A 'hands-off' leader can derail employees

Management Professor Angelo Kinicki, provides his readers with the consequences of how not to implement laissez-faire leadership into business.

By Angelo Kinicki  |  Weatherup/Overby Chair in Leadership

I experience laissez-faire leaders far too often in my consultant role. This is very unfortunate because such leaders leave a wake of disengaged and unproductive employees. Laissez-faire leaders are the ones who fail to take responsibility for leading. They believe that it is best to be "hands off" or "supportive only when necessary." Some even believe this approach is for the good of the organization, because it causes the development of others or it represents empowerment.

Whenever I talk with managers about this form of leader behavior, I generally encounter nonbelievers. They simply don't think that such people rise up in organizations, or that they exist. But my experience is that laissez-faire leadership is alive and well across all organizational levels. Let's consider a few examples.

Adam's experience is sad but true. He had not had a performance appraisal in three years. His boss was physically located in another country and only called Adam for financial updates on his division or to get quick answers to questions he had. Adam asked his boss about a review on several occasions only to be told that "we'll get to it the next time I see you in-person" and "you know that you are doing a good job, don't worry about it."

I asked Adam why he hadn't seen his human resources representative about the situation and his answer was that he didn't want to make trouble for his boss. Obviously, the performance management tracking system for his company was not very reliable. But back to his boss, he was failing to take responsibility for providing feedback and coaching, two key aspects of leading. Adam had no gauge for measuring how he compared with colleagues around the world and he had no formalized goals. "I don't even know if an increase in pay is possible, or how I can improve," he said. This is laissez-faire leadership.

Next is Krista, a well-thought-of VP at a large corporation. She strongly believed in empowerment. Unfortunately, Krista, like many managers, confused the concept of empowerment with leadership.

Krista believed that empowering others is akin to letting people self-govern. Although she would discuss general strategic direction, she would not provide input to her team on how to achieve strategic goals. When conflict occurred among her "self-governing" employees, she said, "Figure it out, I am not the adult on duty." This led to squabbles at staff meetings, in break rooms and at small fragmented group meetings of those trying to build coalitions. Self-serving political behavior erupted and Krista did nothing about it. She was not going to make decisions for her group, no, siree! Laissez-faire leadership won out, and some high performers ultimately quit the company.

Leaders must lead and stay engaged. It takes courage to lead. If you are a leader, don't confuse empowerment with abdication of your leadership role. Unbridled empowerment is not leading. It is an excuse for avoiding the accountability that comes with leading others.

If you work for a laissez-faire leader, here as some suggestions for getting the direction and support you need. They are listed in increasing order of personal risk and complexity.

  • Talk to your manager and discuss your need for more input, coaching or direction. Focus on what you want and not on the manager's laissez-faire leadership. Be specific about your needs and try to avoid the use of evaluative language that may make your manager defensive. Avoid phrases like "you are not providing leadership" or "your failure to act is creating problems for me."
  • Sit down with your boss and establish specific, measurable, attainable, results-driven and time bound goals. Then gain agreement on action plans for accomplishing each of these goals. Finally, agree on a time frame to meet to discuss your progress on goal achievement.
  • Consult with other members of your work group to determine if you are the only person who feels a need for more leadership. If your peers agree that your manager is displaying laissez-faire leadership, consider how best to approach your boss. This approach amounts to creating a coalition and is viewed as a "hard tactic" because it involves more overt pressure for change.
  • Seek the assistance of someone higher up in the organization. This might entail a visit to your human resources representative or to your manager's boss to explain the situation. You are more likely to receive a positive response if you are credible and can specifically describe the circumstances of your boss's behavior.
  • Look for a job somewhere else. We cannot change someone's behavior, but we can change how we respond.

Regardless of which side of the fence you're on in terms of giving or receiving laissez-faire leadership, remember these words of advice from an unknown author: "What you allow is what will continue."

First published in The Arizona Republic, July 6, 2015.

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