Identifying how to help your team work more effectively can sometimes seem like the million-dollar question. When looking through leadership theory and strategy, identifying a team effectiveness strategy can feel like a “pick one and let’s see” approach. Over the past few years, servant leadership has been gaining traction as an effective way to increase overall effectiveness within our workplace teams. For clarity, team effectiveness is generally defined as the capacity a team has to accomplish their goals and objectives.

Servant leadership has been visible within literature since the 1970’s. It was at that time when Robert Greenleaf developed his theory of servant leadership. After reading Hermann Hesse’s “A Journey to the East,” Greenleaf realized the value of a leader who truly sought to serve those within his care. Since this time, servant leadership has been discussed and applied to a variety of professional settings to develop a construct that could be more clearly understood and applied within organizations.

Perhaps our best glimpse into how Greenleaf understood servant leadership is summarized in what he offered as the best test of servant leadership. “Do those served grow as persons: do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants? And, what is the effect on the least privileged in society; will they benefit, or at least, not be further deprived?”

To better apply servant leadership to our teams, Dr. Justin Irving and Dr. Gail Longbotham conducted a study titled, “Team Effectiveness and Six Essential Servant Leadership Themes.” In their research, they found that if leaders who followed the servant leadership methodology applied these themes to their workgroup, there was a significant increase in overall effectiveness. The themes are as follows:

  1. Providing Accountability
  2. Supporting and Resourcing
  3. Engaging in Honest Self-Evaluation
  4. Fostering Collaboration
  5. Communicating with Clarity
  6. Valuing and Appreciating

1. Providing Accountability
Through the lens of servant leadership, accountability is ensuring each member of the team is accomplishing the goals that were identified by the team. For many, they hear the word accountability and they become uncomfortable due to a perception of negativity. Accountability is a good thing and is something all teams need to have established to effectively accomplish their goals. However, accountability is a skill that many leaders are excepted to understand, yet this is a skill that is often overlooked when providing onboarding and development training.

Looking at the root of accountability, communication is one of the key pillars. If there is an identified issue with a team, one of the first elements that should be examined is communication. As the leader, have you clearly explained your expectations of the task? Does your staff know what is expected of them in their role? Have you made too many assumptions when assigning duties? These questions will foster discussion within your team to help identify if the problems are due to a misunderstanding or lack of clarity on what is to be expected of them.

  1. Supporting and Resourcing

According to Irving and Longbotham, this theme highlights the importance of leaders supporting their workers and providing necessary resources for the accomplishment of their goals. One of the key elements of this theme is empowerment. Think about the requirements that each of your staff faces. Do they have what they need to get the job done? This question moves beyond physical equipment (although, this is important) and examines whether staff feel they can make the decisions they need to.

It is not uncommon to hear staff say that they are “scared” or “uncomfortable” of making independent decisions to complete their duties as they are worried of the response from their supervisor. If this is the case, then the leader can consider this by asking what support and/or resources they need to be successful. In some cases, it may be additional communication pathways, or it may be that they need insight on who they can collaborate with. Regardless of the reason, as the leader, it is important that we take the initiative to seek out that information.

  1. Engaging in Honest Self-Evaluation

No one is perfect. For many leaders, admitting faults and decision errors can be difficult. There are times when it feels easier to push the blame onto someone or something other than ourselves. However, if we truly seek to connect and influence our peers and followers, then we need to become comfortable with admitting our mistakes. Asking yourself questions like, “Have I communicated the vision clearly?”; “Have I provided the support and resources needed for my team to be successful?”; and “Have I held my team accountable to ensure the goals we set are being accomplished?” These questions could easily be answered with a “Yes,” and one could move on. But the focus should be to identify whether your actions contributed to the success of the team or if your actions caused roadblocks for the team.

Even if you answered “No” to one, or all, of the questions this does not mean that you can ignore the issue or error. Rather, this is a chance to bring the team together and strategize how you will all overcome the issue together.

  1. Fostering Collaboration

Breaking down silos and barriers can seem like an insurmountable task for many. However, silos and barriers cannot be broken down unless someone makes the first move. To start, a leader should look within their team to identify if staff is effectively working together. Are there any barriers that need to be addressed within the team first? Once you feel confident that the team is effectively collaborating, encouraging partnering with other teams may be an appropriate next step. There have been several examples where multiple teams within an organization are conducting work that relies on the actions of each other, yet there is absolutely no collaboration between the divisions.

Irving and Longbotham suggest leadership should “encourage workers to work together rather than competing against each other.” For many, the reason they chose not to work with others is due to negative past experiences. We know that we cannot undo the past, but what leaders can do is provide opportunities for positive experiences to become the new norm.

  1. Communicating with Clarity

When examining team dynamics, communication is the most commonly identified skill that needs to be improved. While communication is the easiest to identify as an area for improvement, this is generally the hardest skill to improve. Why? Well, we are guided by our assumptions, perceptions and expectations. These three elements can make us believe we are strong communicators; however, these three elements can also significantly hinder our communication efforts.

Within servant leadership, communicating with clarity encourages the servant leader to truly seek if people understand the message they are sending. An example of this is the ability of the leader to clearly communicate a clear vision to their team. Does the team know where they are heading? Do they understand how their work moves the team toward that vision? If they don’t, then it is a good time to have that discussion with the team. If they do, then ask them at regular check-in’s how their work for the week or month has helped move the team forward.

  1. Valuing and Appreciating

We all want to be appreciated for the contributions we make to our team. Regardless of how we want to receive that recognition, we all have a desire to know that our actions are making a difference. As a servant leader, how are you letting your team know you value and appreciate their contributions? Laub (1999) suggests that building up others through encouragement and affirmation is one of the primary means by which servant leaders can develop people. Being intentional and specific in sending thank you emails or personalized notes detailing the work they did and how it benefitted the team is one example of showing your staff how much they mean to the success of the team.

While literature on leadership and team effectiveness will continue to expand, one question will remain: “How do I move my team from good to great?” The six essential themes of servant leadership can be used as a framework for leaders to use when assessing the effectiveness of their teams. Make these themes visible to the team. Reference them and be willing to discuss them on a variety of levels. When we have teams that are engaged and have clear direction, amazing things happen.