Why we should believe in Servant Leadership

In France, unlike the USA or the Nordic countries, servant leadership, sometimes called "benevolent management" or "feelgood management" does not always have good press and is often associated with a world of care bears far detached from professional realities.

Servant leaders actively invest in the productivity of their teams since they give them the confidence they need. This directly encourages employees to be more efficient and responsible.

Servant management is often sees as naive and ineffective. That's not true: a happy team is simply more productive!

Increasing the well-being of employees is all the more important as the quality of the relationship between a company and its customers matches the quality of the relationship between the company and its employees. This is the theory of Vineet Nayar, CEO of HCL Technologies, recounted in his book “Employees First, Customers Second: Turning Conventional Management Upside Down”. HCL Technologies turnover increased by 600% between 2005 and 2013 when the company put employees at the center of its concerns. Because a happy and engaged employee is simply more productive!

So, how to implement servant leadership? What are the concrete benefits of this type of management?

An attitude more than a method: what behavior to adopt?

According to a study carried out by CadreEmploi in June 2019, half of the executives questioned declared having experienced all or some of the symptoms of burnout. Burnouts are caused by an excess of professional pressure (63%), a very heavy workload (59%), a lack of recognition for the work accomplished (54%) or even, stress (53%). It is to avoid such situations that managers must show empathy and care. Now, what is hiding in the words “servant” or "benevolent", words which are often overused or misused?

Servant leaders or benevolent managers are managers who adopt the same attitude as a coach. They are the ones who engage, reassure and encourage their troops. This infuses more humanity into professional relations. Here is an overview of the 6 traits to favor in order to create a positive environment for employees:

  1. Listening and making yourself available: this is not just a matter of scheduling regular meetings with your team, but really preparing for meetings with the appropriate tools. This will allow you to be focused on the conversation once it takes place. During the one-to-one, do not do multitask. Put your phone on silent, limit the use of your computer to note taking  and be 100% present. It is indeed useless to inquire about the motivation of an employee if you are answering an email at the same time. Caring also rhymes with openness: make sure you remain accessible. Leave your office door open, offer team lunches. It is during these more spontaneous exchanges that an employee will find it easier to confide in the difficulty of an assignment or a family ordeal. The main thing is to encourage interactions, without ever being intrusive (the urgent email at midnight or on weekends, that's a no!).

  2. Set coherent, constructive and achievable goals. The SMART method is a perfect way to identify relevant goals for your team, SMART meaning “specific”, “measurable”, “ambitious”, “realistic” and “time-bound”. If you ask your team to double your subscriber base next month when you keep losing customers and no marketing budget can be allocated to this operation, it will not work, they will lose confidence ... Be realistic , while seeking the challenge.

  3. Adapt to the team and be flexible. It is important to individualize your discussions and to be flexible in the face of an unprecedented situation. If your employee needs to leave early to pick up their sick child, don't make it more difficult for them. Know the urgent and the important. “Many things are urgent, not all of them are important,” explains philosopher Charles Pépin, author of “The Virtues of Failure and Self-Confidence, a Philosophy”. Your collaborator will appreciate your flexibility, and the confidence you give him will help him to work calmly after having dropped off his child to the doctor. Adapting also means knowing how to leave space for your teams, so that they can work well, create and concentrate. If you micro-manage your team, and impose too many Zoom meetings, they will feel infantilized and not in the right state of mind to come up with new ideas. On the contrary, they will be preoccupied, even tired, by so many constraints and rigidity. Many people, under the constant pressure of urgency and surveillance, become less efficient simply because they are stressed and frustrated.

  4. Explain the meaning of their work. All work becomes coherent when the meaning is explicit, that the missions are motivated by a good reason. It is indeed impossible to take employees on board with you if you do not tell them where you want to go and why. If you're asking your coworker to fill out a monthly sales spreadsheet, explain exactly why you need it: for example, you may need these numbers to know if you can hire an extra headcount next month. Encourage them to go the extra mile and find the best way to put the numbers in perspective.

  5. Give feedback. Recognition gives positive energy. Remember to give compliments when a job is done right, when it's on time, when a presentation has generated good feedback from difficult clients. Even quick feedback highlights the work that has been done.

  6. Accept mistakes and don't blame failures. An event organized by your company counted only 100 guests out of the 400 planned. It's a disappointment for the team who went to great lengths to organize it. Be sure to try to understand the reasons for this failure rather than blaming the organizers. Failure, if understood, can make us more combative and wiser. If the organizers are sanctioned, they will have more difficulty daring to propose something new, to take risks. After a failure, it is important to give the team momentum to bounce back, to create enthusiasm to get back to work.

All these attitudes are not, in the end, managerial rules, they are rather part of a state of mind and an art of living that must be cultivated. Showing yourself as is, speaking the truth, being as sincere as possible and aligned with your values, saying hello, thank you, highlighting a relevant participation, making an appointment to explain a misconduct before it is too late, are as many reflexes to have to install good working conditions and healthy professional relationships internally.

What are the benefits of a caring management?

If you want your employees to take care of your business, take care of your employees!

As Vineet Nayar proves in his book, servant leaders are far from carebear managers, completely disconnected from the performance of the company. On the contrary, they are agile managers, whose understanding attitude offers positive and concrete repercussions on everyone's productivity. The disconnected manager would rather be the one who sets up a Quality of Life at Work (QLW) policy but who, behind, tracks the working hours of his team (especially during teleworking) or schedules an urgent meeting late in the evening.

The flexibility, respect, sincere listening and openness of the benevolent manager allow employees to perform better for several reasons:

  • Stress levels decrease: teams are less stressed because they feel that they are trusted. Servant leaders are credible managers in the eyes of employees, since they really help them grow, while accepting their learning curve.
  • Creativity increases: teams are less afraid of taking risks because the culture of failure is valued. Mistakes are accepted as long as they are understood, they are seen as daring, not drama or negative experience.
  • Their involvement is stronger because the objectives are not only understood but genuinely motivating. This empowers employees.

These three reactions are enough to reduce absenteeism (two thirds of absenteeism being directly related to work, including stress and overwork), to strengthen collaboration and mutual aid between workers and to reduce turnover. Who would want to leave from a company that shows employees, with concrete gestures, that their well-being is the priority? Employee loyalty is one of the infallible proofs of benevolent management in a company. It has now become an argument for recruiting. “No one has left the company in 3 years”, we recently read on a job description in our Linkedin feed.

Servant leadership and caring work environment are therefore not just hot topics. This management style associated with empathy, respect and listening is today a must for growing a business. If a company is concerned about the well-being of its employees, it has a good chance of being more efficient. “If you want your employees to take care of your business, take care of your employees!” sums up Richard Branson perfectly!