Matt Tenney, Contributor
Toxic work environments have been one of the main factors driving resignations over the last few years, with research showing that a toxic corporate culture is 10.4 times more powerful than compensation in predicting a company’s attrition rate compared with its industry.
An organization’s leadership exerts tremendous influence over culture, playing a pivotal role in how it is shaped, developed, and reinforced within the organization.
If an organization’s culture is toxic, its leadership will be toxic (and vice versa), creating a toxic work environment where disengagement and attrition become a problem and where leadership is either unaware of the problem or unwilling to fix it.
With leadership playing such an important role in shaping and reinforcing organizational culture, how can we ensure we are leading in ways that are positive and that positively reinforce culture?
By practicing servant leadership.
When leaders take the servant leadership approach, they maximize the positive impact their leadership can have on the team.
The impact of servant leadership in an organization can be seen in employees’ performance, commitment to their work, and their level of trust in leadership. Servant leaders demonstrate care toward employees, keep them motivated, and help them feel psychologically safe, resulting in these positive impacts.
This article will examine the positive impacts servant leadership has in an organization.
The Impact of Leadership on Culture
Culture both impacts and is impacted by leaders, who develop, shape, and influence an organization’s culture over time. In fact, leaders impact culture more than any other factor, which means they impact the employee experience more than any other factor.
Because leaders play such an essential role in how workplace culture develops in an organization, how it is reinforced, and how it affects their team members, a leader’s ability to convey cultural norms and facilitate cultural alignment among team members is crucial for any organization’s long-term success.
Workplace culture impacts employees in both positive and negative ways. It can determine how engaged employees are, how well they get along with and collaborate with their co-workers, how well they perform, and how likely they are to stay.
Cultural norms in the workplace are modeled by leadership, guide employees toward acceptable actions and behaviors, and unite employees with a shared sense of purpose that helps them commit to their work and consistently perform well.
They also play an important role in keeping the work environment functioning harmoniously, which is necessary for high retention.
More than any other leadership style, servant leadership provides the best approach to managing culture and managing people because it helps leaders reinforce culture in authentic, positive ways that generate employee buy-in, boost performance, strengthen commitment, and increase psychological safety.
Servant leaders put people first, emphasize relationships over results, and demonstrate care for employees. This shows employees that leadership is truly invested in their success.
Servant leaders treat employees in ways that make work a less stressful experience for them so that they can perform better.
Many in management may still doubt the prevalence of work stress and the long-term impact of high stress on their organizations and team members, but the statistics are alarming.
Statistics have shown that around 80 percent of workers in the US say they experience work stress, half of those workers say the stress negatively impacts their behavior, and more than three out of four say the stress results in fatigue, headaches, and poor sleep.
People who experience persistently moderate or high levels of stressful life events over a number of years have a 50 percent higher mortality rate.
Servant leaders provide a great deal of support to team members that helps them cut down on work stress and remove obstacles to doing great work, making it much easier for them to meet and even exceed performance expectations without doing harm to their mental and physical well-being.
Servant leaders build teams that are deeply committed to the organization’s vision by interacting with employees in ways that build intrinsic motivation.
We can look to those three motivators—autonomy, mastery, and purpose—Daniel Pink discussed in his book Drive for some insight into how servant leaders go about inspiring this deep commitment.
Autonomy builds commitment in several ways: it meets employees’ need to work in self-directed ways, making them more satisfied in their work, and helps them take accountability.
It also helps leaders demonstrate to employees that they are trusted, and they will return that trust.
Servant leaders give their team members the tools they need to work with autonomy, which helps them forge strong, trust-based relationships with them. At the same time, it encourages them to take ownership of their roles.
Team members develop this deeper commitment to their work when their leaders help them see the connections between their day-to-day job duties and a higher purpose.
Having a job where the work is purposeful and has a deeper meaning beyond daily tasks can keep employees motivated. Seeing the impact of the meaningful work they do is just as important for keeping them motivated.
To gain a deeper understanding of this, we can look to Public Service Motivation (PSM), a theory that emphasizes the role of self-determined motivation in job performance. PSM can help employees build connections between the work they do and the positive impacts that work has on the greater good.
Research has found that when leaders emphasize the importance of serving others in their approach to leadership (through acting as role models and serving others themselves), it enhances the performance of those they lead.
The servant leader’s emphasis on employees’ development helps fulfill those three basic psychological needs outlined in Drive, particularly the great motivator “mastery.”
Employees need to feel that they are growing. They need to feel highly competent in the work they do to engage. They need to feel that they are not only building experience, but new skills and knowledge as well to stay motivated.
The servant leader’s attentive focus and commitment to the growth of individuals lets team members know they have a future in the organization and that leadership is invested in them.
One of the most important ways servant leaders build the sort of influence that persuades others to follow them because they want to (not because they have to) is by creating and sustaining strong connections with team members that are rooted in trust and that meet employees’ need for psychological safety.
The Center for Creative Leadership defines psychological safety as “… the belief that you won’t be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes. At work, it’s a shared expectation held by members of a team that teammates will not embarrass, reject, or punish them for sharing ideas, taking risks, or soliciting feedback.”
The result of working in a high-trust environment is a high level of psychological safety, and this creates a sense of belonging that keeps employees united toward achieving a shared goal.
When employees feel psychologically safe, they engage more with their work and their co-workers. It can impact everything from innovation to retention in an organization.
Servant leaders build trust and forge authentic connections with team members by honing their emotional intelligence and leading with self-awareness, compassion, honesty, and transparency.
Matt Tenney is an active CEO who aspires to create the best workplace culture in the world. Matt is also the author of Serve To Be Great: Leadership Lessons from a Prison, a Monastery, and a Boardroom, and The Mindfulness Edge: How to Rewire Your Brain for Leadership and Personal Excellence. Matt is frequently invited to present keynote speeches at leadership conferences and meetings. His TEDx Talk has been viewed over 1,000,000 times since January, 2020.