Employee turnover isn’t fun to talk about. Probably because of the unpleasant fact that if you are in a leadership position, you may be at least partially at fault. One study found that “relationships with supervisors” was the third leading reason for voluntary employee departures. Lack of recognition and few professional development opportunities also topped the list.
So what can you do to address retention problems? Adopting servant leadership can be an important part of the solution. After all, servant leadership is based on the foundational idea that learning to serve those around you helps them achieve their greatest potential. Who wouldn’t want to work for a boss like that?
Servant Leaders Build Avenues for Better Communication
If your team members were to answer honestly, what would they say is their biggest complaint about your organization's leadership? If nationwide trends are any indication, communication would be a common answer. One survey found that not giving clear directions, not taking time to meet with employees, and not providing constructive criticism were among the top 10 employee complaints about leaders.
A number of these complaints can stem from traditional command-and-control leadership structures, which are based on values like hierarchy, class systems, and exclusion and privilege. After all, these characteristics determine how we talk to and interact with each other. In a hierarchical system, the importance of relationships is minimized in favor of getting results, so it’s hardly surprising that communication might break down.
Edgar H. Schein, a renowned organizational psychologist with a career spanning a half-century, and Peter A. Schein, an expert on organizational development with more than 25 years of management experience, explain that traditional 20th century management prescribes a “transactional set of relationships among designated roles that unwittingly creates conditions of low openness, and low trust and can, therefore, make truly effective leadership difficult.” Leaders become alienated from their team members in these types of relationships, which the Scheins call “Level 1”in their book, Humble Leadership. Meanwhile, “Level 2” relationships are “intimately tied to a more personal, trusting and open culture built on more personal intragroup and intergroup relationships.”
Like the Schein’s concept of humble leadership, servant leadership offers avenues to improving communication by emphasizing the equal importance of relationships and results.
Servant leadership emphasizes aspects of the New Leadership Paradigm like egalitarianism, collaboration, treating everyone as a leader, and sharing information openly. In systems like these, leadership expert Ken Blanchard writes, the servant leader’s role is to collaborate with the team to set the vision and give clear direction, and then shift “to a service mindset for the task of implementation.” In other words, the leader sets the vision and then sets about serving the team that makes it happen. This sets the stage for a very different type of communication—one that values clear goals, welcomes one-on-ones, and demands useful feedback.
Servant Leadership Recognizes Success, Encourages Growth
Harvard researchers have found that employees who enjoy their work, play to their strengths, and continuously gain skills and experiences that will advance their careers are about 33 percent more likely to stay in their jobs. That’s probably part of the reason why U.S. companies shelled out more than $70.6 billion on formal employee training programs in 2016, according to the Training Industry Report. However, a servant leadership approach goes a step forward by ingraining those three pillars of employee retention into workplace cultures. Servant leaders help team members realize their greatest potential. Servant leaders also recognize and reward their team members’ growth at every turn.
Beverly Kaye, the legendary employee engagement expert and founder of Career System International, and co-author Julie Winkle Giulioni reiterate in their book, Help Them Grow or Watch Them Go, that organizations ignore employee development at their own peril. Some employees will resign to seek opportunities elsewhere. Others will resign and patch together a handful of projects as a freelancer. Even worse, others “stay but withdraw their engagement, motivation, and enthusiasm for the work.” Each scenario results in a net loss for businesses.
So how can managers recognize and reward team members’ growth? Blanchard writes that servant leaders can accomplish that through performance planning, day-to-day coaching, and performance evaluation. “Meeting with direct reports one-on-one is an excellent way for servant leaders to create and sustain good relationships and build trust in the workplace,” Blanchard writes. In their book, Help Them Grow or Watch Them Go, Kaye and Winkle Giulioni outline a formula that servant leaders can use to have productive conversations about career development with employees:
- Hindsight conversations. Help employees look within “to determine who they are, where they’ve been, what they love, and where they excel,”
- Foresight conversations. Keep employees focused on the future, noting “changes, trends, and the ever-evolving big picture” on the horizon.
- Leveraging insights. Help employees see their place in the organization, as well as opportunities to grow; identify “unique experiences and fodder for development.”
Another key element of the equation is “growing with the flow.” That calls for deviation from the professional development norm: a lengthy annual conversation about career goals and aspirations. Both employees and managers usually dread them. Growing with the flow means breaking up that long conversation and sprinkling it into everyday conversation along the way. Kaye and Winkle Giulioni write, “Growing with the flow means development isn’t limited to scheduled meetings and is less burdensome in many ways. It can be quick—as short as one or two minutes. It can be casual—right on the shop floor or hanging over a cubicle wall. It can be completely unplanned—no notes or agendas to contend with:” These types of check-in conversations can be especially useful for millennials, who prefer continuous feedback from leaders.
In addition to keeping opportunities for growth top-of-mind, these check-ins also provide a great opportunity to recognize and applaud team members for their efforts. Blanchard writes, “When a servant leader takes the time to connect with a direct report, it lets that person know their work is important and they are a valued member of the team. One-on-one conversations are the foundation for strong, productive relationships that align people with each other and with the organization in a satisfying, meaningful way.”
In the end, the core function of servant leadership—to help those around you achieve their greatest potential—make it a great employee retention tool.
Servant Leadership Fosters a Sense of Community in the Workplace
Have you noticed employees who don’t speak up in meetings? How about employees who eat lunch by themselves and don’t often socialize with team members? You might chalk this up to introversion, but it could be the result of employees feeling left out or excluded from the team. This can have a detrimental impact on workplace culture—and employee retention.
Research shows that employees who feel excluded are more likely to “act out” in subtle ways that can contribute to a toxic workplace culture. These behaviors can include undermining coworkers, concealing important information, and fudging facts. Of course, not every quiet team member acts out in these ways. But this underscores the importance of forging a sense of community in the workplace—and servant leadership can help. How can managers utilize servant leadership to encourage community? One way is through setting a clear vision, values, and goals with the team. This not only contributes to a better functioning team, but also to the team’s cohesion and sense of community.
Shared values and a compelling vision of the future are both important aspects of servant leadership—and this can foster cohesiveness. In Servant Leadership in Action, Blanchard cites the phrase “a river without banks is a large puddle.” It’s the banks, he continues, the allow the river to flow and give it direction. “Leadership is about going somewhere; it’s not about wandering around aimlessly. If people don’t have a compelling vision to serve, the only thing they have to serve is their own self-interest,” Blanchard writes.
Why is vision important to community? Howard J. Ross, one of the world’s seminal thought leaders on identifying and addressing unconscious bias, and behavioral scientist John Robert Tartaglione explain this through the concept of “bridging” in their book, Our Search For Belonging. “Bridging” is when people form connections in diverse groups, like work environments. Bridging usually occurs as a result of some perceived shared interest or goal that creates something larger or more important than the differences that exist between the bridging parties, and most often includes some expectation of general reciprocity—”If I’m there for you, I expect that you’ll be there for me.” Again, a core aspect of servant leadership is to define unifying values and goals; not only does this build trust through bridging, it also creates a much more effective team.
Trust can be a foundational component of cohesiveness, and it’s important to note that it goes both ways. Team members need to trust each other and the leadership, and the leadership has to trust team members. This can mean giving the team the freedom to deviate from written rules and procedures at times, as long as they are still adhering to organizational values. Colleen Barrett, president emeritus of Southwest Airlines, describes her method for building trust and cohesion in Servant Leadership in Action: making each team member realize that he or she has potential to be a leader. She writes, “When our people realize they can be trusted and they’re not going to get called to the carpet because they bend or break a rule while taking care of a customer, that’s when they want to do their best.”
The Final Word on Servant Leadership and High Employee Turnover
Servant leadership can improve employee turnover. First, take an honest look at why employees are leaving. There’s a good chance it has something to do with how leaders value and communicate with employees. Leveraging characteristics of the New Leadership Paradigm, a servant leader can help to address these underlying causes of turnover. By incorporating professional growth into our workplace culture, this approach can also address another common reason for employee turnover: lack of professional development opportunities. Finally, by fostering workplace cohesion, servant leaders can make all employees feel valued and included, and eliminate the potential for isolation and alienation that contribute to a toxic workplace culture. In the end, servant leadership can reduce employee turnover by rethinking—and improving—the relationships between leaders and team members.