Laissez-Faire Leadership: Working Without Borders

by Daniel Hannig


This week, as part of our current series on leadership, we will dive into the laissez-faire management style in more detail. The French term “laissez-faire” can be translated to “let it be” or “leave alone”, which is a good description of the management model. Laissez-faire leadership gives employees the highest degree of freedom, with maximum leeway to make their own decisions, but it also entails a certain degree of risk in terms of employee motivation and productivity.

The following article discusses the origin and development laissez-faire management, discusses its application in today’s working world and elaborates on the advantages and disadvantages of the concept.

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Kurt Lewin and the Three Leadership Models

In 1939, the social psychologist Kurt Lewin (1890-1947) investigated the effect of different leadership styles on the basis of an experiment conducted over a period of five months: A voluntary group of children was instructed to carry out a variety of leisure time activities with a constructive touch (building model airplanes, designing walls, making theatre masks, etc.), while being supervised by three different instructors. The instructor would change every six weeks and each one would apply a different style of leadership: authoritarian, cooperative and laissez-faire. The focus of the experiment was set on group productivity, satisfaction, cohesion and efficiency.

General characteristics of the various management styles have already been touched upon in our previous article, which is why we will not go into this in detail here. However, what can be summarized regarding the results of the abovementioned experiment is the following: The laissez-faire leadership style brought about the worst results of all variations.

While not all participants were happy under the authoritarian and democratic leadership style, the work conducted thereto was however always efficient and (under democratic leadership) also produced high-quality results. According to Lewin, the group working under laissez-faire leadership did not only do little, but also produced work of poor quality. This was mainly attributed to the fact that the group under laissez-faire leadership showed no willingness to cooperate from the outset, communicated a low satisfaction level throughout the experiment and generally demonstrated bored and aggressive behavior towards the instructor and each other.

This begs the question: to what extent can this result be transferred to the current application of laissez-faire management in companies today? Can the laissez-faire approach always be linked to the above-mentioned results or do other factors also play a role?

Laissez-Faire Leadership in Practice

In order to answer these questions, it is first necessary to define in general terms which main elements define laissez-faire leadership and how these elements can be integrated into everyday working life.

Laissez-Faire in the Planning Process

Laissez-faire leadership is characterized by the fact that superiors or group leaders do not lay down any guidelines regarding the work process. In the experiment mentioned above, the participants were given complete freedom of choice as to the methodology and exercise of their activities. The group leader remained completely passive throughout the experiment and merely observed the process. In the business world this would be comparable to a workplace in which no concrete quarterly targets or process plans are specified, a workplace where the employees rather react jointly and spontaneously to external occurrences. In the framework of Lewin’s experiment, this approach resulted in boredom and even caused some participants to become aggressive. This is not necessarily the case in the business world, quite the contrary even: Many companies deliberately go about their annual planning without fixed goals in order to remain flexible. However, it should also be borne in mind that a laissez-faire leadership in the business world does not mean a complete absence of any planning, but only the reduction of planning processes to a level that does not impair the autonomy and self-control of employees. In particular, many start-ups or companies in the creative industry benefit from an agile approach and even turn this agility into their competitive advantage.

sign in the desert

Laissez-Faire Leadership and the Role of Superiors

In Lewin’s experiment, the leadership process of the instructor is characterized by complete passivity. No instructions were given and no participation whatsoever was initiated by the group leader. This quickly led to general listlessness and distraction among the participants, up to the point where the intended activity was no longer carried out and the whole group ended up doing something completely different. In a company implementing laissez-faire leadership, the role of the superior, if there is one at all, is also extremely passive. This can cause some serious problems, not least the lack of motivation and disorientation among employees. If, however, the employees are intrinsically motivated from the outset and are already so competent in their area of responsibility that they no longer need instructions, the absence of a leader or his passivity can have a positive effect on productivity. In this case, the complete freedom of decision-making allows the employees to exploit their full potential and possibly create innovative solutions.

Leadership without Feedback

As also observed in Lewin’s experiment, laissez-faire leadership in the business world also lacks any form of feedback. The result is often lack of motivation among the employees, due to not being recognized for their work. In many cases, a laissez-faire culture can lead to a loss of self-initiative and the willingness to try new strategies. If the abovementioned process subsequently becomes embedded in the corporate structure over time, this may result in employees doing only what they are paid for, which significantly reduces productivity within the company. It is therefore in the hands of the employees themselves to get feedback from others, should they personally feel that they need it to stay motivated.

The Disadvantages of Laissez-Faire Leadership

We have already mentioned some disadvantages of the laissez-faire management style, but there are several more common problem areas that one can identify by looking a little closer.

  • For one, a high degree of freedom at work requires a lot of personal discipline and responsibility. Because not every person has this inherent sense of responsibility, there is always the risk of some employees abusing the freedom that is offered by deliberately remaining unproductive and therefore harming the company.
  • Furthermore, a self-reliant way of working can also cause chaotic situations if the common goal is lost out of sight.
  • It is also characteristic for group dynamic processes that the desire for decisive leadership increases once the group gets larger. This can lead to the exclusion of individuals and encourage rivalry among team members.
  • The aforementioned high level of responsibility and the myriad of independent decisions that often accompany this leadership style, can lead to permanent strain and result in illness of individual employees.

We admit that these findings do not necessarily cast a positive light on laissez-faire leadership. In spite of all this, this management style is nonetheless implementesd often and successfully. But how is this possible?

rudder on a boat

Exploiting the Advantages of the Laissez-Faire Management Style

Many successful entrepreneurs, including Warren Buffett, have implemented this leadership style in their companies and have been rather successful with it. According to his own statements Buffet grants complete liberty to his managers and leads his enterprise with a “hands-off” approach. As a manager, when you give your employees complete freedom with regard to their work, you signal one thing above all else: complete trust. It is however up to you to decide for yourself which employees you want to trust with this high degree of autonomy and it is naturally a hard decision to make. One of the main reasons why the laissez-faire management style produced negative results in Lewin’s experiment was the participant’s lack of receptivity to this concept. However, if you surround yourself with people that are able to develop their strengths in such an environment, the laissez-faire leadership style can bring about a lot of advantages. A further prerequisite for the successful implementation of this approach is the right working environment. Wherever creativity and innovation are required, the laissez-faire management style is the obvious choice. If the main focus is not on accurately completed number sheets and automated processes, this free and autonomous management style can bring decisive advantages for a company. Free and self-determined work enables employees to contribute to their personal strengths. The high level of responsibility they are given also continuously increases their motivation. The high degree of self-determination further simplifies the development of effective solutions. So, to sum up, if you should choose to implement a laissez-faire leadership within your company, be sure to take into account that the successful implementation of this principle requires three things: complete trust of the supervisor in the employees, an innovative and/or creative working environment, and employees who can deal with such freedom.

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