Conventional wisdom says that the more autonomy employees have, the more engaged, happy, and motivated they are. If that’s truly the case, it would follow that the delegative or laissez-faire leadership style yields the best results, particularly for teams whose work has a high degree of ambiguity.
In reality, numerous studies on the delegative leadership style have found that it’s a double-edged sword. When it’s used carelessly, employees tend to disengage. However, with the proper support structures in place, it frees employees to implement innovative solutions without bureaucratic barriers.
In this article, we’ll dive into the pros and cons of this controversial style so you can determine if it’s the right fit for you and your team.
What is the Delegative Leadership Style?
The delegative leadership style, also known as the laissez-faire leadership style, is an approach that gives subordinates the power to make most of the decisions regarding their day-to-day activities.
Key characteristics of delegative leaders include:
- They don’t like to get into the weeds of projects, preferring instead to focus on big picture strategies and goals
- They trust their employees to act independently and prefer that they lean on each other for help before asking for management support
- They are tolerant of mistakes that don’t have a significant impact on timelines or other key results
This approach is much more hands-off than other widely studied leadership styles like transactional and transformational leadership.
Risks of Using Delegative Leadership
Many studies on delegative leadership warn that it can lead to high levels of employee dissatisfaction, interpersonal conflicts, and dropped balls. There is a fine line between prioritizing employee autonomy and neglecting management responsibilities. Managers who experience poor outcomes error on the side of neglect.
To be a successful delegative leader, there are a few risk factors that you need to mitigate.
1) Your Team May Not Be Ready for Delegative Leadership
One of the top reasons delegative leaders fail is that they don’t first ensure their employees have the skills and the tools to complete their projects without close guidance. Before giving your employees free rein, do a survey - informal or formal - that tests to see if they have all the skills and resources they need. If they lack anything critical, either add someone to the team who fills in the gap, offering training to your current team and/or secure the additional resources they need.
Training can be as simple as walking your team through a new process, providing access to online courses or creating videos of someone doing a task while sharing their thoughts aloud.
During training, clearly explain how you will hold them accountable for implementing what they learn. Research shows that employees retain more information from training when they understand how they are expected to use it.
Remember, the worst thing you can do as a delegative leader is assign projects to teams that are ill-equipped to take them on.
2) Ambiguous Roles Hurt Productivity
Gallup found that giving employees clear expectations keeps them engaged. Without a clear sense of direction, employees often work somewhat aimlessly on a variety of tasks and get frustrated because they don’t know if what they’re doing is valuable.
A lot of delegative leaders make the mistake of giving their teams free reign under the false assumption allowing them to negotiate roles and milestone deadlines amongst each other will yield better outcomes. However, doing so offloads your leadership responsibilities onto your team which often ends poorly.
Avoid confusion by clearly defining the deliverables your team is expected to submit and when. To increase engagement, discuss the deliverables with your senior employees to incorporate their opinions about the project before finalizing expectations.
As a delegative leader, you shouldn’t outline how you want them to complete the work. Instead, make sure they understand your goals then, give your team the autonomy to do it as they see fit.
3) Employees Can Feel Underappreciated
One of the biggest complaints about the delegative leadership style is that employees have so much independence that they become disconnected from their leaders. Employees in operational roles, in particular may feel overlooked because while their work is critical for keeping your business running smoothly, it’s often not flashy enough to attract recognition.
This has significant repercussions for your team’s performance and retention. Surveys show that 46% of American workers have quit jobs because they felt underappreciated at work. While employees want autonomy, they also want to know that their work is valued. If you don’t already, develop a habit of telling employees you appreciate their work.
Benefits of Delegative Leadership
If you can overcome the risks of delegative leadership, research shows that you can create an environment where motivated employees are empowered to grow their skills and think creatively since they’re not held back by arbitrary restraints.
Here are some tips to maximize the benefits of the delegative leadership style.
1) Celebrate Progress and Small Wins
According to Harvard Business Review contributors Teresa Amabile and Steven J. Kramer, making progress on meaningful projects is one of the most powerful drivers of employee motivation.
If planned intentionally, giving your team the ability to use their talents freely enables you to maximize their productivity and engagement. They get the satisfaction of growing their skills as they lead projects from start to finish. The key is to provide employees with the structure and vision, they need to remain goal-oriented without managing how they do their work.
Even if you have a laissez-faire leadership approach and prefer to let your team work without interference, checking in on your team periodically is a simple way to acknowledge their progress and celebrate their small wins.
2) Focus on Strategy, Not Process
If you prefer to focus on the big picture as opposed to getting caught up in the details, the delegative leadership style is a perfect fit because it allows you to focus on enabling your team’s success by:
- Driving the overall strategy
- Securing the resources they need to succeed
- Eliminating roadblocks that are out of their control
As a leader, these activities are much better use of your time than dictating your team’s day-to-day tasks. However, you need to still need to pay close enough attention so you notice early indicators of potential roadblocks. The importance of this varies based on how senior your team is. The more experience they have, the further you’ll be able to remove yourself from the day-to-day and act as a higher-level resource.
3) Empower Your Team to Drive Continuous Improvement Initiatives
Delegative leaders often have little involvement in how work gets done which, if the dynamic is managed well, creates lots of opportunities for your team to take ownership of continuous improvement initiatives.
One of the easiest, laissez-faire ways to encourage your team to step up is to host post-mortems at the end of key milestones for long-term projects/on-going work and at completion for short-term projects.
A post-mortem is a meeting at the end of a milestone where everyone comes together to discuss successes and failures. It is an open meeting where attendees share their opinions about the quality of work, how the team cooperated and anything else relevant to the project.
Listen carefully to the concerns people share and the resources that enabled them to achieve their greatest successes. From those comments, you can gain insights into what you need to support your team moving forward.
Once your team is comfortable working under the delegative leadership framework, individuals should proactively volunteer to solve the challenges that were raised. Until then, you can encourage them to tackle continuous improvement projects by asking open-ended questions regarding how to solve the issues raised and celebrating the employees who have implemented new solutions since your last post-mortem.
The delegative leadership lets you provide the support your team needs to thrive, not tell them how to do it. While it can remove constraints and empower your employees to be more innovative, it’s not the right fit for every team. If you choose to adopt it, take intentional steps to mitigate the risks so you can reap the benefits of this controversial leadership style.