In many ways, there is only one question any manager need ask: How do I make my team members’ lives easier—physically, cognitively, and emotionally? Research shows that this “servant leader” mentality and disposition enhances both team performance and satisfaction.5 Moreover, studies also suggest that managers themselves are happier and find their roles more meaningful when they feel they are helping other people.
Even though most business schools, executive training courses, and leadership programs espouse servant leadership, few bosses manage to fully commit to it. Perhaps that’s no surprise. In most organizations, the average manager has neither the incentives nor the skills to focus on employee happiness. Consider how most businesses make promotion decisions: people who get ahead tend to be either current high performers or those who appear most leader-like. Sadly, neither of these traits correlates well with servant leadership. For example, research suggests that the most productive individuals typically have high levels of technical skills and personal drive, but only 30 percent of them are likely to become the kind of leaders that prioritize and support employee satisfaction.6 Moreover, Gallup research contends that only one in ten people possesses the necessary traits that great managers exhibit, traits that include building relationships that create trust, open dialogue, and transparency.7
People are also more likely to be promoted when they exhibit self-confidence, build extensive networks, and navigate organizational politics with ease. Creating a sense of personal power and toughness can have positive outcomes for leaders, particularly if they are confronted with an unchanging status quo. But such self-orientation is the polar opposite of what is required for building trust. Organizational psychologist Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic suggests that many leaders achieve their positions by being self-centered, overconfident, narcissistic, arrogant, manipulative, and risk-prone.8
So even if a manager believes, in their heart of hearts, that the right thing is to support their team members and enhance their job satisfaction, it might be hard for them to resist the siren call of a more authoritative style that seems to give them a better chance of recognition. Moreover, if they have previously excelled in their individual performance, this same manager and leader may have to improve their emotional intelligence and actively change their attitude to discern the frequent occasions when a softer touch is more effective than a tougher stance. All of which is more difficult because of the scarcity of role models to learn from within most organizations. The self-centered approach gets perpetuated by the hiring practices and performance evaluations of many organizations. In fact, companies fail to choose the right talent for management positions 82 percent of the time.9
Organizations that allow such dynamics to persist miss out on the upside of employee satisfaction. At the extreme, these organizations also risk creating or enabling a toxic culture that can lead to serious performance and health issues—and even death.