Back when Lewin and his research team were developing their leadership theory, they named one of the styles laissez-faire (lah-say fair) which, loosely translated from the French, means “let them do.” Leaders who practice a laissez-faire – or delegative – leadership style take a hands-off approach to directing. They trust that their team knows the drill, that their people will come up with suitable goals and carry out their tasks with little or no input, and that they will all work together for the common good. If a problem crops up, the delegative leader expects the team to solve it on its own. We will now consider two examples of delegative leaders in action.
Jason inherited his family’s multimillion dollar business after his father passed early last year. Although he had a good relationship with most of the managers and sales staff, profits were lagging partly due to the recent down turn in the economy. To be competitive, Jason called his research and development, operations and sales team leaders together and asked them to find new ways to compete. Jason advised them to “put their heads together” and come up with way they can be profitable in the “new normal”. Well, the different divisions did just that. The end result was out right bickering and blaming each other for why the organization was not profitable.
Why? Jason’s plant was far too complex for such a laid-back leadership style. When there are so many moving parts and a wide variety of competing interests, a team can become disoriented if their leader takes a laissez-faire approach. When a mole hill turns into a mountain and the leader is sitting in the corner office telling the team to go figure it out on their own, people feel abandoned and unsure of themselves. Instead of feeling independent and free, they are dependent and powerless. Without a strong leader to help them identify workable goals and point them in the right direction, complex teams like Jason’s will implode every time.
Now, let’s notice the floral shop down the street from Jason’s plant. Priscilla owns a floral bouquet she has seven floral decorators. Each member of Priscilla’s team has his or her own specialty and is motivated to do a good job. Whenever she has to bring a new decorator on board – which is rare because her shop has such low turnover – Priscilla is careful to hire only those who are highly skilled and will require little or no prompting to turn out high quality beautiful flower arrangements.
“I see myself like the conductor of a little symphony orchestra made up of my team members, who each have an instrument that they already know how to play beautifully,” Priscilla explains. “I give them their sheet music – their assignments for the day – and then I stand back and let them do their job. Of course, I keep an eye on things to make sure the tempo is right, but I don’t tell anyone how to play their instrument. I’ve got no reason to intervene as long as they’re following along with the music. And if they get stuck, they know I’m here to help them hit the high notes.” In Priscilla’s bouquet, each worker knows his or her job very well. They are a cohesive group with one common goal – to create beautiful, high quality, affordable floral arrangements. There are no egos or competing interests. Therefore, Priscilla bouquet is cohesive and harmonious.
The delegative leadership style is a better fit for leaders of small teams made up of highly skilled and motivated members versus large-scale operations. Use caution when adopting a delegative leadership style. Be sure you have a team capable of handling it. Are the team members highly skilled and thoroughly self-motivated? Are they organized, unified and able to cooperate with one another?
Next, take an honest look at yourself. Are you capable of relinquishing control of how your people will do their jobs? Will you be able to step away from the day-to-day process while still maintaining responsibility for the final outcome? Are you sure? If so, give delegative leadership a try. But remember this caveat: when Lewin and his research team analyzed the results of their study, they found that delegative leadership was the least effective of the three leadership styles. Keep that in mind if you decide to practice an ultra-relaxed brand of leadership.
Delegative Leadership Style at a Glance
Works Best When:
* Team members know their tasks extremely well, are highly motivated and have no competing interests
* The work environment is not too complex
* The leader is capable of relinquishing day-to-day control
Challenges With This Style:
* Team can lack motivation
* Roles can become confused
* Not all team members are capable of working independently