Servant Leadership In The Workplace

Servant leadership is a belief in and practice of “leadership that places the good of those led over the self-interest of the leader, emphasizing leader behaviors that focus on follower development and de-emphasizing glorification of the leader” (Hale and Fields, 2007, p. 397). Servant leaders see themselves as a resource, not the source or oracle from which all organizational knowledge, wisdom, and direction must emanate.

I’ve found that servant leadership is a much maligned concept. More than a few blog posts I’ve read have opined that servant leadership in the workplace is a load of bull. People have a hard time understanding how servant leadership might work, mostly because they have rarely personally experienced leadership practiced this way. And up until now, the research evidence to support servant leadership has not been very strong.

An exceptional recent study of 815 employees and 123 supervisors published in the Journal of Applied Psychology makes a very strong argument for the value of servant leadership at work. The authors found that the practice of servant leadership had important implications for both individuals and the groups they worked in. The study found that servant leadership enhanced both the self-efficacy and the commitment to the supervisor of the individual employee. At the group level, servant leadership lead to employees’ perception that they were treated fairly (justice climate) and the shared perception customer service was expected, supported, and rewarded (positive service climate). These individual and group effects combined to produce a significant impact on the organizational citizenship behavior of individual employees.

Employees that are good organizational citizens go above and beyond their formal job descriptions. If everyone in an organization only did what was required of them, the organization would be mediocre at best. Organizational excellence requires a critical mass of employees doing more than what is officially recognized and rewarded. The extant research has demonstrated organizational citizenship behavior is strongly associated with employee task performance, organizational productivity, and customer satisfaction.

This is the second recent study I’ve reviewed that showed the importance of creating a positive service climate at work. This new evidence demonstrates that servant leadership can help create just such a positive climate at work. The logic of servant leadership is also completely aligned with the logic of the service-profit chain. This research provides further support for the logic that if you want to grow your business, one of the most important things you need to do as a leader on a daily basis is to take care of your employees.

If you think your employees will go above and beyond the call of duty to impress your customers when they are disgusted with you and your management team, then you are living in La La Land. You are going to have to enable your managers and employees to practice servant leadership. Following Kotter’s (1996) five steps to empower people to effect change (p. 115), I’d recommend the following:

1. Communicate a vision of servant leadership to managers and employees

2. Make structures compatible with the vision

3. Provide training managers need to practice servant leadership

4. Align information and personnel systems to support managers being more resourceful and helpful

5. Confront managers who undercut the needed change

If you decide to continue to ignore and malign servant leadership then you must also decide to ignore the evidence that suggests you should be doing the exact opposite. Evidence-based management cannot guarantee success, but it’s far superior to anecdotes and hyperbole.

Bret L. Simmons, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor of Management at The University of Nevada, Reno. He earned his doctorate in Business Administration at Oklahoma State University. Bret blogs about leadership and social business at his website Positive Organizational Behavior. You can also find him on TwitterFacebook, and LinkedIn.

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About the author

David Burkus is an organizational psychologist, keynote speaker, and bestselling author of five books on leadership and teamwork.

11 thoughts on “Servant Leadership In The Workplace”

  1. Excellent post. There are obvious benefits to servant leadership, one of which is the ability to grow your own leaders. When you fully practice servant leadership, the workforce grows in that understanding and the best leaders rise to the top. Having these “home grown” leaders, allows you to continue this form of leadership at a greatly reduced training cost, and to keep alive the reason for this type of leadership.

    1. Agreed. Awhile back I interview Steve Farber, who’s new book Greater Than Yourself is like a manual for servant leadership and growing new leaders. Thanks for the comment.

  2. I echo Mike’s sentiments. This post is phenomenal! I am currently pursuing a PhD in I-O Psychology and happened to have a classmate whose well-known employer practiced servant leadership. Many simply could not believe that this could work. He shared with us that what he liked best was the fact that the employer was all about “growing their own leaders” as Mike alluded. That evokes such a great feeling. I felt compelled to this course of study because so many of my former managers and leaders were the complete opposite, treating employees like they were nothing, but expecting them to be top performers, committed , and loyal. It’s time employers recognize that it is not all about the botom line.

    1. There is a delicate balance. Many times it’s possible to be so focused on follower development that the organization suffers, but as one practices servant leadership, they tend to find that balance. Thanks for the example Karen.

    2. I’m an I-O Psychologist and am rooting for your achievement, Karen. I find that most disbelief stems from a flawed, binary (either-or) definition of service–juxtaposing it with control or accountability. You can define a continuum based on self v. others, but control is a separate, related factor. The leadership style debate boils down to contrasting service and control as independent variables and the goals of growth and accountability as dependent variables (outcomes). Service through leadership may involve lots of direct coaching and accountability so that the target employee also serves through h/her role. Part of my service must be focused on helping others demonstrate leadership and deliver–not allow them to ignore their commitments and just enjoy “growth” (only serving their needs absent those of our customer or community).

    3. It’s a good time to be studying servant leadership in management, Karen. The field is wide open. Lot of questions left to be answered. This conversation is just getting started. Thanks! Bret

  3. Of course, it would be easy to use the “selection” solution too–simply throwing out the dead wood who refuse to lead through service–a faster and more complete turnaround than Kotter’s 5 steps. More constructively, though, Step 3b should involve providing more than training. Many people have the capacity to serve as leaders, but cannot break old habits or need to learn how to serve based on their unique disposition. Observations of an Executive Coach 🙂

    1. I agree. It’s a tough transition and we should give folks lots of support. We not only asking them to change their behavior, but in many ways also their paradigm of leadership. For it to be taken seriously it has to be practiced from the top all the way down. Without that, it’s just rhetoric and folks will smell it a mile away. Thanks! Bret

    2. It is not just a matter of breaking breaking old habits, often a leader just does not have the self confidence to lead this way. Just to say “servant” to some is an indication of a position of weakness, and many I have met and worked for in the past were too hung up on their own appearance of value short term to see the value in building a team long term.

      I worked for one person who led with this type of philosophy, it was extraordinary.

      1. Excellent observation, Kreston. Those that serve know it is NOT easy to do and is surely not a sign of weakness. It takes strength to put others before yourself, but the paradox is it also create tremendous strength in you and others. Thanks! Bret

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