Permissive Leadership is Self-Protective
Have you noticed the trend in business to let employees off the hook when they fail to meet their commitments on time; refuse to do aspects of their job; or insist they do something their way despite your directions? Many of us are trying so hard to be what we believe employees expect us to be or what we believe we should be, that we allow all kinds of bad behavior and do not notice that we are being taken advantage of or disrespected. We rationalize, give in, and compensate for employees’ poor work product without owning the cause of our own behavior — that it’s for our own benefit and is a narcissistic defense against looking bad or avoiding a difficult conversation where someone might get upset with us. We want to be seen as a good leader, so we silence ourselves and prioritize the needs and feelings of others so they like us and approve of our understanding behavior (even when we are seething inside).
Permissive leaders are inconsistent in their approach to managing performance and holding employees accountable. They are excessively collaborative and cooperative, absenting themselves from exercising the authority of their role. Idealistic about how adults “should” behave, they treat employees like colleagues and entertain ideas about the way things “should be done” that are misaligned with the mandate of the organization. They tend to leave things so undefined that employees can’t get behind the vision and common purpose. Poor performance, missed deadlines and power struggles are tolerated, leading to chaos and confusion amongst employees. The kids are running the candy store.
Permissive narcissistic defenses are triggered by the fear that if position power and authority are asserted, employees won’t be able to handle it. Permissive leaders mistakenly believe employees should be empowered to do their job the way they see fit rather than having any direction, coaching and guidance, as that would be offensive. They rationalize why they shouldn’t have to lead, direct and correct their people. Being liked by employees and making sure everyone is happy becomes a priority over meeting the needs of the business and employees mastering their roles. They are excessively “hands-off” and abdicate responsibility and authority to subordinates, leading to employees feeling they are more capable and entitled than they merit. Employees end up struggling or leaving without adequate direction, coaching and support.
The following are 3 main narcissistic defensive strategies of the permissive leader:
Abdicate Responsibility & Decision Making
Permissive Leaders give their subordinates the power to make their own decisions about their work and freedom to do it in their own way. By doing this, they abdicate responsibility for leading and driving performance for results. In team meetings, they don’t use rules of order and let infighting and dysfunctional behavior amongst team members exist. They may seem to others that they are incapable of leading, managing or correcting the performance of their subordinates or team. They expect that employees engage with each other and develop conflict skills that they don’t develop themselves.
The type of dysfunctional power dynamics that occur between employees on the Permissive Leader’s team will get in the way of setting and achieving goals. Often, the most dysfunctional employee’s behavior creates a barrier to the growth and cohesiveness of the team. These leaders create issues on teams because they leave a power vacuum to be filled. With no one really leading, employees stay insecure and unsure of how to be successful in their roles and on their teams.
Avoidance of conflict is a key strategy of the Permissive Leader as it keeps them safe while creating the circumstances where it looks like employees are the problem. This leader will make statements like, “I trust you can work this out on your own. You don’t need me.” or “You just need to be more assertive.” They look like they are helping, but really are avoiding getting to the root of the issue. In team meetings, they don’t use rules of order and let infighting and dysfunctional behavior amongst team members exist. They may seem to others that they are incapable of leading, managing or correcting the performance of their subordinates or team. When conflict exists, they withdraw, leaving the team to work it out on their own. They expect that employees engage with each other and develop conflict skills that they don’t develop themselves.
The type of dysfunctional power dynamics that occur between employees on the Permissive Leader’s team creates negative feelings amongst employees and gets in the way of setting and achieving goals. Often, the most dysfunctional employee’s behavior creates a barrier to the growth and cohesiveness of the team. Team meetings become a waste of valuable time and cost the business large amounts of money in lost productivity. Subordinates and coworkers may respect the Permissive Leader for the work they do but lose respect for them as a leader and person.
Fail to Assert Themselves
Permissive Leaders don’t like to use their position power or personal authority to get things done. They act more like a colleague than a leader, saying “yes” when them mean “no.” They will observe an employee doing something differently than what they expected and not correct them. Internally, they rationalize why the employee’s way is probably right, so they don’t have to assert themselves or get involved.
They avoid the unpleasant feelings they feel when they give corrective feedback or create disappointment by saying “no.” When there is no clear definition of performance expectation and little performance correction, employees will work hard to do what they think is expected of them. Too often, with this type of leadership, employees waste time on initiatives that fail to meet the goals of the Permissive Leader.
What to do?
Permissive behavior is a form of self-protection and is often unconscious in leaders. However, with leadership training and development, long-standing self-protective patterns of behavior can be changed, and new, productive responses and patterns can be put in their place. Remember, this is a narcissistic self-protective strategy used to protect one’s image. Skills, experience, and expectations to behave differently go a long way to changing potentially destructive narcissistic behavior.
Like any other narcissistic defences, the key to dealing with their behavior is to stay objective and don’t react. You need to not take the behavior of the Permissive leader personally. When they abdicate responsibility, make sure you don’t pick it up and own it. If they won’t help with the conflict, tell them how it is going to negatively affect them if they don’t get involved. Don’t fight their fights or do their job for them. Be in the reality of what you need to do the work you have to do. Remain objective and assertive without becoming emotional.
And don’t forget to check in to see what you are feeling. Our emotions drive our behavior and if you aren’t aware of your own reactions to the permissive leader, you won’t know what’s motivating you to shut down or compromise yourself. Check in with yourself daily to know what you are feeling and what you need.
Anne and Heather are organizational and leadership development experts at Caliber Leadership Systems, a boutique consulting firm specializing in dismantling of dysfunction in organizations. They are dedicated to empowering individuals, leaders, and organizations to achieve their potential by leveraging their expertise in the neurobiology of human development combined with system thinking approach. They wear many hats – Consultants, Executive Coaches, Trainers, Speakers and Authors – adapting their expertise and solutions to meet the needs of their clients. They bring a unique depth and breadth of knowledge and experience that gives clients the benefit of all of our disciplines to help them achieve their goals.
As experts in human development and behavioral change, leadership and organizational transformation, interpersonal dynamics and the achievement of potential, Anne and Heather have worked with thousands of leaders and individuals from around the world, been featured in dozens of publications, spoken at professional conferences, and written several series of books on personality type and the brain based on the Striving Styles® and Myers-Briggs Type Indicator®.
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