Laissez-Faire Leadership: Why Doing Nothing is as Bad as Doing Something Wrong
When talking about leadership styles, we often think of leader behaviors and skills that are either good or bad. If you follow our blogs long enough, you might remember us frequently discussing the positive outcomes of transformational leadership style, ethical leadership and other traits of successful leaders, such as being humble and humorous. Or, you may recall some of the bad leader behaviors, such as being abusive, selfish, manipulative or a bully.
However, there is another type of leadership that is worth discussing, laissez-faire leadership. “Laissez-faire (pronounced Leh seh fare)” is French for “let go.” It refers to a leadership style where the leader is indecisive, uninvolved, withdrawn when needed and reluctant to take a stand during critical junctures.1,2 Simply put, it describes the type of leader who resides in the position — but fails to provide any genuine leadership to the unit. They have more or less abdicated from the responsibilities and duties assigned to them.
With laissez-faire leadership, decisions are often delayed; feedback, rewards, punishment, involvement and interventions are absent. This type of leader also applies no effort to motivate followers, recognize their contributions or performance3 and doesn’t bother to satisfy their followers’ needs.
At an individual level, a lack of adequate leadership can create frustration within the workgroup (people don’t know what they need to do) and increase subordinates’ exposure to bullying at work (due to lack of intervention), which in turn can cause high levels of stress among subordinates.4 Also, the lack of rewards or punishment due to laissez-faire leadership can lead to low satisfaction with the leader, low subordinate-rated leader effectiveness and low performance in general (due to lack of motivation and guidance).
At an organizational level, by being indecisive and uninvolved, laissez-faire leaders can lose the organization important opportunities. The damages can be especially costly when the market environment is unstable and changing fast. What is worse, laissez-faire leadership can result in poor crisis management. When these leaders fail to correct mistakes and system loopholes when the trouble first emerges, these issues can become more serious and start to wreak havoc on the team or organization.
We can find traces of this leadership style in some recent public events. Before the Flint water crisis drew the attention of the whole nation in late 2015, citizens of Flint had been drinking water with high lead levels for more than a year. Despite of multiple signs of unsafe water—high levels of bacteria detected, a local General Motors plant discontinuing using Flint tap water due to corroding engine parts, Flint residents complaining of health issues caused by city water, and a team of scientists finding extremely high lead levels in four Flint homes—the city overruled the proposal of reconnecting to a safer water source and simply told the concerned public to relax. This insufficient leadership led more than 100,000 residents to be exposed to unsafe lead levels, including 6,000 to 12,000 children. If the city officials had reacted to the problem at the first sight of trouble, instead of trying to smooth the trouble away, such a tragic event could have been terminated in its early stage.
Therefore, compared to other counterproductive leadership behaviors, laissez-faire leadership can do more damage to an organization in the long run. Organizations should raise awareness to such leadership and its negative impacts. When selecting, assessing or developing leaders, organizations should use a systematic and comprehensive approach to avoid laissez-faire behaviors that can create a toxic work environment.
- Bass, B. M. (1997). From transactional to transformational leadership: Learning to share the vision. Leadership: Understanding the dynamics of power and influence in organizations, 318-333.
- Bass, B.M., & Avolio, B.J. (1990). Developing transformational leadership: 1992 and beyond. Journal of European Industrial Training, 14, 21-27.
- Hinkin, T.R., & Schriesheim, C.A. (2008). An examination of “nonleadership”: From Laissez-Faire leadership to leader reward omission and punishment omission. Journal of Applied Psychology, 93, 1234-1248.
- Skogstad, A., Einarsen, S., Torsheim, T., Aasland, M. S., & Hetland, H. (2007). The destructiveness of laissez-faire leadership behavior. Journal of occupational health psychology, 12, 80-92.
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