Servant Leadership, Enable & Empower

In a sea of workplaces and with the workforce continuing to change and evolve drastically, many business leaders are rethinking (as they should be) their strategies and approaches to best practices in leadership. According to the U.S. Labor Department, as of August 2023, 30.5 million workers had resigned from their jobs. Although this figure is down from 50 million workers quitting in 2022, employees are unhappy. Savvy leaders are questioning current methods as they see the negative impact of traditional top-down management styles.

Many times, it pays to go back to basics. What makes a human being tick? What is at the fundamental core of what motivates people to do what they do? If we want to improve and grow our employees, we need a place to start. Humans are driven by a desire for growth and fulfillment through autonomy, competence, and connection.

If we are talking about autonomy, then “Empowerment” is the buzzword or idea often thrown around in the business world. We all want our employees to be EMPOWERED and even tell them they are. But are they really? Do we actually set up our employees for success? Employees may be told they are empowered and even feel it, but if they aren’t given the support and resources needed, that empowerment is just another philosophical idea thrown around loosely.

So, how exactly do we truly empower our employees? Enter Servant Leadership. Servant Leadership is a term that was coined in a short essay by Robert Greenleaf in 1970. It means enabling and empowering employees at all levels and creating an environment where employees can grow, flourish, and perform at their best. And let’s face it, we all want our employees performing at their best. It’s good for our customers, helps with innovation, and is even good for the bottom line. And you know what, it’s also beneficial for our employees. On average, people spend almost a quarter of their lives working, and that is just actual working hours. That doesn’t include time spent in preparation, commuting, and overtime. As Confucius wisely stated, “Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life.” Sounds like good advice to me! Who wants to go to work each day feeling dread and mundane? The less work feels like work, the happier we are apt to be.

So, you tell me that Servant Leadership is a practical approach to hitting this sweet spot. Tell me more! Well, first, let’s take a look at what it looks like in organizations where setting employees up for success is not the goal. Traditionally, managers withhold information and resources at top levels and only disseminate them to lower levels on a “need-to-know” or “need-to-have” basis. Managers have also offered limited training so that their team members do not become so qualified to take their jobs. “We can’t have you know too much! You might take my job!” In turn, the amount of support given by management is mixed.

So, it is time to ensure employees feel competent in their position. Let’s relax this vice-like grip on information and resources. Try riding a bike that is missing a tire. You won’t get very far! Suppose an employee has insufficient, outdated, or irrelevant information. There is no doubt that performance will be compromised. When employees feel confident that they have the necessary information to do a good job, they feel they have more control over their work. Updated, vital information can be shared during daily meetings or through many other communication platforms that keep employees up-to-date and in the know.

Sharing that information alone is not enough. It is in the way that information is communicated that matters. “The words ‘information’ and ‘communication’ are often used interchangeably, but they are significantly different. Information is giving out; communication is getting through,” says American journalist Harris. Pay attention to the clarity of your words or message, tone, and body language, and check for understanding. Allow your employees to ask questions and clarify points they don’t understand. This allows for clear expectations to be set for both employees and leaders. And, being clear about expectations is important for employee well-being and their ability to be successful.

Enabling employees also requires us to provide them with the correct tools to do their job. This includes a proper work environment (whether in the office or working remotely), furniture, technology (including a stable internet connection and access to all programs and applications), office supplies, job aids, and a sufficient inventory of those supplies needed to do the work required. It is important for a manager to check inventories for all critical supplies regularly to ensure they are always there when they are needed. Remember, it is difficult to dig a hole without a shovel!

What else do your employees need?? Training! Of course, we think of the initial training when they first step into a role. Yes, that is important. However, we also need to consider ongoing training to keep employees up-to-date with new processes, technology, and ways to get work done. The initial training employees receive when they begin their jobs is insufficient to set them up for success. According to research, people forget 50% of information within one hour, 70% within 24 hours, and 90% within a week. If ongoing training is not conducted, most of what they learned will be lost over time if it is not utilized. If you don’t use it, you lose it. This ongoing training should consist of 60% on-the-job training, 20% from feedback, and 20% from formal training. This highlights the importance of managers being in the business and operation to observe and give feedback to their employees. It is important to note that formal training does not require employees to be in a classroom or online. It can be role-playing, problem-based scenarios, sharing stories or customer feedback, or discussing how to handle various situations.

Now that your employees are equipped with the tools and knowledge needed for a job well done, how do we encourage that to happen? Support from leadership allows employees to feel they can take risks and make decisions. Leaders feel more responsible for those they lead when a consistent connection is formed between management and employees. Employees feel the care and protection from their leaders and are willing to do more for the company. Research carried out by McKinsey shows that well-connected teams can increase their productivity by 20 to 25%.

Now that our employees are set up for success, we can now get real about empowerment.

You’ve given your employees the information, tools, and training to do the job; now give them permission to use them! This means giving them some or all control over their work, interactions, and customers. Micromanaging does not work. Create an environment that allows your employees to be who they are. There is a reason that you hired them! Let them shine. Empowered employees feel important, valued, and part of the team. And guess what? Employees who feel like this want to perform at an even higher level and give even more of themselves. This autonomy gives them a sense of ownership and pride in their role.

To truly empower our people, we need to do more than just unleash them. We have to nurture this belief in themselves. Remember, they might not get everything right as they begin making decisions and working independently. However, when they take a risk or make a decision, we must praise this attitude and effort. When an employee asks a question, allow them to offer their own solution before you give yours. And when mistakes do happen, because they will, do not overreact. This discourages the employee from trying again in the future. When employees are in failure mode or feel they haven’t risen to the occasion, they won’t be in a state of mind to do their best work. (Simon Sinek, Leaders Eat Last, pg. 182.)

I leave you with this: Does your team or employees have what they need to succeed? Have you enabled and empowered your employees to do their work with pride and positivity? Have you created an environment that allows your employees to grow and flourish? A study by the University of Leicester suggests that employees who have clear expectations, are trained correctly, and are given control over how work gets done have a high well-being. You can create an innovative, thriving environment in today’s business world by being a servant leader. Remember the old adage: You give a man to fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime. Now it’s time to go to the sea and get to work!

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