3 Leadership Styles to Build a Thriving Workplace Culture

by Maren Fox

January 16, 2019

The comprehensive Global Leadership Forecast 2018 report asked executives and HR professionals if the leadership at their organizations was of a high quality. Perhaps reflecting current attitudes toward leadership, neither group was particularly impressed.

According to the report, 42 percent of leaders said the quality of leadership was high, and just 30 percent of HR respondents answered the same. Taken at face value, that’s less than half of companies believing their leaders are getting the job done. With today’s organizations struggling with talent acquisition, retention, employee engagement, and creating a positive workplace culture, a more thoughtful approach to leadership can yield benefits throughout the business, even reaching out to the customers served by that business.

Every leader has the power to shape a workplace culture that enables employees—all employees—to thrive. Great workplaces make their employees feel valued, empowered, and heard. Characteristics of a thriving workplace culture include:

  • Trust: Employees feel safe and respected, and treat others with the same respect.

  • A sense of purpose: Employees feel their work has meaning personally, to the organization, to customers, and to the world.

  • The ability to contribute: Employees’ opinions and ideas are encouraged, valued, and considered.

How leaders bring out these feelings in their workers defines leadership style. Three styles in particular, highlighted here, give workplace culture a chance to flourish.

1. Servant leadership

The opening of Servant Leadership in Action: How You Can Achieve Great Relationships and Results, a compilation of essays from a variety of experts in the servant leadership space, doesn’t mince words. Editors Ken Blanchard and Renee Broadwell write, “The world is in desperate need of a different leadership role model. We all have seen the negative impact of self-serving leaders in every sector of our society. Why is that? Because these leaders have been conditioned to think of leadership only in terms of power and control.”

Servant leadership turns this “traditional” leadership model on its head. The core concept emphasizes that leaders should be serving their employees’ interests rather than employees existing just to fulfill their leaders’ requirements. Servant leadership boosts workplace culture by diminishing the “us versus them” mentality, building trust, and placing the focus on the people who make or break a company: the front-line employees. Blanchard writes, “The servant aspect of servant leadership is all about turning the hierarchy upside down and helping everyone throughout the organization develop great relationships, get great results, and, eventually, delight their customers.” Companies from Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen to Marriott International to Southwest Airlines to Starbucks have seen great success from adopting servant leadership.

2. Positive leadership

Employees at all sorts of companies complain about work. Although many people chalk this up to human nature, it often is also a sign that an organization lacks positivity. Positive leaders and companies effectively motivate their employees to go above and beyond through affirmative outcomes. Robert Quinn writes in The Positive Organization: Breaking Free from Conventional Cultures, Constraints, and Beliefs, “To flourish is to grow and thrive. To exceed expectations is to successfully do more than people expect you to do; it is to move toward excellence.”

By embracing positive leadership, managers and executives stop focusing on constraints and, instead, empower people to imagine the best possible outcomes. This psychology creates a sense of purpose in employees and motivates them to grow within and potentially beyond their roles—which benefits the entire organization. As Quinn writes in The Positive Organization, “Most authority figures do not understand how to imbue an organization with purpose. This means most organizations are highly vulnerable. Recognizing this blind spot could be a golden opportunity for you. You can use the ideas here to become a real leader.”

3. Humble leadership

Everyone in the organization brings a unique perspective and contribution to daily operations and the overall workplace culture. Humble leadership promotes the idea that conversations between leaders and employees must be two-way and that both parties must respect one another as equals. Through authentic inquiry, humble leaders bring everyone into the fold to solve complex problems and nurture relationships based on trust and compassion. Edgar and Peter Schein, authors of Humble Leadership: The Power of Relationships, Openness, and Trust, write, “As a manager, if you personize, you will minimize ‘subordination’ in order to emphasize collaboration, joint responsibility, and your own willingness to help your direct reports to succeed. … We don’t need to become friends and learn all about each other’s private lives, but we have to learn to be open and honest around work issues.”

When trust, rapport, and respect are established as the baseline for any conversation, the sky’s the limit on what employees can meaningfully contribute. Humble leadership recognizes the intrinsic value of each employee and makes sure each employee knows how valued they are.

These three leadership styles are rooted in trust, respect, and striving to think beyond the chain of command—a new leadership paradigm. Business leaders can be influential in creating a workplace culture in which people are bringing their talents, passions, and interests into every minute of their work. When this happens, something amazing follows: Employees start treating each other and customers with the same trust and respect. This evolving environment is more than a feel-good byproduct of smart leadership; it drives bottom-line results that are impossible for the organization to ignore.

Topics: Your Organization, Workplace Culture, Leadership

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