Research shows that employees of passive leaders do not believe their organizations care about their well-being

Most employees can see the benefits of an effective boss, and a great deal of research has focused on the organizational benefits of effective leadership. But what about those bosses who take a more passive stance in their leadership roles? In a recent study, Brian C. Holtz, assistant professor of management at Rutgers University, shows that passive leaders can have serious negative effects on their organizations.

What Is Passive Leadership?

Passive leadership is defined as a combination of passive management by exception and laissez-faire leadership. Passive management by exception means avoiding action until mistakes or problems can no longer be ignored; laissez-faire leadership is defined as the absence of leadership altogether.

In previous studies, passive leadership has been shown to negatively impact workplace safety and increase injury rates. Similarly, laissez-faire leadership results in greater role conflict, role ambiguity, interpersonal conflict with coworkers, perceived bullying, and psychological distress.

Why Are Some Leaders Passive?

According to Holtz:

  • Supervisors might want to avoid being perceived as micromanagers
  • Many assume that empowering employees and providing them with more autonomy requires a hands-off approach

Holtz encourages supervisors to recognize that providing employee autonomy and demonstrating effective leadership are not mutually exclusive. For example, managers can provide autonomy by allowing employees flexibility in how or when they will accomplish particular tasks.

Research Design

Holtz's study investigated the influence of passive leadership on:

Perceived organizational support, or POS (for example, participants were asked to indicate their agreement with the following statement: "Help is available from my organization when I have a problem")

Workplace incivility ("My coworkers or superiors have made demeaning or derogatory remarks about me")

Organizational identification ("When someone praises my organization, it feels like a personal compliment")

Organizational citizenship behavior, or OCB ("I have taken action to protect the organization from potential problems")

Holtz collected data in three waves using a web-based survey methodology. First, the survey assessed perceptions of passive leadership. Second, it measured POS, and third, it assessed incivility, identification, and OCBs. Each successive survey administration was separated by about four weeks. Participants were recruited on the campus of a North American university, with 208 working adults providing complete data across the three time points.


Results show that passive leadership is associated with lower perceived support, weaker organizational identity, less citizenship behavior, and greater workplace incivility.

Passive leaders, Holtz says, avoid engaging with their subordinates, fail to make decisions, and are generally ineffective.

"The findings of the research suggest that employees of passive leaders ultimately perceive [that] their organization does not care about their well-being or provide the support necessary to succeed," Holtz explains. "Further, the results"_suggest that workplace incivility may flourish under passive leaders."