Find A Program is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

What are the Three Approaches to Leadership in I-O Psychology?


Industrial-Organizational Psychology has identified three types of leadership that exist in differing levels in organizations. Which of these is most effective may depend upon the type of organization that is examined and whether the leadership is new or stabilized. Ordinarily, people who are elected to an office or put into leadership positions display some “authoritarianism ” that gets them noticed and may, or may not disappear once they settle into their position. Presidential races, for instance, are seldom won by self-effacing candidates. Once a leader becomes accustomed to his or her position, some degree of delegation of powers may be seen.

Related resource: 10 Most Affordable Top-Ranked Master’s in Industrial-Organizational Psychology

The Autocratic Leader

The autocratic leader is authoritarian. He or she creates and maintains the culture of an organization. The leader makes and enforces the rules and protocols of a group. This leader does not encourage initiative. Although there may be teams at work within the organization, decisions they make or ideas they formulate will be approved by the leader. Authority is centralized.

Autocratic leadership works well in certain situations. In emergencies, for instance, people need a “take charge” individual. Groups with autocratic leaders maintain focus on goals and achieve them faster than organizations with other kinds of leaders. Some group members prefer leaders of this type because it takes the pressure of making decisions or taking responsibility off them.

The Democratic Leader

This leader seeks the opinions of others. He or she effectively delegates responsibility to others and organizes teams to accomplish goals. An article in Psychology Today says that leaders can emerge at any level if they “cultivate a desire in those with whom they collaborate to strive toward a common goal…” These leaders allow others to work toward the goals through a variety of approaches. This is in direct opposition to the autocratic leader who sets the goals and demands that group members meet them through his direction. Additionally, democratic leaders encourage and develop innovation in group members.

While this type of leadership develops loyalty in the membership, it can be slower in making progress toward goals because many different opinions and approaches are considered. Families deciding which of several activities to pursue may spend hours deciding and have no time to do any of them.

The Laissez-Faire Leader

Laissez-faire leaders place the most value on innovation because they rely on the initiative of individuals to accomplish goals. These leaders provide the resources and tools to accomplish goals along with some guidance, but individual members or teams bear the responsibility for completion. This type of leadership is effective in organizations of members who have expertise and skills in the goal areas. Where that expertise is lacking, or where members are young and unmotivated, laissez-faire leaders could be virtually no leaders at all.

Which is Best?

Each style of leadership can work in certain situations. According to a Forbes article, the best leaders can move between types according to organizational needs. Some leaders are a combination of two or more of the styles. Surprisingly, the most effective leader may be the one who encourages members to explore different approaches to meeting goals. The democratic leader has been shown to be the most productive. Generally, the least effective type is the laissez-faire leader, but in certain situations, such as collaborations between experts or skilled group members, it may be the best option.

Psychologists who have studied group behavior have determined that leaders who are less rigid develop the most loyal followers. Those followers will be “like-minded” to accomplish goals and tasks. Still, most experts in Industrial-Organizational Psychology agree that the best leadership style for an organization may depend upon the character of the organization itself.