There are myriad ways a manager can help their team members work toward career success, but a recent study suggests a specific kind of leader is most effective during pandemic times: a servant leader. The term describes the type of worker who actively diminishes stress and engages the attention of those who directly report to them. Basically, servant leaders are a mix of a guidance counselor, a community advocate, and a real-life superhero—and during these pandemic times, they’re especially adept at improving well-being for employees, professionally and personally.
“Business leaders who are attentive to employees’ emotional needs and unite them behind a common purpose made a positive difference and helped workers stay engaged at work and contribute to their communities,” writes study author Jia (Jasmine) Hu, PhD, associate professor of management and human resources at The Ohio State University’s Fisher College of Business. And according to the research, published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, you can learn to be one.
“If the shift to servant leader is not genuinely desired, employees will detect that the changes are more of a ploy than the result of personal concern and interest.” —clinical psychologist Carla Marie Manly, PhD
While the concept of servant leadership dates back to 1970 essay by author Robert K. Greenleaf, right now, when so many workers face unprecedented levels of stress, we need even more of this effective type of manager in our ranks—so it’s great that the style can be learned. But before deciding to shift your leadership style, clinical psychologist Carla Manly, PhD, says to first ask yourself why you want to because, well, it can be taxing on the self. And when the pursuit isn’t earnestly committed to, it’s less likely to prove effective.
“If the shift to servant leader is not genuinely desired, employees will detect that the changes are more of a ploy than the result of personal concern and interest,” Dr. Manly says. “A true servant leader sincerely desires to take a humanistic approach in the workplace—an approach that factors in employees’ individual emotional needs, cohesive work goals, and proactive community engagement.” So, just do a gut check before you dive right in.
Below, learn five ways to become a servant leader without burning yourself out in the process.
5 ways to become an effective servant leader, during the pandemic or not
1. Understand the needs and goals of your direct reports
You know that invigorating feeling when someone expresses genuine interest in your goals? Career coach Maggie Mistal says you can shine that same spotlight on those who report directly to you. Organize consistent meetings with your employees during which you ask them how they’re doing on a personal and work level, offering to help remove barriers to their professional pursuits, and expressing that you’re there for them more broadly.
“Connecting with employees individually is an important element of the servant leadership role,” says Dr. Manly. “For small businesses, the manager may be able to connect with each employee once or twice a week at a dedicated time to assess and honor each employee’s emotional needs. Managers with a large staff may find it more suitable to meet in small teams or invite the participation of HR staff. Regardless, the goal is to nurture a genuine connection that attends to the employees’ emotional needs.”
2. Listen more, talk less
“In meetings, do less talking and more listening,” says Mistal. “Ask your staff to share their thoughts about what’s happening and what they’d like to do about it or see done about it.” Again, this really comes back to what you’d want from your own boss. Wouldn’t you want them to listen to you? To actively ask you what could make your stress levels diminish?
3. Stand up for those who work for you
In toxic work environments, everyone is out for themselves. Servant leaders break that paradigm by standing up for their direct reports. “Servant leaders help pick their workers back up when they fall. They don’t beat them up more or blame them,” says Mistal. If you’re on their side, you will empower them to do the work it takes to meet your expectations.
“Especially during the pandemic, employees often fear that they are not achieving enough, producing enough, or are good enough. When fear takes the stage, employees are likely to be far more anxious, stressed, and disengaged at work,” says Dr. Manly.
4. Express your emotions
“Managers who normalize emotional needs set the stage for employees to know that it is safe to share their own concerns,” says Dr. Manly. “Although a manager will want to take care to not unload on staff, an occasional ‘I have struggled with that issue, too’ can be highly connective and normalizing.” After all, everyone you work with and for is a human being, just like you.
5. Create common goals that make workers feel less alone
The hallmark quality of the servant leader is to be a community-builder, and accomplishing shared goals is what really brings people together. “Servant leaders tend to unite their team by creating a common goal that feels solid and true. Whether the goal is to be the top financial performer, the most positive staff, or a team that feels like family, having a united purpose feeds connective energy,” says Dr. Manly. Victory always feels better when you’re celebrating with your co-victors, after all.
How to protect your own mental health when you’re a servant leader
Being there for your employees doesn’t mean you should strip away your boundaries and let them call you anytime. It also doesn’t mean you stand up for them no matter what. And it definitely doesn’t mean that you skip out on delegating tasks because you don’t want to burden anyone.
To keep yourself from slipping into those behaviors, Dr. Manly recommends planning out your managerial goals on a monthly basis and sticking to them. “Create a monthly servant leader agenda that you would like to honor. Assess your progress and your own mental, physical, and emotional state at the end of every week. If you feel as if your goals are too lofty or leading to exhaustion, non-judgmentally shift your goals to create a lighter load,” she says. Also make sure that you’re taking time for your own self care. With servant leadership, you want to lead by example—so strive to be someone you would look up to, someone who takes care of themselves.
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