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Josep Lago/AFP/Getty Images

Who’s the boss? When employees’ needs come first

Jana Kasperkevic Jul 12, 2017
Josep Lago/AFP/Getty Images

Workers don’t always have the best relationships with their bosses. Consider this: A Gallup survey of 7,272 U.S. adults revealed that half of them have at some point left a job to get away from a bad manager. Another survey conducted in 2012 found that 65 percent of workers would prefer a better boss to a pay raise.

Turns out, “Horrible Bosses” isn’t just a silly movie franchise. It’s a reality for a lot of workers — whether in the U.S. or elsewhere. A 2013 survey of 15,000 U.K. workers found 87 percent of them wanted to leave their current job and a majority of those workers, 52 percent, said it was because they don’t trust their boss.

Well, some bosses are tired of having a bad rap. In hopes of avoiding a fraught relationship with their subordinates they are buying into a leadership concept called servant leadership. The idea is not exactly new, but it is growing in popularity among millennial employees and bosses. A number of major corporations already use it, from Starbucks to 7-Eleven to Nordstrom

Servant leadership was coined back in 1970 by Robert Greenleaf. He argued that leaders should be servants first, ensuring that their team’s needs are taken care of and that their teams have the resources to be successful and grow in their jobs. This type of leader is supposed to be empathetic and a good listener. This boss is an enabler, if you will, but in a positive way — making sure that you are able to reach your full potential as an employee.

Does this type of leadership work? Marketplace got in touch with two workplace experts to get their take.

The case for servant leadership:

Brian Wong

 (L-R) Mindshare Chief Strategy Officer Jordan Bitterman, Kiip CEO/Founder Brian Wong, YouTube Global Head of Product Commercialization Beau Avril, and ZEFR Co-founder Rich Raddon speak onstage at the Every Second Counts: How ‘Moments’ are Reshaping Marketing panel during Advertising Week 2015.

When he graduated from college, Brian Wong was just 18 years old. He was living in San Francisco and working for Digg. However, just five months later, he got a pink slip. Instead of looking for another job, Wong decided to launch his own company, Kiip, with two co-founders. Kiip is a mobile ad network that offers rewards to users. The company employs about 100 people in San Francisco and New York.

One of the questions that Wong had to tackle when starting his company was what kind of manager he wanted to be.

“I wasn’t exactly the type of CEO who would come in and say: ‘I have been doing this for 40 years, I know exactly what I am doing,’” he said. “Then I found that the more experienced CEOs who have been doing it for 40 years never say that either.”

Wong — who is still in his mid-twenties — does not consider himself a typical manager. His style of managing is a version of servant leadership, what he refers to as subservient management.

“The philosophy rotates around the idea of you, the manager, being the servant to the employees,” said Wong. “The traditional perception of management is you tell them what to do. You are the boss. You are the overlord. In modern times, the way that management has evolved is it kind of looks at a few assumptions: The first is that you have hired amazing quality people that are autonomous, are self-motivated and are ambitious. That means that you really don’t have to do the whole — leaning over the shoulder and watching every step that they take and telling them every step to take thing. So what your job as a manager is — instead of telling them what to do — you primarily remove obstacles, you give them resources, and you open doors. Those are the three main things. And so then your question to those employees on a daily basis should be: How can I do these three for you?”

Within the subservient leadership framework, managers at Kiip spend their time supporting their workers instead of worrying about internal politics and going on a power trip, said Wong. “Most of the unhealthy management situations involve someone telling the other person what to do,” Wong said. “If you’ve ever had to rely on that statement: ‘Because I am the boss’ — then something clearly is wrong.”

However even in a workplace where servant leadership is practiced, certain lines have to be drawn. For example, overall, the management style at Kiip is like a “benevolent dictatorship,” Wong said. “You need to have someone who will have final say.” As with most companies, important decision making still happens at the traditional corporate level. It’s mostly the day-to-day routines and day-to-day management where employees are given more room to roam and be self-sufficient.

Wong’s leadership style has not gone unnoticed. Earlier this year, he spoke on a panel about how to manage millennial workers. He has also written a book, “The Cheat Code,” about how to get ahead in the workplace.

The case against servant leadership

Lisa McLeod, a global expert on leadership and author of “Selling with Noble Purpose,” is not exactly opposed to servant leadership. The idea of humbly putting workers first is a good one, she said, but in her view, it doesn’t really work.

“The thing that is really great about the concept of servant leadership is it sprung up as an antidote to greed and narcissism,” said McLeod. While McLeod agrees that there was a need for a new management style to counter that, the servant leadership concept is not without flaws.

“One challenge is the name. It doesn’t sound like something that people” — read managers — “would get excited about,” she said.

The second challenge is the fact that even this style of leadership is based on a hierarchical structure.

“We have lot of old school managers that think: ‘Either people work for me or I work for them. Which is it?’ And servant leadership says: ‘Okay, let’s flip it. You work for them,’” said McLeod. The problem is that modern offices are not as rigid structurally.

“Sometimes my job is to support my team member and sometimes their job is to support me as a boss,” she added. “It’s a two-way street and that’s what people often miss. One of the things my father told me is: ‘Whatever your job is, part of it is making sure your boss is successful.’”

For many young workers, however, their boss’s success is not really a priority. McLeod attributes this to the way they have been raised, referring to millennials as “ the most parented generation ever.”

“As a parent — and I am a parent — your job is to lift up your children and make them successful and so they got very used to that model,” she explained. After spending years surrounded by parents and teachers whose jobs it was to make them successful, millennials now expect the same of their bosses. “What many of them, not all of them, are missing is that it is a two-way street and they need to make their boss successful as well.”

Of course, bosses are not without fault. Many of them need to communicate better — and practice what they preach.

While McLeod might not be completely supportive of the servant leadership model, she is encouraged by managers searching out new and better ways to work with their staff.

“I think servant leadership is a well intended effort to make the workplace more civil and I think we can do even better,” she said. “A leader who is just there to make their employees’ lives better runs the risk of becoming not just a servant leader but an indentured servant.”

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