As a leader, what, exactly is your role? Is it your job simply to tell people what to do and how to do it? Does it feel more like herding cats, trying to get them all to move in the same direction? Is it mediating disputes and soothing hurt feelings?
True leadership is actually much more challenging — and rewarding — than that. In the philosophy of servant leadership, the job of a leader is to develop each individual to their greatest level of competence and commitment.
This approach “contributes to higher trust, positive intentions, and significant results,” according to Ken Blanchard, Patricia Zigarmi, and Drea Zigarmi in their article, “Learn the SLII Model.”
Simply put, servant leadership puts people at the forefront. It chooses not to focus on short-term success, instead setting the stage for the long-term growth and development of people within the organization — which, of course, leads to better long-term outcomes for companies and their employees.
“Servant-leaders believe that people have an intrinsic value beyond their tangible contributions as workers. As a result, the servant-leader is deeply committed to the growth of each and every individual within the institution. The servant-leader recognizes the tremendous responsibility to do everything possible to nurture the growth of employees,” writes Larry C. Spears in “Practicing Servant Leadership.”
The challenge of servant leadership is to determine exactly what each of your employees needs from you — how you can most effectively support and serve them. As Blanchard et al. point out, not every employee needs the same thing. Some need clear direction. Others need redirection or hands-on support. Others need inspirational coaching.
“[Servant leaders] partner with their people, working side by side to align on goals, development levels, and leadership styles,” according to Blanchard. The first step to building this partnership is to develop a habit of empathetic listening.
Leslie Snavely, chief digital officer for CHG Healthcare, recalls an early boss who prompted her to speak up. Snavely wrote about the experience in an article, “Encouraging employees to speak their voice,” that describes why and how to empower employees to develop their ideas and add to the conversation.
Snavely was just starting her career and felt inexperienced and naïve. But her boss paid attention to what she had to say. “He hired me because he thought I was sharp and had something to offer so he allowed me to speak my voice to him — even when that was contrary to his traditional thinking or opinion — and he would attentively listen and engage,” she writes.
It is important for leaders to create a safe environment for employees to speak up. Snavely says leaders should actively seek out their employees’ opinions, approach conversations with humility — allowing others to shine — and make sure to give employees credit for their good ideas.
“With a company culture that fosters listening, being open, and giving recognition for speaking up, more employees will do so because they’re encouraged to converse and collaborate without fearing failure,” says Snavely.
The power of one-on-ones
One-on-one meetings are a valuable way to encourage employees to speak up and to pinpoint what type of leadership support they need from you. The purpose of the one-on-one meeting is to build a relationship with the employee, foster their engagement and, ultimately, improve results.
Keep in mind that the idea of meeting with the boss can be intimidating for some employees, so do everything you can to make the experience warm and friendly. Here are some of the characteristics of effective one-on-ones:
Regularly scheduled. One-on-ones should be regularly scheduled — not one-time meetings to address problems as they arise. Making them part of the work-week routine will help lessen anxiety for employees. Also, having a standing meeting can help reduce frequent, time-wasting “check-ins” or hallway conversations. As time goes on, your employees will become increasingly comfortable opening up during one-on-ones.
Employee-led. One-on-ones are a forum for employees to bring you their concerns, successes, ideas, and challenges. Instead of dominating the conversation, encourage the employee to come prepared with the topics they’d like to address. One-on-ones enable employees to tell you, in their own words, what they need from you. Direction? Advice? Inspiration? If an employee seems hesitant to talk, ask them open-ended questions to help them open up and broach sensitive topics. (For example, “How did you feel when your work assignment changed?”)
Supportive. Again, this should be a non-threatening situation for employees. They should feel empowered to speak up without fear of being dismissed, ridiculed, or reprimanded. Make sure to truly listen to them; then, show that you have actively listened by acknowledging their words. Reflect back to them: “What I hear you saying is that you’re frustrated/enthusiastic/worried…” Empathize with those feelings and ask questions to delve deeper.
Results-oriented. Both you and the employee should come away from the meeting with action items. In what ways will you incorporate their feedback? Can the employee refine their great idea a little bit more? What new goals can they set? Does the employee need additional resources or training? If necessary, schedule a follow-up meeting to touch base on the new action items.
Servant leadership may seem like a lot of work. And, honestly, it is a very hands-on approach to leading people. However, the ultimate goal of servant leadership is to build your employees into capable professionals who have the confidence to tackle challenges and solve problems. So while servant leadership demands extra attention, in the long run your team will deliver better results — and they’ll deeply appreciate you for helping them move forward in their careers.
What leadership best practices have helped your team be more successful? Share in the comments below.