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Is Laissez-faire leadership really the leadership style to avoid? – New study
New research about Laissez-faire leadership may challenge your previous thoughts and ideas about this style of leadership and whether it really is as bad as it is held out to be.
- Nature of Leadership
- Laissez-faire leadership
- Studies on leadership styles
- Employee empowerment and leadership style
- Study and findings on Employee empowerment and leadership style
- The dichotomy of autonomy and leadership style
- Studies on the dichotomy of autonomy and leadership style
- A new study
Nature of Leadership
The nature or style of leadership in organisations has been shown in many, many studies to have a significant impact on organisational performance and outcomes. As a result, the field of leadership receives a lot of attention, both within organisations and researchers’ tuitions. For example, last year alone (2019), there were over 90,000 peer-reviewed research articles looking at some aspect of leadership.
As would be expected, research has shown that the nature of the leadership is a key factor in a range of employee outcomes, including:
• quality of work
and a range of other outcomes. Much of the research tends to focus on transformational leadership – with over 16,000 peer-reviewed studies in 2019, servant leadership – with almost 16,000 peer-reviewed studies in 2019 and authentic leadership – with more than 17,000 peer-reviewed studies in 2019. Laissez-faire leadership is assumed to be a less appealing leadership style and was the subject of approximately 9,000 peer-reviewed studies in 2019.
Laissez-faire leadership is seen as a passive style and refers to a situation where the leader is hesitant and often unwilling to influence subordinates, preferring to allow them more freedom. Laissez-faire leadership is the leadership of non-interference and a number of studies have shown that there are frequently more chaotic outcomes than any other leadership style.
…laissez-faire leadership is the leadership of non-interference
In short, the reduced research interest in laissez-faire leadership research and interest in organisations in exploring laissez-faire leadership appears to be down to a common perception that laissez-faire leadership produces largely negative outcomes.
Studies on leadership styles
Some studies have hypothesised that, compared to more structured leadership styles such as transformational leadership, subordinates will suffer from greater levels of anxiety due to the lack of structure and guidance. However, a study showed that this is not the case and that the anxiety levels of subordinates of laissez-faire leaders are no different from those of transformational leaders.
Employee empowerment and leadership style
Additionally, it had been previously assumed that there is a marked distinction between transformational leadership styles and laissez-faire leadership in terms of empowerment of employees. Hitherto, the assumption has been that empowerment-based leadership styles are more active and focused on the development of the subordinate or employee, whilst the laissez-faire leadership style is more passive and less interested in, or even dismissive of, employees’ development needs.
Study and findings on Employee empowerment and leadership style
Again, a recent study found this not to be the case and that the outcomes of empowering styles of leadership, like transformational leadership and laissez-faire leadership, in terms of the actual empowerment of employees is about the same. This study showed that the difference is in the perception that employees have of the individual leaders. Leaders who were perceived to be more hands off or laissez-faire are perceived also to be less interested in the employees, however, in terms of empowerment outcomes and the ability of individuals to make decisions and choices, the outcomes are actually almost identical and certainly there is no significant difference in outcome. The employees or subordinates of laissez-faire and empowering styles of leadership by transformational leadership are actually equally empowered with indistinguishable performance outcomes.
There is reasonable evidence emerging to suggest that much of the research around laissez-faire leadership has been measuring and testing the expectations and perceptions of people, rather than the actual outcomes.
The dichotomy of autonomy and leadership style
Additionally, a dilemma has been slowly emerging from the research literature around organisational structure, in that many studies are showing that flatter, less hierarchical and more organic organisational structures tend to be significantly more flexible, adaptable and open to change. Indeed, there is a strong trend in the research to show that the less bureaucratic an organisation is, the greater the learning orientation of its employees and there is an increased willingness to engage in change, even unexpected and sudden change, as a result of external market or technological changes.
Studies on the dichotomy of autonomy and leadership style
Many of these studies highlight the need for greater employee autonomy, freedom and responsibility. All three of these factors require lower levels of directive input from leaders. So, whilst many of the assumptions about laissez-faire leadership and its outcomes are negative, there is a core dilemma and incongruity here, in that laissez-faire leaders allow for greater levels of autonomy, freedom and responsibility. This dichotomy gets lost in the assumptive polarisation and popular perceptions of leadership styles.
On the other side of the coin, studies have also shown that laissez-faire or avoidant leadership styles, especially in situations of co-worker conflict, can result in higher levels of co-worker workplace bullying, for example.
A new study
A new (2020) study looking at the effect of laissez-faire leadership on organisational innovation has been carried out.
The study looked at 270 employees, their leaders; leadership style and the levels of employee innovation, particularly in terms of:
- Administrative innovation
- Technical innovation.
Administrative innovation refers to a situation where employees are creating new and more effective ways to do tasks that are more to do with the running and effectiveness of the organisation. Technical innovation, on the other hand, refers to creative solutions to technical, job-related issues.
The study found that laissez-faire leadership has a significant positive impact on both administrative and technical innovation. Additionally, the study found that laissez-faire leadership has a significantly positive impact on organisational structure innovation, so that the structure of the organisation is significantly more likely to mirror the needs of the outcome of the organisation than with more controlling and guiding leadership styles.
Further, the study found that laissez-faire leadership tends to result in a significantly more flexible organisational structure, which adapts more readily to external change.
Lastly, the study found that it is the organisational structure that has the greatest impact on technical and administrative innovation.
In other words, laissez-faire leadership helps to create a significantly more flexible and adaptable organisational structure, which, in turn, creates the environment for greater levels of technical and administrative innovation.
Rassa, H., &Emeagwali, L. (2020). Laissez-faire leadership role in organizational innovation: The mediating effect of organization structure. Management Science Letters, 10(7), 1457-1462.
The problem with transformational leadership – new research
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