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You’ve Got to Serve Someone

New research reveals that leaders can function most effectively when they put the needs of their followers first.

Servant leadership is not a new concept. Robert Greenleaf introduced the idea back in 1977. In recent years, however, concrete evidence has emerged that the approach delivers more than warm, fuzzy feelings. Last month, the first quantitative study that begins to explain a connection between servant leadership and improved individual performance was published by researchers in Canada. This new evidence may help move servant leadership from a niche practice to one adopted by more executives.

Servant leadership goes against the model of the heroic individual who drives results through carrots, sticks, and at times, sheer force of will. There is no cutthroat “rank and yank” competition. Instead, the servant leader focuses on meeting the needs of followers who, in turn, become engaged, energized, innovative, and extremely productive. In my experience, servant leadership is most popular in sectors such as education and faith-based organizations where the idea of being a servant has some intrinsic appeal. I have encountered CEOs who embrace the approach, including some at quite large companies. But generally these are organizations in which social value creation is on par with financial performance. After all, it sounds a bit squishy to focus on employee development and well-being.

But this soft-sounding method is looking more and more like it makes hard, bottom-line business sense. The study was conducted by Myriam Chiniara and Kathleen Bentein, professors in the Department of Psychology and the School of Business Administration, respectively, at the University of Quebec at Montreal. The Canadian researchers looked at three aspects of success at work: task performance, organizational citizenship behaviors (OCBs) directed at individuals, and OCBs oriented toward the organization. In non-academic parlance, that means people’s ability to get things done and done well, play well with others, and focus on accomplishing the organization’s mission. Extensive research they cite shows that employees must have three basic psychological needs met in order to achieve these goals, particularly in the knowledge economy:

• Autonomy: Individuals prefer to make choices and initiate action themselves. They want the freedom to think and do. Autonomy is motivating. This helps explain why every time I lead an exercise in delineating the differences between great leaders and lousy ones, “micromanager” is high on the list of detrimental characteristics named.

• Competence: Employees derive satisfaction from building skills and using them effectively. People like to feel that they know what they are doing and that they are improving over time. Remember this truism the next time you consider cutting your training budget.

• Relatedness: People like to feel connected to other people. They enjoy being part of a team or a community where they can care for and be cared for by others. This helps explain why, as Peter Drucker reportedly said, culture eats strategy for breakfast.

This study showed that servant leaders are distinctly equipped to meet each of these three needs. At the core of servant leadership is a belief in the inherent value of each person and their “feelings, interests, views, and opinions.” Such an attitude predisposes a leader to providing an autonomous environment rather than expecting cold conformity. If your competitive advantage derives from hatching new ideas or a high-initiative service attitude, autonomy is your friend. You want your people to try new things, learn from mistakes, and tackle stretch assignments with enthusiasm, not fear.

If your competitive advantage derives from hatching new ideas or a high-initiative service attitude, autonomy is your friend.

Because servant leaders believe in their people, they invest in them. That means ensuring that employees have the necessary skills and resources to do their jobs and helping them grow over time. This approach helps guarantee that competence needs are met. Decades-old research shows that individual performance is dependent upon employees having the right knowledge and proficiencies. Perhaps more relevant is the accumulating evidence in favor of the “good jobs” strategy, in which cross-training and other skill-building methods yield operational excellence that, in turn, translates into superior financial results.

As servant leaders cultivate trust-based relationships with their followers as part of developing an understanding of the followers’ needs, they tend to build cultures high in social and psychological safety. This fosters robust feelings of relatedness. Put another way, it makes the company a great place to work. Cultivating relatedness is how you create an organization where people are willing give of themselves in ways that lead to breakthrough ideas and high customer satisfaction.

The authors of the current study introduce quantitative evidence to support what has always been a qualitative argument for a humane, others-centric approach to management and leadership. So if you’ve been waiting for some data to justify valuing people, now you have some. I hope that other studies follow.

The study also describes an interesting matrix between the psychological needs and the dimensions of performance. There are multiple interdependencies among these key factors with autonomy being necessary to all three and relatedness a prerequisite to both types of OCBs. The competence need is the only one that is tied to only one performance measure: task performance.

Historically, servant leadership has been seen as more about the heart than the head. This study adds to the growing body of evidence that it is time for the head to catch up.

Eric McNulty

Eric J. McNulty is the associate director of the National Preparedness Leadership Initiative. He is the coauthor of You're It: Crisis, Change, and How to Lead When It Matters Most (PublicAffairs, 2019). He writes frequently about leadership, change, and organizational culture.

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