Becoming a Trusted Servant Leader – 3 Ways to Engage and Retain Your People

October 26, 2023 Randy Conley

I get to work with dozens of organizations and hundreds of leaders every year. Here’s a scene I see play out over and over again—see if you identify with it.

An earnest, hardworking, and well-meaning leader struggles to find a talented individual to fill an open position. Once someone is in the role and trained, that person settles into an average level of performance. As time goes by, the leader comes to accept the employee’s mediocre contribution as being “just the way it is.” Often the employee ends up quitting the organization, transferring to a different role, or, even worse, quitting and staying. Soon after, the whole cycle repeats itself.

If this scenario is familiar to you, you’re in good company. Many organizations and their leaders are struggling to develop engaged employees who will stick around for the long haul. The causes of low engagement and high turnover are many—and the impact on organizations is tremendous. Consider these data points in the new report from Gallup:

  • 77% of employees are either disengaged (59%) or actively disengaged (18%)
  • 51% of currently employed workers are watching for, or actively seeking, a new job
  • 70% of the variance in employee engagement is attributable to the manager

Think about that last point. If you’re a manager, is that a sobering thought? It should be. Your leadership accounts for 70% of how engaged your team members feel at work.

So what can you do, as an individual leader, to develop and retain engaged team members? Let me suggest you implement these three leadership methods:

1. Adopt a mindset of being an environmental curator. Leaders have the responsibility of fostering an environment that allows people to flourish. That environment is a medley of ingredients that, when mixed together in the right proportions, creates a culture that allows people to excel.

Our research has identified 12 environmental factors that influence an employee’s level of passion toward their work. The 12 factors are grouped into three categories: 1. Organizational Factors (Distributive Fairness, Procedural Fairness, Growth, Performance Expectations), 2. Job Factors (Meaningful Work, Autonomy, Workload Balance, Task Variety), and 3. Relationship Factors (Connectedness to Leader, Connectedness to Colleagues, Collaboration, Feedback).

Adopting the mindset of being an environmental curator means you’re monitoring these factors on an ongoing basis and making tweaks here and there to continually optimize the conditions necessary for your team to succeed. In particular, it’s helpful to regularly ask yourself these questions:

  • To what extent can I help people find meaning in their work and their roles?
  • To what extent can I display fairness by treating people equitably and ethically?
  • To what extent can I help provide people with learning, development, and growth opportunities in their current roles and advancement in their career?
  • To what extent can I make sure that people are clear on performance expectations, receive helpful feedback, and have opportunities to collaborate with others?
  • To what extent can I help manage people’s workloads and ensure they have enough autonomy and task variety?

If your organization’s overall culture isn’t conducive to fostering high engagement, don’t let that stop you from trying to create it within your own team. Your immediate circle of influence is where you have the most power, so use your team as a living laboratory to implement best practices that are proven to produce engaged and committed employees.

2. Start with trust. Trust is a primary driver of employee engagement. Research shows that trusting employees are 260% more motivated at work, have 41% lower rates of absenteeism, and are 50% less likely to look for another job. A global study of over 19,000 employees revealed the two most critical factors of highly engaged employees as: 1) being on a team and 2) trusting their leader. In fact, the study revealed that workers are twelve times more likely to be fully engaged if they trust their leader.

I’ve yet to meet a leader who doesn’t agree that trust is critically important—yet very few leaders have a specific plan for building trust within their teams. Research has shown that trust comprises four elements that we’ve captured in the acronym ABCD. Leaders build trust and engagement by showing they are:

  • Able – They demonstrate competence by having the necessary training, skills, and expertise to perform well in their roles.
  • Believable – They act with integrity by being honest, treating people fairly, and acting in alignment with their personal and organizational values.
  • Connected – They demonstrate care and concern for others by showing goodwill, communicating openly, and building rapport.
  • Dependable – They honor their commitments. They are responsive, accountable, and do what they say they’ll do.

Speaking to the power of trust, I love the story of George P. Shultz. Shultz served two separate presidential administrations in three different capacities: Secretary of Treasury, Secretary of Labor, and Secretary of State. He led US Marines in battle in the South Pacific in WWII, taught economics at MIT and the University of Chicago, and was a successful businessman. To mark the occasion of his 100th birthday, Shultz penned an essay that captured his most important learnings. He had this to say about trust:

“Looking back, I’m struck that there is one lesson that I learned early and have relearned over and over for a century. Put simply: ‘Trust is the coin of the realm.’ When trust was in the room, whatever room that was—the family room, the schoolroom, the coach’s room, the office room, the government room, or the military room—good things happened. When trust was not in the room, good things did not happen. Everything else is details.”

3. Lead by serving. Despite the overwhelming evidence of the benefits of high trust and servant leader-led cultures (see herehere, and here), many organizations still view servant leadership as being too soft on people and lacking a focus on organizational results.

In our book, Simple Truths of Leadership: 52 Ways to Be a Servant Leader and Build Trust, Ken Blanchard and I argue that servant leadership is the best way to achieve both great results and great relationships. This is possible when you understand the two parts of servant leadership:

The leadership aspect focuses on vision, direction, and results—where you as a leader hope to take your people. Leaders may involve others in setting direction and determining desired results, but if people don’t know where they’re headed or what they’re meant to accomplish, the fault lies with the leader.

The servant aspect focuses on working side by side in relationship with your people. Once the vision and direction are clear, the leader’s role shifts to service—helping people accomplish agreed-upon goals.

Focusing on both people and results is not an either/or proposition; it’s both/and. Few people want to be on a team where they have great relationships but are constantly losing. That doesn’t provide any growth, learning, or challenge. And most people don’t want to be on a winning team that has horrible relationships. That just leads to burnout, stress, and anxiety. Trusted servant leaders focus on both results and relationships.

Remember the scenario I described earlier about leaders struggling to engage and retain team members? Well, let me share a more positive scenario I also get to see, albeit less often, as I work with organizations and leaders around the globe.

A leader tells me that their team is a bit of an outlier. While their organization makes great efforts to engage and retain key talent, this leader’s team is thriving. People inside and outside the organization are looking for ways to join this team because there’s an environment of trust and safety. The leader supports team members in their personal development and encourages open communication in the group. Team members look to collaborate—rather than compete—with one another. Team members aren’t afraid to take a risk and fail because they know their leader has their back.

If this doesn’t currently describe your team, don’t feel bad. You can get there by curating an environment where people can be their best, building trust with team members so they go the extra mile, and leading with service so people know you’re there to support them in achieving their goals. Whether you lead a small team or a large organization, creating a high engagement working culture that attracts and keeps talented people is well within your grasp.

About the Author

Randy Conley

Randy Conley is the Vice President & Trust Practice Leader for Blanchard®. He is coauthor of Blanchard’s Building Trust training program and works with organizations around the globe, helping them build trust in the workplace. In 2022, Randy and Ken Blanchard coauthored Simple Truths of Leadership: 52 Ways to Be a Servant Leader and Build Trust, and most recently, Simple Truths of Leadership Playbook: A 52-Week Game Plan for Becoming a Trusted Servant Leader.

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