Over the last two decades, the concept of servant leadership has received significant attention in the popular press. It has also been the focus of prominent organizational leadership scholars who have discussed the positive effects of serving others on profits and employee job satisfaction. Experts like Max Depree, Stephen Covey, Peter Block, and Margaret Wheatley have demonstrated why serving your people and teams generates greater financial results and positive organizational outcomes that improve the bottom line.
In the corporate world, exceptional CEO’s make it a priority to serve their people. When servant leadership is demonstrated in the working relationship, employees bring their best selves to work. This reciprocity leads to greater retention and employee engagement. Take Ajay Banga, the former CEO of Mastercard, who introduced the concept of DQ (decency quotient). In a talk with MBA students at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business he discussed why having DQ is really important. Banga explained, “If you can bring your decency quotient to work every day, you will make the company a lot of fun for people — and people will enjoy being there and doing the right thing for the business.” Howard Schulz, the former CEO of Starbucks, is a distinguished example of putting people and culture first, in which the company’s reputation for service to its employees is legendary. Schulz believed that the most highly performing companies can only be built by linking shareholder value to value for employees.
If we think of servant leadership as a way to inspire the best in people, the question becomes how do servant leaders do this? What actions and skills do they practice and use on a consistent basis? The best servant leaders are relationally intelligent. The relationships they form matters. Employees may accept jobs and roles for the titles or financial incentives, but they remain loyal to organizations because of the relationships they build with their leaders.
Our research at Bandelli & Associates has found that relationally intelligent leaders practice five essential skills that create greater levels of employee engagement, financial performance, and job satisfaction. The five relational intelligence skills include:
1. Establishing Rapport
This skill focuses on the initial stages of communication between leaders and their employees. It creates a safe environment for people to establish a positive connection. There are many factors that come into play when establishing rapport with your people and teams. Similarities and differences between two people can impact the interaction. The views you hold about yourself affect the way you come across to others. The perspectives and beliefs you have about culture, upbringing, and past experiences have an influence on the way you engage with your people. Verbal and nonverbal cues (e.g., eye contact and body language) show interest in what others are communicating. You cannot progress to further stages of developing lasting relationships unless time has been spent on establishing rapport.
2. Understanding Others
This skill is about being intentional in putting in the time and effort to get to know your employees on a deep level. It is about using EQ to understand your own feelings and the emotions of others. Relationally intelligent people can control their emotions so that they make a strong positive impression. They have good active listening skills. This enables them to truly take in what another person is communicating. They are curious and inquisitive. They ask probing questions to learn about the background, history, and experiences of their people. They are empathetic and can put themselves in other peoples’ shoes. Understanding others does not happen overnight. It is an ever-evolving process that must take place over time. Relationally intelligent leaders do this in a genuine and sincere manner. The investment they make during the early stage of relationships sets the foundation for growth.
3. Embracing Individual Differences
This skill is about acknowledging and accepting that everyone comes from different backgrounds and experiences. It’s having a favorable reception towards people who think, act, and behave differently than you do. It’s about appreciating racial and ethnic diversity. It’s acknowledging the differences of how men and women think and the value they bring to the table. It’s choosing to embrace peoples’ sexual orientation. It’s understanding that cross-cultural differences and spirituality/religion impact how you interact with the world. It’s about showing people common decency and treating others the way you want to be treated. When you are accepting of people who are different from you, you can more effectively communicate with them. This helps to strengthen the quality of relationships that you have with others. You may not agree with the practices or beliefs of others, but this does not prevent you from connecting with them. Relationally intelligent people know how to leverage their differences from others to reach superior outcomes. It’s about being inclusive and how this translates into greater levels of creativity, problem solving, and innovation.
4. Developing Trust
This is the most important relational intelligence skill for any successful leader. It is about being vulnerable and taking a risk to be exposed to the actions and behaviors of others. In order to trust others, you must first know, understand, and trust yourself. You must know how you’re wired and how this impacts your relationships. When trust develops, people can let their guards down and open up more. A feeling of psychological safety starts to take place. To develop and maintain trust, people must continually nurture the relationship. Deposits into the bank account of trust must be made on a regular basis. Withdrawals can have a negative effect on our relationships. Small withdrawals are more tolerable than major ones. Trust is also about commitment and consistency. It’s showing up the same way each day for the people that are most important to you. When trust is developed with your people and organizations, it translates into higher levels of cooperation, team effectiveness, and job performance. It enables leaders to galvanize, inspire, and motivate their people.
5. Cultivating Influence
The fifth and final skill of relational intelligence is the most powerful one. Influence is the ability to have a positive impact on the lives of others. It’s about putting people and culture first before driving results and performance. It’s about helping your employees become better versions of themselves. It’s not about manipulation, controlling people, or authority. Dynamic, life-changing relationships with your employees helps them develop, mature, and grow. When leaders have positive and meaningful influence on their people performance rises, goals and objectives are obtained, and organizations achieve great financial success. You cannot lead a thriving and highly successful business if your people do not feel like they matter. Make your employees know that they are valued, that you care about them, and that you want them to be successful. If you do this, the results will speak for themselves.