The term “servant leadership” was first coined 50 years ago by management writer Robert K. Greenleaf, but organizations have been slow to embrace the model fully.
That’s unfortunate because when compared to the more typical top-down leadership models in most organizations, servant leadership is strongly correlated with high-performing teams and higher profits.
It comes down to fostering high employee morale, which leads to happier — and higher performing — team members. “If you serve your employees, they’ll be more likely to serve you,” says Simone Phipps, associate professor of management at Middle Georgia State University. “Servant leadership isn’t just a ‘feel-good’ subject: It is strategic.”
Here’s a look at a few ways servant leadership can transform an organization by improving morale.
Harnessing the Power of Relationships
Servant leaders nurture authentic relationships with each team member. These relationships drive loyalty and power employee engagement. Teams that form strong bonds and feel cared for by their leaders gain a strategic cooperative advantage, says Leon Prieto, associate professor of management at Clayton State University. And servant leaders harness the power of relationships to facilitate collaboration in the workplace.
Servant leadership isn’t just appreciated -- it’s reciprocated. “Employees who trust their leaders work more diligently,” Prieto says. “People tend to trust servant leaders because they come across as more authentic.” Traditional top-down leadership uses authority to drive employee behavior, while servant leadership relies on loyalty to nurture high employee morale.
Authenticity is vital to servant leadership. “You can tell if someone is equally as passionate about your well-being as they are about making a profit,” Prieto says. “People don’t want to feel like they’re just a cog in the machine.” How can you hire leaders who are capable of connecting and empathizing with each team member this way? When selecting potential managers, use assessments and situational judgment questions to determine each candidate’s emotional IQ. Candidates who rank high in empathy are most likely to be successful as servant leaders.
Facilitating Workers’ Goals
Servant leaders facilitate a sense of accomplishment by helping team members achieve their daily goals and increase long-term satisfaction by helping team members reach their professional development goals.
Servant leaders remove obstacles blocking their team’s success. They are always looking for ways to be useful and support their team, Prieto says, even if that means getting out on the floor themselves to keep a task on deadline. This willingness to work alongside employees demonstrates an authentic desire to serve both the organization and the team. A servant leader empowers their team to complete daily goals, so they leave work with a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction.
Another driver of employee morale is growth potential. Servant leaders want the best for each member of their team and facilitate professional development or mentorship opportunities. “Servant leaders care about employees and their growth,” Phipps says — even if there is the risk of them moving on. But that risk is mitigated by servant leadership, which facilitates job satisfaction and excellent workplace experiences. “They’ll be more committed to you,” she continues.
Consider merging servant leadership principles with other leadership models that also prioritize team members and their needs, such as transformational leadership. Incorporate elements of servant leadership into whichever style works best within your organizational culture.
Maintaining Two-Way Communication
Servant leaders welcome open and honest feedback from team members and respond in meaningful ways. Where possible, servant leaders implement great ideas from team members and take appropriate action when team members bring their concerns. When team members know their leader will listen to them with respect and take their requests seriously, they feel empowered to speak up. This approach fosters transparency and loyalty in the workplace.
Two-way communication is especially vital for maintaining employee morale in a remote work environment. Servant leaders make powerful remote managers. They’re used to reaching out to team members regularly, and they stay attuned to their needs. “They maintain closeness and connection,” Phipps says.
Servant leaders don’t micromanage: They set daily goals, provide necessary resources and remain accessible to team members throughout the day. And since servant leaders possess high levels of empathy, team members feel safer revealing challenges they’re facing at home and work. Solutions can be found to these difficulties, but only if team members feel empowered to communicate their concerns in the first place.