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.