Permissive Leadership is a style of leadership that is hands-off in nature, where decision-making authority is delegated to employees. Also called Laissez-Faire Leadership, it has its roots in 18th century France in economic theory. Laissez-faire economics was based on the idea that the natural world is self-regulating; therefore, natural regulation is better than human regulation. The belief is that people, markets and commerce work the best when the involvement of leaders and government is non-existent. The idea thrived during the 19th century as the role of the individual grew in importance. The theory espoused that individuals should be free to pursue their own desires and goals.
Laissez-faire leaders believe that to get the best out of people, they should be left alone to figure it out for themselves. In essence, they let the employees lead themselves. The role of the leader is to create a framework for employees to make decisions and achieve their objectives. Rather than leading, they adopt a more supportive role. The Permissive Leader stays on the sidelines, ensuring the group will achieve their goals, resolve issues and figure out for themselves how they will do this. They are more of an observer than an active participant in the employee group. It’s the leader’s job to set the vision, but how to get there is decided by direct reports. The leader has to figure out how to get the team to achieve its objectives without telling them how to do it.
This type of leadership is most effective in situations where employees are experienced, highly skilled, self-directed and motivated with a proven capacity to work independently. They have the knowledge and skills to meet expectations and can achieve their goals without having to be managed or instructed. This approach is not really effective when employees don’t have the skills or motivation to meet deadlines on their own. It also doesn’t work with employees that are inexperienced, demotivated, or whose approach or timing is out of alignment with the leader or the organization.
Striving Style/MBTI Type Most Likely to Be Permissive
Leadership behavior can be predicted based on a leader’s Striving Style or MBTI type. With the Striving Styles, you can also identify the function of the brain that will be used to decide and gather information and the predominant, emotional need that must be met for a leader to perform optimally. It also determines both the leadership style and the self-protective leadership persona they will shift to when their needs are frustrated. Each leadership style has a self-actualizing and self-protective set of behaviors.
Leaders with the self-protective Permissive Leadership Persona are those dominant or second function is Extraverted or Introverted Intuition, which resides in the right rational brain. The Striving Styles and MBTI types associated with this function are Performer Intellectual (ENTP), Performer Artist (ENFP), Visionary Leader (INTJ), and Visionary Socializer (INFJ). Because the Intuitive Function of the brain sees possibilities and potential, it easily adapts and allows others to do what they want. They lead using the functional qualities of the right rational brain, including envisioning, seeing how things can work, developing the potential of others and moving toward their vision for the future.
Hard-Wired to Protect Ourselves
We all have self-protective personas that we use to survive difficult experiences. Wired in our brain from birth and developed during our formative years, it ensures we are psychologically safe and that we survive the rigours of childhood. All self-protective personas are “I” focused as their sole agenda is protecting the self from harm. It’s an instinctual, human response with the brain set to “call in the troops” to defend against a perceived or real attack. As we develop, our authentic self becomes stronger, and our persona becomes a part of who we are.
Permissive Leaders, when self-activating or leading from their authentic self, have learned when and with whom they can allow to self-regulate and self-manage. They don’t feel they have to allow employees to do things their own way or on their own when they actually need coaching, instruction or correction from their leader. They don’t feel it necessary to adapt to meet everyone else’s needs at the expense of their own and the goals of the team. They hold their authority as leaders and expect employees to demonstrate competence before giving them freedom and authority.
When self-protective, Laissez-faire leaders shift to a Permissive Leadership Persona. Although they may think they are giving employees what they need, it isn’t always the case. Having faith in people before they have earned it causes a lot of issues when employees fail to achieve what the leader expected. Without supervision or input, employees can feel cast adrift without support or guidance to master their job. Permissive Leadership can cause anxiety and uncertainty among employees. Many employees need to feel the authority of their leader, that someone is there to make decisions and tell them how to do things in alignment with the business they work in. These leaders can come across as uninvolved, disinterested, indifferent or unengaged to their employees.
Those with a Permissive Leadership Persona use it to varying degrees. Without development, they can use it most of the time, thinking this is who they are. They behave the same at home and in personal relationships as they do at work. Others use it situationally to mask incompetence and inexperience, to demonstrate authority when feeling threatened, when they are opposed, or when they are stressed or run-down.
Permissive Leadership Persona: Characteristics & Behaviors
Permissive Leadership isn’t authentic leader behavior, it’s adaptive. A lack of leadership development leads to a lack of confidence in one’s interpersonal leadership skills. Another reason is low self-esteem or leaders who identify with having the “Imposter Syndrome” because they don’t know how to use their inner authority effectively. It can also be a result of having been sent fear-based messages like “You have to give employees what they need, or they’ll leave.” Or “You have to be nicer to your employees or they won’t do what you want.” “Be careful! You don’t want to overwhelm people by asking too much of them.” Well, chances are that if an employee doesn’t want to stick around, they won’t anyway. If you are “nice”, employees will say no and won’t do what leaders want anyways.
While there are many Permissive Leadership behaviors, the following are examples of the more frequent ones and the type of organizational issues they create.
1. Fail to Define Expectations
Permissive Leaders have difficulty asserting their authority and telling people what they must do and how to do it. They assume employees know what they should be doing and don’t feel they need to define expectations or redirect employees when they lose momentum. They leave it to employees to figure it out for themselves, often leaving them anxious and confused about what is expected of them. Employees will work hard to do what they think is expected of them, but too often, with this type of leadership, employees waste time on initiatives that fail to meet the goals.
With the absence of clearly defined expectations, subordinates and coworkers don’t trust that the Permissive Leader will be direct and honest with them, creating an environment of mistrust. At worst, employees take advantage of the lack of firm leadership and decide on their own what work they want to do and when. This leads to a lack of individual and collective responsibility for the team’s success, resulting in some degree of disorder, disobedience and chaos as people “do their own thing.”
2. Abdicate Authority and Responsibility
Leaders need to delegate as a natural part of making sure things get done and employees are developed. They are the ones who decide what needs to get done, when and how. Permissive Leaders tend to abdicate their authority and responsibility for the final outcome by giving an employee something to do without defining what exactly needs to be done, and then not sticking around to make sure the employee is doing it correctly.
Because they fear being accused of micromanaging, Permissive Leaders don’t check in with employees to see if they are on course or to provide needed feedback. They don’t want to insult anyone by telling them they are doing something wrong or inefficiently, prioritizing feelings over outcomes. Because the Permissive Leader doesn’t deal with dysfunctional, entitlement or disrespectful employee behavior, they allow employees to overstep the boundaries of their positions. An ambitious employee may aggressively confront them privately or publicly without being called on their behavior. Permissive Leaders act as though everyone has a right to behave the way they want and say what they want to say. They don’t recognize when they are being disrespected as their first response is to avoid conflict and adapt to the situation. Employees know that the Permissive Leader won’t assert themselves and will continue to push the envelope, making coworkers uncomfortable in the process.
3. Take Responsibility for Feelings
Because Permissive Leaders entertain complaints from employees about things not being fair, they will work hard to adjust their own behavior, so employees don’t feel upset. Instead of telling employees that the standard for making decisions is based on an objective criterion and not on what is fair, they abdicate their authority to avoid conflict. They take everyone’s feelings into account and adapt their behavior, accordingly, trying to be all things to all people.
They cause employees to inflate their worth without ever having to work at it. Some Permissive Leaders will say they just care too much, and they can’t help themselves. When a leader avoids making difficult decisions or doesn’t delegate because he or she is concerned about an employee’s reaction, they have crossed the line from caring to enabling poor performance. By assuming responsibility for an employee’s emotional reaction to a situation, they transfer who is responsible for the emotion from the employee to the manager.
4. Fail to Deal With Poor Performance
Most people have had the experience of working for a leader who won’t deal with performance problems as it is a constant source of frustration on teams. The Permissive Leader is afraid to upset the employee by telling them they aren’t performing well, and so they put off having the discussion. Even when other direct reports complain to them about the employee, they avoid doing so. In fact, they would rather do it themselves than address the performance as though they will harm the person by correcting them. When they observe an employee doing something different than what they expected, they don’t correct them. Internally, they rationalize why they shouldn’t (“It’s only this time, I am sure they will do it right the next time,” or “I don’t want to demotivate him or her by telling them they are wrong. I’ll fix it myself later.”) For a time, the Permissive Leader will make excuses for employees who fail to deliver what they expect and may complain to others rather than go to the employee themselves and correct their performance. This leads to further problems on the team and under-performing employees who may not even know they are doing anything wrong.
5. Tolerate Disrespect and Insubordination
Permissive Leaders tolerate disrespect and insubordination, allowing employees to overstep the boundaries of their positions and say or do anything they want. Insubordination is an interesting term. When I first started working – and I know this dates me – it was well understood that one could be fired for insubordination, or basically refusing to obey legitimate orders in defiance of the authority of one’s leader. Today, it’s not so commonly discussed, and definitely not top of mind, especially with Permissive Leaders. When leaders in our training programs share their experiences with employees who blatantly ignore performance expectations and specific directions provided, we tell them it’s insubordination and they need to address it. Unfortunately, Permissive Leaders just let it go without consequence which reinforces to the employee that they can do what they feel like, regardless of what is asked of them.
My favourite example comes from a client in the restaurant industry. For three years, a Director had been told to go out on the road to physically identify potential sites and was even given a very generous car allowance to do it. Instead, he continued to use Google Earth, never leaving the office. His direct manager, as well as the CEO allowed it and said nothing. Of course, they didn’t like it and complained about it, but as Permissive Leaders, they allowed him to get away with it, at the expense of getting all of the information they needed on new locations. His boss would go out and do it himself, rather than confronting the issue. Suggestions to remove the car package then as a consequence was met with refusal as that would upset him. He disrespected them, disregarded expectations and took the car allowance and they allowed and compensated for it rather than addressing the insubordination and fraud.
6. Seek to Be Liked
Permissive Leaders seek to be liked, acting more like a colleague than a leader and saying “yes” when they really mean “no”. At the root of Permissive Leadership, much like permissive parenting, is the desire to be liked, to be seen as nice. To be their friend. Permissive Leaders think that if they are liked, then employees will be highly engaged and productive. It just doesn’t work that way. Instead, what employees end up with are leaders who flip flop. Say yes, then when it comes back around, argue that they didn’t agree to it. Or, say yes in front of others, and then email a different response. Or, a favourite, agree to different perspectives based on who is in the room.
You Can Change Permissive Behavior
Permissive Behavior is a form of self-protection. 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 self-protective persona used by leaders whose brains are wired to use the Intuitive Function first: Performer Intellectual (ENTP), Performer Artist (ENFP), Visionary Leader (INTJ), and Visionary Socializer (INFJ). Without development, we continue to use our self-protective persona instead of developing our authentic leadership potential. Becoming a conscious leader requires you to step out of your comfort zone, learn new skills, engage with people in different ways and put the agenda of the organization and its people ahead of our survival agenda.
Leaders’ self-protective behavior can negatively impact every aspect of organizational life. It creates dysfunction and gets in the way of productivity, employee development, achieving business goals and team cohesiveness. Find out more about Dismantling the Autocratic Dysfunction by listening to our podcast.
For more information on leadership coaching and how to break free of the grip of the Permissive Leadership Persona, contact Anne at [email protected].
Learn how you can lead with authority. Get a copy of So You Think You Can Lead? on Amazon.
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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