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.
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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 Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.
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