Why Does Servant Leadership Create Employee Engagement?

If you search Google for “Employee Engagement,” you will get more than 26 million hits. And yet, for all the words written and speeches given, Employee Engagement numbers have not improved as much or as quickly as one might expect. Gallup, in its annual State of the American Workforce report, has been tracking trends in Employee Engagement since 2012. In 2016, Gallup found engagement ranging from a low of 25% (among transportation workers) to a high of 38% (among managers and executives). And those levels of engagement have not changed meaningfully since 2012, moving up only 2 to 4% points.

It’s not that companies are not interested or trying to improve employee engagement. Deloitte University Press survey found that:

  • “Organizational culture, engagement, and employee brand proposition remain top priorities in 2017; employee experience ranks as a major trend again this year.”
  • “Nearly 80% of executives rated employee experience very important or important, but only 22% reported that their companies were excellent at building a differentiated employee experience.”
  • “59% of respondents reported they were not ready or only somewhat ready to address the employee experience challenge.”

But what we’re doing just is not working. The traditional, top-down leadership and management model is not conducive to increasing employee engagement.

Most employee engagement research finds that, along with characteristics relative to the industry and company, there are five key drivers of employee engagement: meaningful work, supportive management, trust in leadership, positive work environment, and personal/professional growth. As reported by Forbes, a recent study by MSW Research and Dale Carnegie Training reaffirms the critical role of an employee’s relationship with his or her direct manager: “Although there are many factors that impact employee engagement, there are three key drivers: relationship with immediate supervisor, belief in senior leadership, and pride in working for the company.”

The servant leadership model may be a solution to employee engagement stagnation. We have already established that today’s high-growth companies are often firm adherents of the servant leadership model of management. So, it should not be surprising to learn that high growth companies also have a higher level of employee engagement, according to Gallup.

What is it about servant leadership that leads to more employee engagement? The key principles of servant leadership align directly with the drivers of employee engagement experienced by most companies.

The Cairnway Center for Service Leadership Excellence describes the foundations of servant leadership:

Three key Priorities

  1. Developing People
  2. Building a Trusting Team
  3. Achieving Results

Three Key Principles

  1. Serve First
  2. Persuade Don’t Sell
  3. Empower

Three Key Practices

  1. Listening
  2. Delegating
  3. Connecting to Mission

Understanding these foundations of servant leadership, it is easy to see why companies with servant leaders often have dramatically higher levels of employee engagement: those factors that are most important in creating employee engagement are the underpinnings of servant leadership.

Robert K, Greenleaf, widely identified as the founder of the Servant Leadership Model, said, “The servant leader is servant first… It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead. That person is sharply different from one who is a leader first.” The servant leadership model seems to show great promise for employee engagement, retention, and business growth and success. Proponents insist that anyone can learn to be a servant leader. Is it time your company tried it?

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