The Destructive Nature of Laissez-Faire Leadership

by Keith Francoeur

As Vice President, he is responsible for training and managing PCI’s global assessment team, designing and updating the assessment process (including the research and selection of the test battery and interview format), and handling custom competency mapping.

Published: April 13th, 2021
Category: Insights

What comes to your mind when you think about toxic leadership?  Are you envisioning an arrogant tyrant who rules by fear?  While such an approach is indeed extremely harmful to others, research suggests that it is rare, and that a far more common form of destructive leadership is laissez-faire leadership¹. 

Laissez-faire leadership occurs when an individual with formal leadership responsibilities abdicates them by avoiding making decisions, addressing problems, and offering support when needed.  In short, it is non-leadership and, while passive in nature, research indicates that it can be just as detrimental as more active forms of destructive leadership². 

The Destructive Impact of Laissez-faire Leaders

Research shows that Laissez-faire leadership creates stress for followers in the form of role ambiguity and increases in conflict among team members that can lead to bullying³.  This results in lower follower job satisfaction and organizational commitment, which can show up in 3 ways:

  1. Followers are less likely to display Organizational Citizenship Behaviors⁴ (i.e., discretionary actions that benefit the company culture and organizational effectiveness)
  2. Followers are more likely to exhibit Counterproductive Work Behaviors⁵
    (i. e., voluntary actions that have a negative impact on the company culture and organizational effectiveness)
  3. Followers are more likely to turnover.     

The Invisible Nature of Laissez-faire Leadership

Making matters worse, the absence of needed behavior is harder to observe than the presence of inappropriate behavior.  This makes it easier for laissez-faire leadership to operate below the radar.  Given its insidious nature and higher prevalence, it is likely that laissez-faire leadership is a more significant problem for organizations than more actively destructive leadership behaviors, even though the latter are more likely to make the news and gossip circles because they are more sensational.  

Destructive Leadership is a Widespread Problem

When laissez-faire leadership behavior is combined with other forms of destructive leadership behavior, prevalence estimates are as high as 61%¹.  What’s more, as many as 60-75% of employees identify their direct leader as the worst part of their job⁶.  And, when people are dissatisfied with their direct leader, they are more likely to leave.

Practical Implications

  • Avoid the substantial costs of hiring destructive leaders by investing in a pre-employment leadership style assessment that is backed by sound research.  Click here to learn more: The Secret to Effective Leadership: Keep it Simple.
  • Consider using a 360-degree feedback tool to find out how often your leaders are exhibiting the necessary behaviors to foster a motivated, high performing team. Comparing the leader’s self-evaluation to that of their direct reports will be particularly helpful in identifying leaders who need development.
  • If you have a remote workforce, it is even more imperative to assess leadership style, given the invisible nature of Laissez-faire leadership and physical distance that separates remote teams. Click here to learn more: Remote Teams: Why some thrive and others wither.

To learn more about how PCI can help you hire and develop great leaders, contact Dr. Francoeur at:


¹ Aasland, M. S. Skogstad, A., Notelaers, G., Nielsen, M. B., & Einarsen, S. (2010). The prevalence of destructive leadership behavior. British Journal of Management, 21, 438-452.

² Fosse, T. H., Skogstad, A., Einarsen, S. V., Martinussen, M. (2019).  Active and passive forms of destructive leadership in a military context: A systemic review and meta-analysis. European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology, 28, 708-722.

³ Skogstad, A., Einarsen, S., Torsheim, T., Aasland, M. S., Hetland, H. (2007). The destructiveness of laissez-faire leadership behavior. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, 12, 80-92. 

⁴ Lambert, L. S., Tepper, B. J., Carr, J. C., Holt, D. T., & Barelka, A. J. (2012). Forgotten but not gone: An examination of fit between leader consideration and initiating structure needed and received. Journal of Applied Psychology, 97, 913-930.    

⁵ Holtz, B. C., & Harold, C. M. (2013). Effects of leadership consideration and structure on employee perceptions of justice and counterproductive work behavior. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 34, 492-529.

⁶ Hogan, R. Raskin, R. & Fazzini, D. (1990). ‘The dark side of charisma’. In K. E. Clark and M. B. Clark (Eds.), Measures of Leadership (pp. 343-354). West Orange, NJ: Leadership Library of America

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