Most of us feel that we’re completely stretched to capacity at work and have nothing left to give. But according to a recent Gallup poll, 70% of the workforce is either “actively disengaged” or “not engaged,” meaning there are millions of professionals who have discretionary effort — effort they could give if they felt motivated and inspired. Gallup estimates that this disengagement costs the U.S. $450–$550 billion in lost productivity each year, which doesn’t even account for opportunity costs. When employees are busy and disengaged, businesses are missing out on cost-saving ideas and innovations that could be developed from the bottom up.
We believe that one of the ways managers can tap into this discretionary effort is the practice of service-based leadership.
Robert K. Greenleaf first introduced the concept of servant leadership to businesses in the mid-1900s. The two of us learned about this approach, branded as service-based leadership, in the United States Marine Corps. The basis of service-based leadership is prioritizing your team’s needs before your own. As Marine officers, we always ate last, ensuring others had food on their plates before ours were filled. During down time, we kept our teams busy with training opportunities so they could broaden their skills, which also curtailed complacency. When it was dark and cold in the field, we made a point of being present on the lines (not hiding out in a warm tent) to show our teams we were right there with them. Through our actions, we demonstrated that we were willing to go without food, free time, and comfort to ensure our people knew they were supported.
The result? Our teams felt cared for and valued, and they demonstrated their loyalty through their initiative and engagement. While we never used an employee survey to measure the impact of service-based leadership, anecdotally it was clear: A majority of our team members had the Marine Corps emblem tattooed on their bodies. This was a strong symbol of the deep connection people felt between themselves and the team they were a part of — a connection so strong that individuals wanted to maintain it for the rest of their lives.
When we left active duty for the business world, it was surprising to see how few managers knew about, and understood the merits of, service-based leadership. We met managers who regularly undermined their own efforts to build loyalty and connection on their teams. Rather than holding career discussions with their team members, they would do things such as flaunt the perks of their position, emphasizing the privileges associated with their role, which sent a signal that their team’s future wasn’t their priority.
If managers want to get the most out of every team member, they can adopt many of the Marine Corps’s service-based leadership practices. Understanding the concept isn’t enough; they must overcome the three common barriers that prevent managers from putting the needs of their employees first: awareness, time, and unhealthy competition.
Few managers are introduced to the concept of service-based leadership during their careers. Even business schools that tout leadership development rarely include it in their curricula. And when managers do learn about this approach, they often think it’s too simple to be effective. But at a fundamental level, it is a manager’s job to attend to employees’ needs. Communicating proactively, demonstrating empathy, and getting involved in team members’ goals can’t be delegated to HR. Managers need to know their team members on a personal level and understand their strengths, their goals, and what motivates them.
Even if managers are aware of the benefits of putting their employees’ needs before their own, the sheer pace of work often prevents them from being service-based leaders. Few managers feel they have the time to act on their good ideas about how to engage the team. They have to make an intentional effort to build service-based leadership into their work routines. They can start by scheduling 1–2 hours of space into their calendar each week for team engagement. It can begin with small actions — an agendaless call to discuss “what’s going on,” an impromptu invite for lunch or coffee, or an unscheduled visit to the shop floor or project space to see how the team’s doing.
When done well, service can save you time. We met a high school principal who walks the halls every morning to greet his teaching staff. If there are problems that need to be solved, he takes care of them by 9 AM, before they become time-consuming emergencies.
Too often, businesses put an emphasis on star individuals who “win” consistently, with little emphasis on social cohesion. This stands in the way of serving employees. When we worked with a small team of managers who were each earning more than $2 million a year, we were surprised how much they squabbled every month about who contributed most to the bottom line and how each of them would be compensated. This infighting was a serious barrier to collaborating and kept them from their more important work: taking care of their team members. Once the team streamlined its compensation structure to ensure it rewarded performance, capturing a more complete picture of contributions, the arguments disappeared, and team members had the energy and capacity to focus less on themselves and more on the interests of their company and their employees, which they had overlooked.
They made the conscious decision to start their meetings by talking about the organization first — topics including organization culture and employee training and development — before jumping into business topics such as financial performance, project updates, and staffing. When they started thinking more about how they could meet the needs of their team members, the tone and content of their discussions completely changed. Putting your team at the top of the list seems obvious, but unhealthy competition can easily become a distraction and a barrier to serving the needs of others.
Sometimes the language people use is a sign that there’s unhealthy competition in an organization: billable versus nonbillable time, operators versus overhead, and marketing versus engineers. Left unchecked, seemingly harmless words can steal attention from performance. Service-based leaders recognize that when there’s debate over who’s more worthy and valuable, the entire team suffers. They encourage their team members to think of the group as a whole, to build interdepartmental relationships, and to take time to acknowledge how individuals’ efforts contribute to the team.
When individual managers adopt service-based leadership practices, they can have an immediate impact on their teams’ engagement and effectiveness. Service-based leadership can be even more beneficial to organizational performance when it’s operationalized. Through our consulting work, we’ve observed the following organizational practices that cultivate loyalty and engagement:
Complimentary meals for frontline employees (these meals are even more appreciated when served by senior leaders)
Paid sick leave and vacation days that are transferrable among employees, so when an employee experiences a personal or family emergency, their colleagues can help cover their absence
Informal and formal mentoring programs so that every employee, especially a new hire, has the support they need to do their job
Requirements for senior managers to routinely spend time doing frontline work so they’re visible to all employees and never lose sight of the frontline experience
These actions might seem simple, but that doesn’t mean they’re easy. Being of service to your employees is a process, not an event. It takes time, commitment, and effort, but the payoff is clear: loyalty, engagement, and higher performance.