The concept of servant leadership is fundamentally built on the idea that leaders should care about their followers and help them with their needs and their growth. While servant leadership sounds like a great model for leaders (who wouldn’t want their leader to take care of them?), researchers are starting to explore the potential dark side of this altruistic leadership style.
In this article, the authors (Peng et al., 2023) theorize that when leaders exhibit servant leadership, it can cause followers to feel the need to live up to the example that their leader set and engage in behaviors that may not be authentic to who they are. This idea is called impression management. Further, the researchers argue that this relationship is stronger in organizations with high levels of intra-organization politics.
THE RESEARCH STUDY
To test this theory, the researchers surveyed over 500 employees in China and the United States, and asked them about their experiences of servant leadership, their own impression management, and how emotionally exhausted they felt. They found that the more servant leadership a follower experienced, the more they felt the need to practice – and participate in – impression management strategies. The use of these strategies then led to higher levels of emotional exhaustion for those employees. Further, in organizations that had high levels of politics within them, the relationship of servant leadership leading to emotional exhaustion was even stronger.
PRACTICAL APPLICATIONS FOR ORGANIZATIONS
Although there are several benefits to servant leadership, like higher employee satisfaction and better job performance, researchers are beginning to highlight the previously unknown negative side effects. To counteract these, the authors suggest several protective measures organizations can put into place:
- Reduce politics in the organization. For example, organizations should strive to make policies and evaluation/performance criteria clear and consistently applied across all employees. This will reduce the need for employees to politick to win favor or gain unfair advantages.
- Involve the followers. Leaders should also be clear and transparent about expectations and evaluations, and when possible, involve their followers in the process. Bring them into conversations about resources and rewards. Elicit feedback and ideas, and actually put what they suggest into practice when feasible.
- Emphasize psychological safety. By creating an environment where followers feel that they are free to express opinions, values, or mistakes without being judged or punished, employees will be able to be more open and authentic, reducing the need to participate in impression management.
Peng, A. C., Gao, R., & Wang, B. (2023). Linking servant leadership to follower emotional exhaustion through impression management. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 44(4), 643–659.
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