This is part 2 in our Mindsets of Workplace Transformation series. Read on to discover how becoming a servant leader can transform your company.
The research is in — piles of it, and growing: for businesses to thrive, work must become more than just a paycheque. It must become a source of aliveness that calls forth the potential of every employee. To achieve this, leaders need to shift away from management techniques that focus on power, control, and profits and embrace a new mindset that prioritizes purpose and principles. This requires that leaders focus more on serving their team and organization than their own career ambitions.
Picture this. The CEO calls her executives into the board room. “We’re doing it all wrong,” she says, pointing to an org chart. “We’re at the top. But we aren’t the purpose of this business. It’s the customers. And it’s the employees that serve them that we have to support.” With one motion, she flips the company’s org chart upside down. The message is clear. By serving staff better, management becomes a catalyst for employees to serve customers better. This connects all members of the team to the true purpose of the business and provides the key to unlock legendary performance at all levels.
This approach to management is known as “servant leadership,” a term coined in 1970 by Robert K. Greenleaf. Over the last half-century, the concept has become an animating force in leadership literature, with thousands of CEOs, consultants and writers practicing and promoting servant leadership techniques. Service-based leadership has even found a foothold within the U.S. Marines.
Unfortunately, while many leaders claim to be on board with the revolution, relatively few have changed their behaviour. LRN Corporation’s Global Leadership and Culture Assessment of 36,280 employees worldwide reveals a chasm between management and employee perceptions: those in leadership positions are 3 – 8 times more likely to evaluate their organizations as self-governing, inspiring, and collaborative (vs. disempowering, dictatorial and coercive) than the employee population. The same survey shows that just 3% of the workforce is fully engaged in their work.
Low engagement and loyalty caused by coercive management strategies put companies in jeopardy of losing key employees, especially younger ones, and getting less and less out of the employees that remain. This is a real problem with a known solution. Why have so few leaders made the leap?
The Status Mindset
Because their status as a leader is often hard-won, leaders can easily fall into the trap of preserving their own status at the expense of team performance. This creates an environment where team members scramble to earn favour or avoid disfavour rather than complete the team’s objective. This status-seeking (or preserving) mindset promotes a dynamic that erodes trust, encourages unhealthy competition and foments negative office politics.
Though few managers will admit to being status seekers, it would be hard to find an employee who hasn’t seen toxic status-seeking behaviour first-hand. Unfortunately, leaders come by this behaviour quite naturally, as most company cultures will reward a status seeker before a servant leader by rewarding those who stand out for their individual performance over those who help others to stand out. In business, as is often the case in sports, the person who scores the goal or makes the basket gets more accolades than the person who consistently sets up their teammates to get the points and win the game. This must change.
Servant Leadership in Action
Fortunately, many leaders around the world are already spearheading the movement.
Consider Dan Price, the young CEO of Gravity Payments who cut his million dollar salary by 90% to raise employee minimum salaries to $70,000 per year. After hearing about how stressful life could be for friends living on less than $40,000/year, he decided to do something about it. Price was motivated by a desire to ensure that employees would have the income to face life’s uncertainties with peace of mind — at least on the financial front. This decision resulted in a veritable PR boom for Gravity Payments, but it clearly stemmed from Price’s care for his employees.
Of course there’s much more to creating an engaged, balanced team than paying a high salary! Another vivid example comes from Vineet Nayar, CEO of HC Technologies. Nayar introduced a 360-degree performance evaluation system that allows all employees to directly rate their CEO. The company then publishes the unedited results online. Another CEO found success by asking people to fill out an assessment of his listening skills after every meeting. These initiatives have two incredible effects: they can help leadership improve in specific areas, and they nurture a culture of transparency, accountability and improvement.
First, ask the right questions:
The first step to transforming your mindset and shifting your behaviour requires doing an honest assessment of where you are at. What comes first for you: maintaining personal power or helping your team? Answer the following questions as truthfully as you dare (better yet, ask a few team members how they would answer them for you).
- Do you believe that others in your organization should respect your opinions because of your position, expertise, or seniority?
- Is your key motivation to look good to your boss or get ahead in your career?
- Do you feel frustrated or angry when people don’t immediately agree with your ideas?
- Do you get defensive when team members ask questions about priorities, methods, or strategies?
- Do you see your staff as an interruption to the “real” work you need to get done?
- Do you tend to blame mistakes or underwhelming results on your team and external circumstances?
- Do you believe that your team would be getting better results if they did things exactly the way you tell them to?
Can you answer a “no” to all the above? If not, you are focused to some degree on your own status at the expense of being of service to your team.
From Status-Seeker to Servant Leader
Ready to make the switch? Here are a few tips to get you started:
How can you know the best way to serve your team if you don’t take the time to ask questions and really listen to them? Most leaders think they understand what their employees want and need, but if you talk to employees, most wouldn’t agree. Taking the time to listen and even truly understand can quite an investment. It can be frustrating to hear employees talk about what they think needs to be done when they don’t understand the big picture. You may even feel like you’ve wasted your time and be tempted to push forward with your plan, telling yourself that you know what is best for the employees and the company. The problem with this approach is twofold:
- By not listening to what your team thinks the problem is, you are likely to miss important details that could lead to more effective solutions and strategies; and
- Even if your team’s perception of the problem and/or solution is off-base, not asking for or ignoring their feedback guarantees they will be less keen to buy into your action plans.
The result is the same: wasted time and effort going down the wrong path or trying to drag unwilling employees down what you believe to be the right path with you.
Visible gestures can go a long way to convincing your team that you are serious about the change, but they must be backed up by concrete action.
- Let your team know you’d like to come check in with where they are at in their next project meeting to see if you can help.
- Make sure you show up as promised.
- Avoid jumping in to take over.
- Sit quietly and take notes as you watch your team’s process.
- Ask questions to make sure you understand (but be careful not to derail their plan with your questions).
- At the end of the meeting, ask what they think their biggest challenges are and what they need from you to help move the project forward before jumping in to give your ideas.
These are all ways you can concretely show that you are shifting your approach. Note: If this is not the way you usually do things, they might notice the first time you do it, but they won’t trust that the change is permanent until they see you do this consistently over time.
Seeing servant leaders making real sacrifices with their time and energy — or standing up for employees against other management or even unreasonable customers — will buy more loyalty than any salary. Remember though, you don’t want to fight their battles for them. Be conscious of when you really need to step in to champion them vs. when you need to coach and mentor them in the skills they need to champion themselves.
Think long term.
No, it is NEVER going to be quick or easy or cheap to build a service-oriented culture. It takes time to build trust. It costs time and money to demonstrate that you are really there for your people in the areas that it counts. Be patient. Stay committed. It will pay off big in the long haul.
Discourage unhealthy competition.
You, as a service-oriented leader, understand that status-seeking does not serve your goals as a team. It’s your job to promote the service mindset to team members until it is woven into the fabric of the organization’s culture. Look at how you reward, recognize and manage your team and question whether you are promoting competition and status-seeking or true collaboration and a service mindset.
The shift must come from a leader’s own desire to show employees that they matter. You might be able to fake it for a few days, but to put in the years of service that it takes to nurture a service culture, you must truly believe.
The bad news? It isn’t easy to make the shift. The good news: research shows leaders who consistently and genuinely put their employees first earn the trust, loyalty, and performance that will ultimately put the business, and the leader, on top.