Michelle McQuaid, a leader in positive psychologyinterventions in the workplace, conducted a study on 1,000 American Executives (Kiisel, 2012). In the survey only 36% of the respondents reported being happy with their job (Hall, 2013). This is consistent with a study by Harris Interactive which reported that 74% of employees would consider finding a new job. Later in the survey, the participants were given the option to either to get a better boss or to get better pay, which they would choose. An astonishing 65% of all participants reported that, given the opportunity, they would rather work for a better boss than get better pay. Not only do people seem to dislike their bosses but studies have found that they don’t trust them. A Harvard Business Review study showed that employees are more likely to trust a complete stranger than their own boss (Harvard Business Review, 2012).
So why are people generally so dissatisfied with their bosses? Can business leaders not live up to their name? If leaders cannot inspire people to follow them, or to even like them, than what is their point?
In the west individualism is emphasized and collectivism is looked down upon. Correspondingly, a common complaint of employees is that they are not given enough autonomy. Indeed, many dream of becoming their own boss, setting their own schedule, and relying on themselves to make things happen. A study by Accenture reported that 22% of executives desire to start their own company (Hall 2013). Further, it seems that more and more people are desiring autonomy. Mellissa Llarena reported that 54% of the young working generation wish to work for themselves (Hall, 2013). In these instances, management is often seen as more of an obstacle than a help.
Is not the idea of coming to work and not having a superior interfere with your self-directed work idyllic? Is it true that the most satisfying jobs go by the philosophy that in supervision “less is more”? There is definitely a leadership theory that incorporates these ideals; it is the laissez-faire leadership theory. In this article, here will be examined the attributes, effectiveness, and implication of a laissez-faire leadership style in context of recent academic literature and studies.
Laissez-faire Leadership in Leadership Development
In 1938, psychologists Lewin, Lippitt, and White set out to classify and study different types of leadership. Through this study they identified three different leadership styles: autocratic, democratic, and laissez-faire.
Autocratic leadership is typified by authoritarian direction and expectations of results. Democratic leadership is almost the polar opposite, collaboration is encouraged and an integrative leadership where leaders and employees participate together is cultivated. In contrast to these methods, laissez-fair leadership is something altogether different.
The phrase “laissez faire” is French and means “let it be”. Typically this phase with laissez faire style economics where governments do not interfere, impose restrictions, or subsidize private businesses. Similarly, in leadership, laissez faire leadership involves little to no supervision or traditional leadership role fulfillment.
Laissez-faire leadership exist in a business for any number of reasons and in a spectrum of conditions and structures. It could be a well-crafted business plan for success or simply a leader typified by inaction and laziness. While some see laissez-faire leadership as an oxymoron and use synonymously with indolence and lethargy (Skogstad, Einarsen, Torsheim, Aasland, & Hetland, 2007), some claim that under the right conditions, laissez-faire leadership can be the most effective method to lead with (Goodnight, 2004; Widener University, n.d.).
While many employees complain about their jobs and look for greater autonomy, would the laissez-faire kind of leadership really benefit the team or the business? So much effort and money has been expending in to the research and training for leadership development, could it be that the best plan is “no plan”?
Assumptions of Deliberate Laissez-faire Leadership
To purposefully adopt a laissez-faire leadership style it takes certain precautions, assumptions, and basic beliefs about behavior and leadership. Without these assumptions and precaution in place, the laissez-fair leadership is not a leadership at all, but merely a neglect, a defaulted inaction.
Firstly, by adopting a “hands-off” approach to leadership you need to have trained qualified team that will require littler direction or feedback. This works well for veteran positions where employees have demonstrated formidable skill sets and work ethics, but less well with workers that are more inexperienced. If the team cannot perform their expected tasks on their own then applying a laissez-faire will only cause frustration and ineffective work.
Secondly, by implementing laissez-faire, you are assuming that by leaving employees on their own mean, you give them the opportunity to use cultivate their creativity and innovation to provide benefits that would not have otherwise surfaced. Some companies such as Atlassian have capitalized on this assumption. Every quarter, Atlassias gives all their employees the chance to work on anything that relates to our products. They can choose anything they want to do; however, they only have 24 hours to do it. They have found great results from this meager one day of autonomy (Atlassian, n.d.).
Thirdly, you assume, by using this method, that your team’s moral will improve because of it. Not everyone enjoys, or can minting, autonomy and self-direction. You need to know that the people you have, and the people that you will hire, are compatible with a laissez-faire environment. More and more people are working at home either full time, or part time.
Fourthly, by giving the employees such power and freedom of choice, you are assuming a lot about the motivation of people, and the motivation of your team. You are assuming that your team is motivated by personal satisfaction, pride in oneself, the company, and their work, and pride in task mastery. If these assumptions are met, your team can see more work output, better quality, less worker attrition rates, and greater job satisfaction. You are putting your trust in the employees that they know how to do their work best and they will take personal pride in doing it in an effective manner. However, if these assumptions are not met, you will likely be met with low performance, low worker satisfaction, and frustration.
Current Research on Laissez-Faire Leadership
As many see laissez-faire leadership as a “non-leadership”, very few studies have been aimed directly to understand it. The research that has included laissez-faire leadership in comparison to Transformation or Transactional leadership styles find it lacking in term of effectiveness, fulfillment, and motivation. The few studies which directly focus on laissez-faire leadership generally take a very traditional view of laissez-faire in which it is a leadership of default rather than a leadership of purpose. As such, almost every mention on laissez-faire in literature is negative.
Even in the original 1938 study comparing the three different leadership styles, the effectiveness laissez-faire leadership styles was the least effective (Lewin, Lippitt, and White, 1938). The children’s leader were instructed offer little or no guidance to group members and leave decision-making up to group members. The children the group more demands on the leader than either of the other groups, showed little cooperation and were unable to work independently.
Serious research into Lewin’s categories of leadership was stimulated by a groundbreaking measure created by psychologist Bernard Bass (1985). Bass created a measure called the Multifactor Leadership Questionnaire (MLQ), which has been said to be the basis of recent research in this area (Hinkin & Schriesheim, 2008).
Using the MLQ researchers Skogstad, Einarsen, Torsheim, Aasland, and Hetland found that leaders demonstrating a laissez-faire as positively correlated with role ambiguity, role conflict, and workplace bullying and psychological stress (2007). This study does not offer any causal conclusions, and while much of these variables are correlated and mediated by each other, this study does demonstrate that a clear link between laissez-faire leadership and increased bullying in the workplace.
In another study on bullying, it was found that compared to respondents experiencing low of laissez-faire leadership, high levels of laissez-faire leadership had three times the risk of bullying behaviors (Nielsen, 2013). Further, in this study, the only statistically significant factor to predict bullying was is they were being managed by a laissez-faire leadership style. However, as this study relied on what the participants report their bosses were like it is possible that those who were bullied were more likely to see their boss as more aloof and distant than those who had not experienced bullying.
Other studies have shown that laissez-faire leadership negatively predict innovative work behavior (Khan, & Riaz, 2012), are more prone to have higher incident rates in medical facilities (Krouse, 2011), and a negative correlation in self-efficacy in social workers. Indeed, almost all the research done on laissez-faire leadership shows that it pales in comparison to the other two counterparts.
While most of the literature regarding laissez-faire is negative there are some studies which point so some very positive aspects. In a 2008 study of the effectiveness of different leadership styles of clergy, it was found that laissez-faire leadership was the most effective. Barbuto found that laissez-faire leadership was positively correlated to intrinsic and extrinsic motivation (2005). Similarly, Chaudhry and Javed found that laissez-faire was positively correlated with motivation, though not as strongly as transactional or transformational leadership style (2012).
Discussion of Research, the Spectrum of Laissez-Faire Leadership, and Suggestions for Future Research
Finding any generalizable study in which shows laissez-faire leadership in a positive light is very rare. However, the vast majority of laissez-faire leaders are leaders of default and inaction, not leaders with a purposeful leadership philosophy. Such leaders of default demonstrate aspects of laziness, inhabitation, and apathy. They practice an extreme laissez-faire leadership style which has not guidelines, just inaction. Their employees are working for them with false expectations of leadership, deficiency of training, and unmet needs. They are left to guess if their employer will complete his job or his involvement.
As this is the case, it is not surprising that the results are as such. It would be of interest if further research were to focus in on purposeful leaders which adopted a form of laissez-faire leadership. Such leaders would be forthright with their leadership style letting their team know what to expect. They would hire a capable team compatible with laissez-faire leadership. They would be adept in their job possessing all the skills necessary to perform their tasks with self-judgment and minimal supervision. They would have demonstrated reliability and self-motivation. This would minimize the aforementioned potential liabilities of a laissez-faire leadership style.
This style of leaderships is more akin to subcontracting than to traditional leadership -- the worker is given a clear objective and is left to autonomously complete his object using his own skills and work management. Further research into this type of laissez-faire leadership would be very beneficial to better understand some potential gains of taking a more deliberate and structured “hands-off” approach.
Laissez-Fair, a Critical Aspect of Future Leadership Development
As technology increases, working at home have been on the rise. Several companies now allow employees to work at home periodically once they have established their work ethic. One study has reported that the number of Americans working from home increased 40% from 1999 to 2010 (Fox, 2012). According to an international survey of almost 10,000 participants, 26% of employees were working at home at least one day a week in 2012. This is up from 18% just two years prior in 2010. Further, in 2012, 12% of employees spend some time doing work in public venues such as coffee shops, or restaurants, this being twice the 6% that reported doing so in 2010 (Forrester, 2012).
As people are spending more time working out of their home it gives them more flexibility and autonomy. This, by necessity, creates more of a laissez-faire, or “hands off” type of environment. A manager will not have constant communication with a worker which is at home. Their relationship will be much different, and more emotionally distant. The manager is likely to give less thought to the employee at home than to the employee in the office. It would be wise to go into such situations with a clear plan so it does such relationships do degenerate into a laissez-faire leadership style of default-inaction.
To do so, we must research the conditions in which a more laissez-faire leadership style can survive while maintaining order and efficiency. Not only will future research tell us how laissez-faire can work, but it will also give us further information as to why most laissez-faire relationships do not work. Thus, the laissez-faire leadership style is a critical area of leadership development which should be given more prominence and thought in future research.
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