How to introduce servant leadership to your management

How to introduce servant leadership to your management

Managing a team — or even an entire organisation — is no easy task. There are numerous and varied challenges that managers face on a daily basis, and solutions can be difficult to find. What’s more, traditional leadership styles can often worsen common organisational problems — in some cases, they may even be the root causes of those problems. In recent years, an alternative approach to management called ‘servant leadership’ has become an increasingly popular way of solving and preventing workplace problems like poor communication, underperformance, and high employee turnover. In this article, we will look at how servant leadership works and how you can implement it successfully in your organisation.

What is the servant leadership management style?

Traditional leadership styles prioritise the success of an organisation, which is typically determined by metrics like revenue, brand awareness, ROI, and customer satisfaction. In contrast, servant leadership focuses on the satisfaction and well-being of employees. The theory behind the servant leadership style is that employees who work in an inclusive, empowering, and stimulating environment are more engaged with their work, leading to better outcomes for an organisation as a whole. In this style of leadership, employee satisfaction is not treated as an alternative to organisational success but as a necessary component of it.

Proponents of servant leadership claim that this management style not only benefits employees but also reduces common challenges faced by managers, such as disengaged and uncommitted employees (and the mistakes made by them) and high employee turnover. The servant leadership model has been described as an ‘upside-down pyramid’, with an organisation’s CEO, directors, and upper management at the bottom and traditionally lower-level employees (and customers, depending on the organisation) at the top. This is the opposite of traditional leadership models.

The origins of servant leadership

While the notion of prioritising the needs of a group over those of its leader has a long history, the modern concept of servant leadership was first articulated in The Servant as Leader, an influential 1970 essay by management expert Robert K. Greenleaf. Greenleaf believed that servant leaders foster success not by forcing or demanding it but by providing the support, structures, and environment needed for people to thrive — leading to success as a natural result. This can be achieved by developing a shared vision and principles within an organisation. According to Greenleaf, servant leaders are motivated by “the natural feeling that one wants to serve… then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead. That person is sharply different from one who is leader first, perhaps because of the need to assuage an unusual power drive or to acquire material possessions…”

The advantages of servant leadership

There is a reason why so many leaders have found success with the servant leadership model. The advantages that this style can bring to an organisation are numerous. Happy employees make for a happy workspace, and high morale leads to improved teamwork. In a positive working environment, employees are more engaged with their work, put in more effort, and are less likely to become demoralised. When each individual employee’s well-being and needs are looked after, the team also tends to work more effectively, resulting in higher productivity and fewer errors. Servant leadership prioritises the collective over the leader. This can strengthen an organisation’s overall culture, aligning every individual with a shared ethos and purpose and providing a better understanding of their own role. On the other hand, traditional leadership styles that focus on a top-down hierarchy can often cause resentment, especially among those at the bottom of the pyramid. And resentment is a breeding ground for conflict. The culture of mutual respect that servant leadership can create can reduce conflict between employees and management — and between employees themselves.

When employees are sufficiently supported and motivated (through encouragement and incentives, rather than fear of punishment), their desire to develop and broaden their own skills can increase. On the other hand, unsatisfied employees are more likely to leave an organisation, which can incur significant recruitment costs and lower productivity. Employees who are supported, respected, and feel connected to a shared goal usually stay for much longer. When employees stay at an organisation for a longer time and develop their skills, they can become more versatile in their applications and roles. This in turn increases the agility (ability to adapt quickly to change) of the organisation as a whole. There are other benefits for the future, too. With servant leadership, employees are also given a greater voice and the ability to affect change in their organisation. This can help them develop their own leadership skills, rather than merely responding to orders without thinking critically. An effective servant leader inspires employees to become the leaders of the future by providing them with the skills they need to succeed.

The challenges of servant leadership

Regardless of how effective a leadership style may be, it is sure to include a few potential drawbacks as well, and servant leadership is no exception. The servant leadership model, while popular, is not the dominant management style. This means that managers and employees are less likely to be familiar with it than with more traditional management styles. Implementing this style of leadership can take some time and effort to adjust to. The democratisation of decision making, while often the best option, can result in increased time to make decisions. When a leader cannot simply overrule others at will, debates can reach stalemates and halt progress. In addition, employees with less knowledge or capability can often be afforded the same share of responsibility as those with more knowledge or capability, leading to less effective decisions. Effective servant leadership empowers employees without reducing the leader’s authority. However, the servant leadership model can undermine leadership when common mistakes are made. The possibility of employees taking advantage of being prioritised is increased, and managers can lose control of their organisation’s direction. It’s important to note that these challenges and drawbacks are not inherent flaws of servant leadership but rather potential pitfalls that leaders need to navigate.

Best practices

Here are some best practices for servant leadership that will help you create a positive and empowering work environment that fosters growth, collaboration, and success within your team or organisation.

Be available and listen

Communication is key across an organisation, and the same applies to a servant leader. Make sure that you are reachable and approachable as much and as often as possible. During conversations, show interest in your employees and what they have to say — this includes body language cues like making eye contact and not appearing distracted. If possible, turn your phone and any computer screens off during meetings.

Become a mentor 

Servant leadership is about being an effective guide to your employees. You should be able to impart wisdom to them and teach them the skills that you have learned in your career. Setting up guidance and training programmes is a great way of doing this. Make sure that your team has the resources needed to learn. If possible, try to participate in the training sessions alongside your employees, rather than sending them off to outsourced training providers and calling it a day. The learning process should also be tailored to each employee’s needs. Engage in judgement-free discussions with employees where they can share their unique challenges, weaknesses, and skills they would like to improve. You should then continue to provide regular feedback on their progress over time.

Delegate tasks

Delegation is more than just a way to reduce your personal workload; it also shows employees that you trust them with tasks, empowering them and increasing their sense of being valued by the organisation. Of course, make sure that you don’t overburden employees or assign them tasks that are beyond their skill level. Use the information learned in mentoring sessions to determine their strengths, weaknesses, and areas for improvement.

Get feedback

It is difficult to know how best to support and empower people without knowing what they are struggling with. Inviting employees to provide feedback, on specifics or on their general work experience, is a great way to work out how to solve problems and increase employee satisfaction. If employees are shy or uncomfortable about voicing negative feedback, using anonymous surveys, questionnaires, or suggestion boxes can also work well.

Examples of servant leaders today

Susan Wojcicki, the former YouTube CEO, has used this management style successfully. Wojcicki believes that servant leadership is not only beneficial at an operational level but also helps foster diversity in technology and other sectors. In her own words, “make sure different, diverse groups have the resources and ability to organise…it’s the people in power who pass power on to other people. Everyone has some of that power and needs to pass it on in a way that in the end, will benefit everybody”. Another example that received significant press attention was that of Dan Price, the CEO and founder of Gravity Payments. After a conversation with an employee, Price famously raised his employees’ minimum wage to $70,000 — and saw his business revenues triple. Unsurprisingly, the company was flooded with CVs and had no trouble hiring new talent. Price believes that the company’s jump in productivity was a direct result of the staggered wage increase he implemented.

How to get started with servant leadership

In his essay Character and Servant Leadership: Ten Characteristics of Effective Caring Leaders, Larry Spears of the Robert K. Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership lists the following ten qualities of a great servant leader:

  • Listening
  • Empathy
  • Healing 
  • Awareness
  • Persuasion
  • Conceptualisation
  • Foresight
  • Stewardship
  • Commitment to the growth of people
  • Building community

You don’t need to be naturally excellent at every single one of these, but you should be willing to display these qualities and develop these skills. Consider what problems your employees are currently facing at work (conversations and surveys can help you discover these) and how you can solve them (for example, support, training, and resources). It may be the case that one or more organisational processes are in need of an overhaul. You may find it difficult at first to change long-established processes, especially if they have prioritised managers over other employees. Remember that the success of your team is more important than your ego (or that of previous managers). There is no room for selfishness in servant leadership! Once changes are made, regular assessments of employee satisfaction and performance will help you to keep things on track.

To maintain high levels of employee satisfaction, you must make sure that the organisation’s culture is healthy. Trust is the essential foundation of a healthy organisational culture. According to Gallup, only a third of employees strongly agree that they trust their organisation’s leadership! Building trust involves transparency in all areas, from the organisation’s goals to management’s expectations of each employee. It is worth taking time and effort here, as trust is easier to establish than it is to regain. Diversity is also an important factor — a Glassdoor survey found that over three-quarters of job seekers and employees consider this factor when choosing a company to work for. Diversity is important not only in terms of demographics like race, gender, sexuality, and religion but also diversity of opinions. Try to keep an open mind in all aspects of discussion and management. 

Traditional, ‘top-down’ leadership does undoubtedly have some advantages. It can be particularly effective at achieving short-term goals, which many organisations are primarily concerned with. Servant leadership, on the other hand, requires a more long-term investment of time, effort, and resources. It may take time for organisations to see the benefits of this leadership style (although results can sometimes be quick), which is why servant leadership is especially suited to forward-thinking organisations that have the future in mind. Taking time to build a strong company culture and enabling the employees of today to become the leaders of tomorrow can help ensure that your organisation stands the test of time.

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