"Laissez Faire" versus Micromanagement

Getting the Balance Right

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Can you walk the tightrope between too much and too little management?

Imagine this scenario: your boss has just handed you a big project. You're excited to get started, but she's left you with no direction as to how she expects you to go about it. She's specified the deadline and the deliverable, and has left you to find your own way.

Your last boss was the complete opposite. He'd hand you a piece of work and then spend the next few weeks hovering over your shoulder, questioning your decisions and offering "helpful advice" at every turn.

These two scenarios illustrate opposite ends of a management style spectrum.

The first boss has a "laissez faire" management style, and the second is the classic micromanager – more politely known as a "very-hands-on" manager.

Both styles can be effective in the right circumstances, but not, usually, when they're taken to extremes. As usual, the best approach lies somewhere between the extremes.

In this article we'll look at each management style, and see how to find the best style for each person and situation.

Laissez Faire Management

The term "laissez faire" is French for "leave it be". This is a very fitting description for this style of management!

Laissez faire managers are delegation masters. They leave it up to their teams to find their way through projects and tasks, and give a minimum amount of supervision. Employees often have a lot of power to make decisions with a laissez faire approach. In fact, at the extreme end of laissez faire, the manager can seem to be completely absent!

Micromanagement

Micromanagers are the opposite of laissez faire managers. They resist delegating, and when they do delegate, they spend a great deal of time checking up on their teams. Micromanagers focus on every tiny detail, and often discourage their team members from making decisions if they're not around.

Clearly this can be frustrating and upsetting for team members, it slows work down, and it constrains the creativity that people can show. On the positive side, it does help to ensure that work is done accurately and on time.

Finding the Balance

So, how do you find the right balance between laissez faire management and micromanagement/hands-on management?

It's worth pointing out here that managers should rarely take either of these management styles to the extreme. However, it can be tricky to know when to give more freedom and when to give more supervision, and there are a number of factors that you need to take into consideration when you're thinking about this.

Know Your Team

The people you're leading have a lot to do with the management style you need to adopt.

For instance, imagine you're leading a team full of senior colleagues who have a proven track record. They know what they have to do, and they've worked together countless times in the past. This is a classic example of when a more laissez faire management approach is likely to be appropriate. You still need to be there to direct the group, but they don't want or need constant supervision.

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A micromanagement approach would certainly do more harm than good here!

On the other hand, imagine you're leading a team of inexperienced colleagues. They're not sure of their direction, or of what the company expects from them. This situation would call for a lot of management direction on your part.

Understanding the people you're leading is, therefore, the first step in finding the balance between less management and more management. What's more, you may need to use different approaches with different members of your team – for example, you'll need to manage a new graduate in a totally different way from an experienced colleague.

When thinking about the individuals within your team, you can use these guidelines to decide which style to lean towards:

A laissez faire approach is likely to be best with:

  • Senior, experienced, and highly educated workers.
  • Teams with drive, assertiveness and self-confidence.
  • Creative groups.

A Hands-On approach is likely to work best with:

  • Young, inexperienced workers.
  • Workers who consistently miss deadlines if left to their own devices.
  • Departments where conflict is an issue.
  • Teams that rely on quick decisions.

Tip 1:

Culture can have an impact here, too. People in individualistic cultures such as the U.S. or U.K. can profoundly dislike micromanagement. In other cultures, a hands-on approach may be expected, and deadlines may be missed if too much of a laissez faire approach is used. Be sensitive to the culture in which you operate.

Tip 2:

You can find out more about the differences between specific cultures around the world in our article on Hofstede's Cultural Dimensions, and by exploring the Managing Around the World articles in our Team Management section.

Understanding Your Situation

When it comes to your situation, there are a number of factors that come into play when choosing where on the spectrum your management style needs to be.

For instance, there are some jobs or projects where there is no room for error. Think about airplane construction, the safety of a team building a high-rise skyscraper, or the preparation of documents for a multimillion-dollar acquisition deal. A hands-on approach is often necessary for situations like these, and is likely to be accepted by members of your team, who should understand why you're so involved.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, imagine you're in charge of a department that depends on free thinking and creativity to accomplish goals. In this situation, a more laissez faire approach is likely to work well, because your team members can't take creative risks with you hovering over their shoulders.

When thinking about the situation you're in, you can use these guidelines to find the right balance:

A laissez faire approach is likely to be best when:

  • You're leading a creative department.
  • You're a new leader and you need to build rapport with your team.
  • Your department or project has flexible deadlines and self-defined goals.
  • Your people have proven themselves to deliver reliably, and on time.

A hands-on approach is likely to be best when:

  • The project or task calls for very specific instructions that might easily confuse your team.
  • The situation is one where there is no room for error.
  • Mistakes by your team will be costly for the company, or will risk people's safety.
  • You're in charge of a product or task where delivering high-quality outputs – or meeting tight deadlines – is the highest priority.

Analyzing Wants Versus Needs

In the midst of this balancing act you'll also need to look at individuals' wants and needs.

For example, one of your team members may want you to lay off and let him do his own thing. But if he can't get his work done and keeps missing deadlines, then he may need hands-on management. It's up to you to decide what a team member needs, perhaps at the expense of what they want.

Tips:

  • When working in a hands-on style, it's easy to be perceived as cold and impersonal. However, you can show your team that you're approachable by sharing stories when assigning roles, praising a job well done, or giving your team tips from some of your past experiences.
  • Adopting a more laissez faire approach with your team doesn't mean that they're doing all the work, of course. You still need to monitor their progress, and make sure you're available to them if they have questions. If you step too far back, there's a very real chance your team will feel lost. (Our article on delegation gives tips on how to do this appropriately.)
  • Every leader has their own "comfort zone". You might find yourself naturally drawn to a more laissez faire style, and extremely uncomfortable with the thought of hands-on management. But leaning towards different styles in different situations is the mark of a good leader: you're giving your team members what they need, not what you want to give.

Tip 1:

If you know that you tend to micromanage people too much, you can find out how to deal with this in our article on Avoiding Micromanagement. And you can find out more about laissez faire and other types of leadership in our article on Leadership Styles.

Tip 2:

You can also use tools such as the Leadership Style Matrix to choose the right leadership style to use for your own situation.

Key Points

Laissez faire management and micromanagement are at opposite ends of the style spectrum. And while no one should take either style to extremes, it's definitely helpful to lean one way or another at different times.

Look carefully at the members of your team, and think about the kind of situation you're working in. Then select the approach that's likely to work best.

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Comments (15)
  • Over a month ago Michele wrote
    Hi krissa.randolph,

    Sometimes we can become comfortable with a management style and miss the cues that signal when a shift in approach is necessary. Being mindful and staying in tune with the nature of the work and the needs of team members will alert us when it is appropriate to ease back or focus more attention on the team's work.

    Michele
    Mind Tools Team
  • Over a month ago krissa.randolph wrote
    My main takeaway is to be mindful in one's mgt style of the contract milestones and objectives, project scope and degree of specifity and skill needed.
  • Over a month ago Michele wrote
    Hi lyesaga,

    Not only can a laissez faire leadership style be boring for employees, it is usually not very productive for the individual, team or organization, especially if it is used for a long period of time.

    Michele
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