2 July 2019

Servant Leadership – How to Give Your Employees More Autonomy and Choice

Woman ecstatically holds up a trophy, whilst her team mates all wear medals and cheer along. They are all wearing a white sports kit

Some of us have an innate desire to serve others. And by serve, I don’t mean being ordered around, but rather to be of service; to use one’s time constructively to help and support others.

Typically, such people end up in jobs where they can work tirelessly to improve people’s lives – vocations such as teaching, medicine, or care work, for example. But what about managerial positions?

We tend not to associate managers with this selfless, giving type of person. This could be due to the traditional, somewhat-negative stereotype of managers as bossy authoritarians who are more interested in exercising power than helping their staff.

The situation isn’t helped by the word itself – the verb manage is synonymous with commandrulegovern, and control; not servehelpenable, or support. And this definition probably checks out with most people’s experience in the workplace.

Who serves who?

In the traditional organization, employees serve their manager. They are there to do what their manager tells them, and in doing so aim to please him or her. Their manager serves their superior, who in turn serves their superior, and so on up the chain of command. Everyone serves the company, which is there to serve its customers (and, ultimately, its shareholders).

You’ll notice that in this top-down system, nobody serves the regular employees. Their professional and personal needs go unmet because there’s nobody there to meet them. As a result, they are unable to grow and develop, and their choices are limited.

This system reinforces negative stereotypes about managers, work, and power structures. It teaches employees that they are at the bottom of the ladder, and as such their needs aren’t important – they are merely there to get the job done, and their manager is there to make sure they do.

Servant leadership

According to the philosophy of servant leadership, however, the manager’s job is to serve their employees. This approach flips the traditional pyramid hierarchy on its head, putting the needs of employees above all else.

In this bottom-up approach, management becomes less about controlling and monitoring employees’ work, and more about helping and supporting them to be their best. As such, employees are given the freedom and autonomy to take direction of their own work. The leader gives them the tools they need and then lets them get on with it.

This approach changes our perception of management and leadership, and what it takes to be a good manager or leader. Instead of the ability to order, arrange, monitor and discipline, managers need to be attentive, patient, open-minded, and genuinely interested in the needs of others.

It also makes us rethink the notion of power – what it means, and how it should be exercised. In an organization that adopts the servant-leadership model, power is used to empower others – to enrich their lives, meet their needs, and help them realize their potential – not to control or limit them.

Rather than attracting the type of person who is hungry for power, status, or respect, managerial positions in a servant-leader environment should attract genuine ‘givers’ – the type of people that find helping others intrinsically motivating.

Everyone benefits

When leaders become servants first, employees are given the tools they need to grow, and the organization benefits through an engaged and motivated workforce.

As their managers take an active interest in their development, employees exhibit an increased commitment to the company, resulting in improved turnover rates.

Employees’ mental health also improves, as work becomes more human and enjoyable. As a result, they are more likely to achieve their goals, whether at a personal or organizational level.

Servant leadership creates an environment of openness, support, and a willingness to help. With time, employees start to exhibit the qualities of servant leaders as well. Interestingly, research has shown that this approach even benefits employees’ private lives, making them less stressed and more likely to be of service to their families.

By treating your employees not as servants to the company, but the very lifeblood of it, everyone wins – as Richard Branson puts it: “Clients do not come first. Employees come first. If you take care of your employees, they’ll take care of your clients.”

Of course, the success of this approach all boils down to the type of people you have in positions of power – how you select them, what you expect from them, and what their motivations are.

Nick Edwards

Nick Edwards is a Content Writer at MHR

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