Servant Leadership, Trust, And Team Performance

March 28, 2011

I love the concept of servant leadership, but I’ve found it’s a tough sell when talking to practicing managers and MBA students. Many have the impression that this group-oriented approach to leadership that emphasizes being resourceful, sharing power and building a sense of shared purpose and teamwork is wishy-washy. The idea of a leader shifting the focus of attention and power from himself to the people he’s been given the privilege to lead is not what many people have in mind when they think of leadership.

Until recently, high quality empirical work to demonstrate the real value of servant leadership has been limited. But I’m glad to report that a new study of 191 financial service teams and 999 total participants recently published in the Journal of Applied Psychology suggests that servant leadership significantly affects trust in the leader and ultimately team performance.

The study looked at how both transformational leadership and servant leadership worked together to first affect two different kinds of trust. Transformational leadership is characterized by having a compelling agenda of high performance and change and providing clear structure to help team members pursue the agenda. Transformational leadership was found to affect cognition-based trust, which is trust based on the belief that the leader is competent, responsible, reliable, and dependable. Servant leadership was found to predict affect-based trust, which is trust based on an emotional bond to the leader because people believe the leader genuinely cares and is concerned about their welfare.

Cognition-based trust then predicted team potency, which is the belief that team members can achieve their objectives and realize the shared vision. Affect-based trust predicted team psychological safety, which is a shared belief that the team is a safe place for individual risk taking. The authors state:

High team psychological safety can improve team members’ engagement at work because it means that members believe they can participate openly and actively without fear of suffering adverse personal consequences, such as being derogated for their ideas and observations and the manner by which they express them. (p. 2).

While both were shown to significantly affect team performance, the size of the effect of team psychological safety was almost double the size of the effect of team potency. This is important to note because it was servant leadership that produced an affect-based trust in followers, and that type of trust in the leader allowed teams to reach the highest levels of performance. The authors conclude:

Engaging in the behaviors associated with servant leadership and transformational leadership is important for a leader to cultivate and maintain team members’ confidence in his or her agenda and competencies as a leader (cognition-based trust) and to gain their faith that he or she will act in a manner that supports both their individual well-being and that of the team (affect-based trust). (p. 8).

If your people don’t trust you, there is no way they are going to be able to deliver the type of performance that will grow your business. You are not entitled to the trust of your people – you have to earn it by the way you behave toward them. Your people need to believe that you are competent and that you care. If you are not happy with how your team is performing, before you blame any single team member, take a good look in the mirror and ensure your leadership is worthy of their trust.

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Comments (17)

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  1. Jim Taggart says:

    Thanks for posting a topic that I believe continues to be either ignored or espoused by too many people. Trust is the bedrock upon which teams excel. Without trust, you’ll never be able to make that leap to higher performance, innovation, customer service, etc. We need to remember that leaderership is earned (through trust); management is an appointment.

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Trust is one of the most important things leaders need to pay attention to, Jim. Too many don’t really understand it and therefore don’t appreciate how important it is. Thanks! Bret

  2. Excellent post Bret. I’ll certainly be sharing this with those I know and our Leadership and Influence Summit list.

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Thanks, Daniel! Bret

  3. Bret, thanks for writing this post. I’ve been a big advocate of servant leadership for years. I believe in it wholeheartedly. I’ve seen the positive results it produces first-hand. But all the evidence to this point has been philosophical and anecdotal. It’s good to see a scientific research study done on this issue and great to see its results bearing out what many of us have known for years.

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Welcome, Paul. Great point about the evidence to this point being mostly philosophical and anecdotal. This is definitely one where evidence lagged practice. Thanks! Bret

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    So have I, Paul. Thanks! Bret

  4. Mike Moore says:

    Bret: I can see where some would resist the concept of servant leadership. The best managers exhibit this trait whether they put a “name” to it or not. Perhaps the thought of “servant leadership” as a form of empowerment of individuals and the team would bring the concept into a better light.

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Welcome, Mike! I too don’t like the label because it causes some to balk. I tell folks to think of this as being a resource, not the source. Thanks! Bret

  5. vivian says:

    a successful leadership means you earned the trust of those who believes your capacity as a leader that leads them to put their hope’s on you for the future things in life …thanks..

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Welcome, Vivian. I like your thought. Thanks for sharing. Bret

  6. Mike Moore says:

    Bret: I have been thinking more about this Post and we can all see from the comments that most believe in this conceptually. Looking back on many years in sr. management, the managers that are truly trusted receive this based on the true nature of their character. In the end, those who do not possess trusting characteristics eventually get exposed for not being trustworthy.

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Amen, Mike. I’m finding your words to be true even in my current job. But those that are not trustworthy are often so deep in self-deception they don’t even know it. They usually surround themselves with a few people that tell them the lies they want to hear and ignore everything else. Thanks for sharing! Bret

  7. Thank you for highlighting this study. You hit the nail on the head: too many managers dismiss servant leadership was idealism, without considering the hard facts and exemplary studies. It’s up to thought leaders such as yourself to raise this awareness.

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts and joining the servant leadership movement!

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Welcome, Benjamin! I think a lot of leaders are afraid of the label – servant. It shakes their current power paradigm. This approach to leadership cares more about effectiveness than it does about getting credit. Thanks! Bret

  8. Great article, Bret! You may be interested in “A Trusting Character” where I outline eight characteristics of leaders who create environments for trust and growth. In fact, I would be interested in your “take” on the thesis.

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Welcome, Thomas. I read your article and liked it very much. The research shows that trust is critical. As you point out, that’s our job as leaders to create safe environments for folks to take risks, and that is always messy at times. Thanks for sharing. Bret