your own company. 

It Can Weaken Your Position 

When not implemented correctly (or in moderation), laissez-faire leadership can create a vacuum at the top of your organisational structure – at least in the minds of your employees. If you don't have qualified and experienced members to take up the mantle and point the team in the direction laid by you, things will worsen.

It Can Reduce Productivity

Some individuals thrive when they are driven to perform by their superiors, and can end up performing significantly worse when given too much autonomy. If your team does not possess charismatic individuals with core leadership qualities in them, the rest may lose focus and productivity.

It Reduces Accountability

In larger organisations, when mid-level managers adopt a laissez-faire approach, they often end up blaming subordinates when targets are not met. With delegated responsibility, the leader often has an easy way out of laying the blame at the feet of employees. In a smaller company, this can reduce your credibility and acceptance as a leader.

It Can Create Comfort Zones

Given enough autonomy, individuals – or even entire teams – end up creating silos within the workplace. These comfort zones are highly resistant to change and can create problems when your business requires a new direction. Combined with the leadership vacuum at the top, this can make the organisation highly inflexible and vulnerable to adverse conditions, while stagnation can be the death knell of a company in a fast-moving industry such as tech.

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Of course, no one style of leadership is perfect; each has their pros and cons. In the case of laissez-faire, though, many of the disadvantages surface when you follow an extreme version of this leadership style. When used in moderation, and with a more pragmatic approach that involves some level of intervention on your part, a hands-off style of management can undoubtedly work wonders.

Is laissez-faire the right style of leadership for modern businesses? Let us know your thoughts and opinions in the comment section below!