A senior leader recently asked me, “Isn’t servant-leadership just having the leader do the crappy work?”
The answer is a complicated — maybe.
If there is a task that needs to get done and the best way for the leader to help the team is for the leader to do it, then yes that is servant-leadership regardless of whether the work is unappealing or rewarding.
Being a servant-leader is about having the intention to serve and putting the needs of the team first. It is not just a specific list of things that a leader does, like grabbing the least appealing work. As a servant-leader, it is important to holistically assess the right way to serve the team and there are 3 key techniques that you can use to doing that:
Put other people’s opinion first. As a leader, there are 2 phenomenon you need to be aware of: first, people will often tell you what you want to hear. Second, your opinion (also known as the HiPPO: highest paid person’s opinion) will carry a lot of weight and can shift other people’s opinions unconsciously. As a result, it is important to create an open environment, so that people share their opinions — an important way to do this is by withholding your own opinion until others have shared theirs.
In the example where a leader is trying to help by taking on unappealing work, it is critical to understand: unappealing to whom? A servant-leader puts their own assumptions and opinions secondary and understands what matters to the individuals on the team. It is possible that a task that the leader sees as unappealing might actually be something a member of the team would enjoy or that could be a perfect growth opportunity? A servant-leader lets the individuals on the team decide if the work is unappealing or not.
Withholding your own opinion until you have heard how the team feels is critical to be sure you hear true feelings of the team. While you will certainly have an opinion, it important that you hold it back until you have learned where the team stands.
Be curious. A servant-leader should also be curious and seek to learn. Ultimately, curiosity comes from a place of humility. When asking what other people think it should be with a desire to truly understand and with the assumption that members of the team may have information that you do not.
A servant-leader should be curious about what will help the team the most. You should listen to what challenges the team is facing and where they are struggling and see where you can best serve the team. It may appear that if there is unappealing work, taking care of that for the team would be a good way for you to save the team from having to do it, but asking questions and being open will help you understand if that is really the help that the team needs.
Create space. As a leader, you have likely gotten to where you are by having all the right answers and it is tempting when people are paused or thinking to chime in with the “right” answer to help them out. Often, the best way to help the team is to allow the team to own the situation and the work and to give them enough time and space to come up with their own solution. When the team decides on its own what needs to be done and how the leader can best support them, they have greater ownership of the decision. The goal is for the team to be accountable and to have ownership over their plan and not for the servant-leader to impose a solution. This does not mean that the servant-leader does not ask questions from a place of curiosity to help the team test their proposal.
These three techniques don’t just play out when the leader is looking for ways to help the team, they are critical in every interaction a leader has. I recently overheard a conversation between a leader of a team (I will call him Harold) and a designer (Diane) a few levels beneath Harold on the org chart:
Harold asked, “Hey, What did you think about those marketing consultants?”
Diane looked up from her computer and started to formulate a reply, “I…”
Harold interjected, “Pretty good right? I mean they really covered everything we need them to.” He continued to list what he liked about the presentation and why he was happy with the contractors.
At some point Diane was able to respond, “Yeah, they were pretty good.”
Harold agreed, “Of course, this will be great. Thanks.”
In this conversation Harold missed a great opportunity to connect with Diane and also to learn how she experienced the meeting with the consultants. It is possible that Diane agreed with Harold, but he will never know that from how the conversation unfolded. By the time Diane responded, she was well aware of what Harold thought and contradicting Harold would have required taking a risk. Leaders that behave this way will argue, “people should be strong in their opinions regardless of what I think. They should feel safe expressing their opinions no matter what.” It would be great to work in an office environment with a level of psychological safety where that is true, but it is often not the case. It is the leaders job to help others express their opinions and to make them feel safe. You make someone feel safe by being curious and creating space, and that their thoughts are valued. In my experience, leaders that feel that way are not creating the psychological safety that is required.
Harold started with a question, but it was a rhetorical one. There are many forms of questions that do not show curiosity. Questions that end in “right” tend to be leading questions searching for agreement as are questions that begin with “Don’t you think…” Leaders that use these sorts of questions are not coming from a place of curiosity, but rather are trying to assert their own point of view. Questions require the right intention to be valuable, the leader must want to learn something they do not already know. And, if the purpose is to learn, Harold should have kept asking open ended questions to truly understand what Diane had thought about the contractors.
Finally, Harold left no space for Diane. Harold should have paused to let Diane think and respond. Servant-leaders give plenty of space. In the busy and often dizzying pace of an office the greatest gift you can give is a pause. Many leaders will often fill any empty space on their own as they rush to share their own thoughts. When a Harold started the conversation with Diane she was in the midst of work and talking to a leader can be a stressful situation. Harold should have given her a moment to compose herself and formulate a thoughtful response. This is important advice not only in brief on off conversations but especially in larger meetings. If you are one of the most senior people in the room and you are the one talking the most, you are not acting as a servant-leader.
Ultimately, servant-leadership is about having a strong intention to support and serve the team and performing actions and behaving in a way that shows the openness and curiosity to deliver on that intention. Putting other people’s opinions first, being curious and creating space are 3 ways that a leader can match their actions to that intention.