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How to Practice Servant Leadership in the Digital Workplace

November 22, 2021 Leadership
Kaya Ismail
By Kaya Ismail

Servant leadership, a term coined by Robert K. Greenleaf in the 1970s, is "an ethical approach to achieving personal and organizational goals that begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve others."

It starts from selflessness, rather than selfishness. The idea is that this mindset creates leaders who can achieve more success while creating happier employees. 

The concept has been adopted by many companies, including Zappos and Nordstrom, who have found this approach to be an effective way to develop strong teams. And in the remote and hybrid workplace, servant leadership can be a valuable asset.

A Closer Look at Servant Leaders

Before we dive into what it means for the workplace, let's clear the air on what it is not.

"When some people hear the phrase servant leadership, they get confused," said Ken Blanchard, a bestselling author and chief spiritual officer at Escondido, Calif.-based Ken Blanchard Companies. "They think it sounds like inmates running the prison, managers trying to please everyone, or some kind of religious movement. They think you can't lead and serve at the same time."

That's why it's important to remember the leadership component to servant leadership. That's especially true in the remote and hybrid workplace.

"Servant leadership is all about making the remote workplace feel more connected by building community," said Michele Reister, vice president of marketing at Triangle Park, NC.-based Zaloni, a data operations software company. "In the remote workplace, this can be done in many ways, but I look at it through the framework of people, process and technology."

Here's a closer look at Reister's framework in action:

  • People: Servant leaders bolster employee interactions across the company. They encourage cross-functional collaboration and facilitate introductions and conversations with co-workers across the organization.
  • Process: In the remote workplace, servant leaders focus on the continuity and productivity of teams by creating and streamlining processes that empower employees to make their own decisions.
  • Technology: Effective collaboration and communication becomes more challenging when remote. Servant leaders ensure employees have the tools necessary to do their job. 

Related Article: Remote Leadership: What Style Suits You?

Focus on Employees and Help Them Find Meaning

An effective servant leader ensures employees find meaning in their work. "In a remote workplace where employees may feel more disconnected from the company than usual, it's critical they understand why their work matters," Reister said.

Good servant leaders help employees look beyond the day to day and see the big picture to understand their impact on larger company goals. In fact, Nancy Bucher, senior vice president of human resources at Bannockburn, Ill.-based IT consulting company Netrix, said true servant leaders are committed to employee growth.

"It's imperative to keep that in focus, and servant leaders should let their teams know you're there to help them grow and succeed," she said.

Related Article: How Workplace Leadership Shifted in Response to COVID-19

The Makings of a Servant Leader

When it comes to an effective servant leader, there are two main aspects that adapt well to the hybrid and remote workplace, Blanchard said. They are:

  • Strategic aspect: Good leadership starts with a visionary role, where a leader shares the organization's compelling vision that tells people the purpose, picture of the future, and guiding values.
  • Servant aspect: The servant aspect implies working for your people and doing everything that's in the leader's power to help team members accomplish their goals and solve problems. 

Blanchard also said a key part of being an effective servant leader is constantly staying in touch with people by meeting one on one, sharing thoughts, agreeing on goals and discussing performance. But how do you do that in the remote workplace, and how does this style of leadership translate to the new ways many employees are working?

Related Article: Take a Systems Leadership Approach to Change

Servant Leadership in the Remote Workplace

COVID-19 represented a clear turning point for companies. Remote work went from a luxury to a necessity, and leaders needed to restructure their leadership styles. In some ways, servant leadership adapts perfectly to the remote and hybrid workplace, Blanchard said.

"I can meet with the person right away for a face-to-face Zoom meeting to give them a specific, timely praising," he said, for example. "Similarly, if someone lets me know they have a concern or need a bit of encouragement, they can schedule a private Zoom meeting where we can talk about their specific struggle, and I can help point them in the right direction. We don't have to wait for a meeting room to open up or for the other person to plan a trip or even drive to the office."

Employee retention is another place where servant leaders can shine in the remote and hybrid workplace. "With new opportunities for employees to work from anywhere, new jobs are suddenly accessible when they weren't before due to location restrictions," Reister said. "Good servant leaders can make a big difference in retaining talent."

The bottom line is, in a remote workplace where immediate access to answers or help isn't always available, leaders who embrace a servant leader approach ensure employees are well positioned to solve their own problems and feel empowered to do so.

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