Servant Leadership

In many ways, there is only one question any manager need ask: How do I make my team members’ lives easier—physically, cognitively and emotionally? Research shows that a “servant leader” mentality and disposition enhances both team performance and satisfaction. This is even more important as businesses try to survive during the present crisis. Moreover, studies also suggest that managers themselves are happier and find their roles more meaningful when they feel they are helping other people.

Even though most business schools and leadership training courses emphasis the importance of servant leadership, few bosses manage to fully commit to it. Perhaps that’s no surprise. In most organisations, the average manager has neither the incentives nor the skills to focus on employee happiness. Consider how most businesses make promotion decisions: people who get ahead tend to be either current high performers or those who appear most leader-like. Sadly, neither of these traits correlates well with servant leadership. For example, research suggests that the most productive individuals typically have high levels of technical skills and personal drive, but only 30% of them are likely to become the kind of leaders that prioritise and support employee satisfaction.Moreover, research contends that only one in ten people possesses the necessary traits that great managers exhibit, traits that include building relationships that create trust, open dialogue and transparency.

People are also more likely to be promoted when they exhibit self-confidence, build extensive networks and navigate organisational politics with ease. Creating a sense of personal power and toughness can have positive outcomes for leaders, particularly if they are confronted with an unchanging status quo. But such self-orientation is the polar opposite of what is required for building trust. So even if a manager believes, in their heart of hearts, that the right thing is to support their team members and enhance their job satisfaction, it might be hard for them to resist the siren call of a more authoritative style that seems to give them a better chance of recognition.

Moreover, if they have previously excelled in their individual performance, this same manager and leader may have to improve their emotional intelligence* and actively change their attitude to discern the frequent occasions when a softer touch is more effective than a tougher stance. All of which is more difficult because of the scarcity of role models to learn from within most organisations. The self-centered approach gets perpetuated by the hiring practices and performance evaluations of many organisations. In fact, companies fail to choose the right talent for management positions 82% of the time.Organisations that allow such dynamics to persist miss out on the upside of employee satisfaction. At the extreme, these organisations also risk creating or enabling a toxic culture that can lead to serious performance and health issues—and even death.

So why is servant leadership, leading to better employee satisfaction, even more important during the present crisis?

As business leaders navigate the evolving COVID-19 crisis—keeping their customers and employees safe and their businesses viable, is becoming a tough balance to achieve. To move forward, rather than stand paralysed, there is one essential area where companies can create enormous value: job satisfaction. Because of the connection between happiness at work and overall life satisfaction, improving employee happiness could make result in boosting profitability and enhancing organisational health.

When it comes to employee happiness, business leaders and managers play a bigger role than one might guess. Relationships with management is the top factor in employees’ job satisfaction, which in turn is the second most important determinant of employees’ overall well-being. Unfortunately, research also shows that most people find their managers to be far from ideal; various surveys indicate that the vast majority of employees feel that the most stressful aspect of their job was their immediate boss.

The wealth of literature on what makes for a good workplace highlights two aspects that managers directly control: good work organisation—that is, providing workers with the context, guidance, tools and autonomy to minimise frustration and make their jobs meaningful—and psychological safety, which is the absence of interpersonal fear as a driver of employee behaviour. With burnout on the rise and stress and anxiety a leading cause of ill health and absenteeism, the emotional health of workers becomes particularly important, even more in such turbulent times.

There are complex interactions between these factors, giving rise to potential virtuous and vicious cycles. For example, a good manager instills a sense of trust and confidence, with a clear set of attainable goals rooted in customer-centric thinking. In such an environment, frontline workers feel empowered and often receive positive feedback from customers and colleagues. They are also more likely to raise issues when things do not go well. A safe and collaborative environment for joint problem solving generates innovation, a sense of achievement and even higher levels of customer satisfaction. With more loyal customers, lower absenteeism and low staff turnover resulting in higher profitability, a manager may now be in a position to allocate more resources to their workers. Such a scenario is not just a theoretical construct. Countless studies show the empirical link between employee satisfaction, customer loyalty and profitability.

Hence my message is simple. The need to better your leadership skills and become a servant leader to increase the job satisfaction and happiness of your employees, is now pressing more than ever. I dare say, it is critical. In a crisis period, when the imperative is to conserve cash and, in many cases, aggressively restructure, having the loyalty of your workers who are fully committed to the business as besides conserving their job they want to conserve the happiness they feel working for the company, is now an asset of utmost importance.

*If you have no idea what emotional intelligence is, please do yourself a favour and read about it here. Do not let yourself be in a business management or business leadership and not know what emotional intelligence is all about.

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