When you’re a leader you are merely overhead unless you’re bringing out the best in your employees. Unfortunately, many leaders lose sight of this. Power can cause leaders to become overly obsessed with outcomes and control, and, therefore, treat their employees as means to an end. There is fear of not hitting targets, fear of losing bonuses, fear of failing and, therefore people stop feeling positive emotions and their drive to experiment and learn is suppressed.
Take for example a Company I worked with a few years ago. The engagement of its employees, who manufactured car parts, was dropping while management was becoming increasingly metric-driven in an effort to reduce costs and improve production times. Each week, managers held weekly performance debriefs with employees and went through a list of problems, complaints, and errors with a clipboard and pen. This was not inspiring on any level, to either party. And, eventually, the employees, many of whom had worked for the company for decades, became resentful.
This type of top-down leadership is outdated, and, more importantly, counterproductive. By focusing too much on control and end goals, and not enough on their people, leaders are making it more difficult to achieve their own desired outcomes. The key, then, is to help people feel purposeful, motivated, and energized so they can bring their best selves to work.
There are several ways to do this, and many books written about the subject. But one of the best ways is to adopt the humble mind-set of a servant leader. Servant leaders view their key role as serving employees as they explore and grow, providing tangible and emotional support as they do so.
To put it bluntly, servant-leaders have the humility, courage, and insight to admit that they can benefit from the expertise of others who have less power than them. They actively seek the ideas and unique contributions of the employees that they serve. This is how servant leaders create a culture of learning, and an atmosphere that encourages employees to become the very best they can.
Humility and/or servant leadership does not imply that leaders have low self-esteem or take on an attitude of servility. Instead, servant leadership emphasizes that the responsibility of a leader is to increase the ownership, autonomy, and responsibility of employees and encourage them to think for themselves and try out their own ideas.
It sounds deceivingly simple, but rather than telling employees how to do their jobs better, start by asking them how you can help them do their jobs better. The effects of this approach can be powerful.
Consider the manufacturing business I mentioned previously. Once its traditional model was disrupted by a competitor taking their employees, the management team decided that things needed to change. The company needed to compete on product quality, but in order to do so, they needed the support of their employees who built the product. And, they needed ideas that could make the company more competitive.
After meeting with an outside consultant and some training, the management team tried a new format for its weekly performance meetings with the employees.
Instead of nit-picking problems, each manager was trained to simply ask their employees, “How can I help you do your job to the best of your ability?” There was huge skepticism at the beginning, as you can imagine. Employees dislike of managers was high, and trust was low. But as managers kept asking “How can I help you do your job to the best of your ability?” some employees started to offer suggestions.
Small changes created a virtuous cycle. As the employees received credit for their ideas and saw them put into place, they grew more willing to offer more ideas, which made the managers more impressed and more respectful, which increased the employee’s willingness to give ideas, and so on. Managers learned that some of the so-called “mistakes” that employees were making were innovations they had created to streamline processes and produce quality products. These innovations helped the company deliver quality products within the production schedule.
What it comes down to is this: employees who do the actual work of your organization often know better than you how to do a great job. Respecting their ideas and encouraging them to try new approaches to improve work, encourages employees to bring more of themselves to work.