Reciprocity and Servant Leadership

Wikipedia defines reciprocity as “In response to friendly actions, people are frequently much nicer and much more cooperative than predicted by the self-interest model; conversely, in response to hostile actions they are frequently much more nasty and even brutal.”

The concept is very simple and exists pretty much from the beginning of human civilization – If you are nice to your co-workers, neighbors and others in your society, they are nice to you. If you help – they help you back. It is this, that has enabled us, humans, to survive through the ice age and all other ages since then.

This basically means that, if a company is nice to its workers, then the workers are nice to the customers/clients and the customers/clients will reward the company with more work, which will increase the profits of the company. However, there is a catch – Reciprocity is a social phenomenon –  one that exists between two people. An abstract entity, like a company, can never create the environment required for this social phenomenon to exist.

Since this is a social phenomenon and for this social phenomenon to be leveraged, the company has to be, in some way, personified. Moreover, this is also a local phenomenon something that happens at the team level. Other factors that are in play are team size (the larger the team – the less effective the feelings of mutual obligations are) and how engaged the team members are. So it is apparent that the role of a leader and the existing social environment in the team plays a huge role for this phenomenon to exist in some significant way.

Authoritarian leaders, who micro-manages decision making, who solves problems for their followers are particularly bad in creating this team environment. These leaders seem to think of their teams like children who needs to be controlled and usually there is a heavy governance in place for these teams using spreadsheets and presentations where they can measure the behavior of their teams at a very low level of granularity. I emphasize the word behavior as against performance – because performance is measured on the basis of outcome – Behavior is measured based on what was done, how it was done and when it was done by whom.

The benefit equation in these cases, are heavily tilted towards the leaders. There is typically no thought for the benefits for the follower (employee) in executing the instructions of the leader. In many cases, there may not be any benefit for the follower or the organization and the only person to benefit may be the leader himself. Since the follower does not believe in the value of the task, execution may not be thorough or high quality. The leader, over time, develops a low opinion of his team and this is further reflected in his behavior and the subsequent benefits for his team. This further drives the happiness, motivation and quality of work on a downward spiral in the organization.

Servant leaders believe that, any process is only as effective as the effectiveness of the individuals that constitute the process. The development of individuals is implicit in this belief system and the improvement of any process cannot be done without improving the people. They exhibit the following behaviors –

  • Alignment of the Individuals (Team Members) goals to that of the organization – Team members do what they are passionate about doing, what they see a long term value in doing and the leader helps to align these to the organizational objectives.
  • Coaching and Mentoring – These are important enabling behaviors which help the follower/team member move up in his career.
  • Commitment to build a cohesive & self organized team – There cannot be self organization without cohesiveness and there cannot be cohesiveness without some self organization. The leader should facilitate the emergence of a cohesive team by facilitating the resolution of conflicts and building the over all environment avoiding everything that results in non value added (NVA) work and enterprise environmental factors that saps the energy of the team (e.g: Heavy governance, documentation heavy compliance requirements, process heavy quality checks etc.).
  • Empower the team – Localization of decision making related to execution avoids hand-offs and wait times. This brings about huge gains in the removal of waste from the existing processes and creates a motivated and happy workforce. Nothing kills motivation more than heavy processes with huge wait times.

It’s very clear, in the case of servant leaders, the benefit system is balanced, each deriving value from the other, each positively influencing and getting influenced by the other. If the organization is deriving value due to the contribution of the employee, the employee also derives value. This value, derived by the employee is in his/her ability to gain a higher level of expertise. This is an immense reward, especially in the knowledge worker industry where people take huge pride in their expertise.

Reciprocity, to happen in an organization requires engagement at the team level. It requires the personification of the organization for the team member or employee in the form of a servant leader. It requires an environment where there is a balance in value that the organization as well as the employee realizes from the relationship. Reciprocity, then, goes a long way towards meeting the strategic goals and objectives of an organization.

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