Business Leadership Today

How To Create a Motivating Work Environment (3 Steps)


Matt Tenney, Author of Inspire Greatness: How to Motivate Employees with a Simple, Repeatable, Scalable Process

How to create a positive work environment to motivate employees

There are different strategies and techniques organizations can implement that can boost employee motivation. But, for any strategy or technique to succeed in motivating employees, the work environment must be a motivating one where employees feel a sense of belonging and have the tools they need to succeed on a daily basis.

To foster a work environment that keeps employees motivated, leaders need to contribute to the development of team members and empower them to grow. They should also support a positive employee experience for all employees and hold themselves accountable for employee success. 

One of the most effective ways to do this is through the practice of servant leadership. Servant leadership can provide a high level of support to team members, and the principles of servant leadership can guide leaders in creating a work environment that is conducive to high motivation and high performance.

To create a motivating work environment, leaders should pursue these strategies, which are informed by the principles of servant leadership:

  • Build authentic, trust-based influence with followers
  • Focus on the growth and success of others
  • Commit to achieving goals sustainably and without harming employees’ well-being

This article will explore how servant leadership can create a positive, highly motivating work environment where employees can thrive.

What Is Servant Leadership?

Servant leadership is a non-traditional style of leadership that is focused on the well-being and growth of others rather than the pursuit of material gain and power. 

While the ideas that inform servant leadership weren’t new at the time that Robert K. Greenleaf articulated them in his 1970 essay “The Servant as Leader,” he is considered the founder of the modern servant leadership movement. 

In the words of Greenleaf, “The servant-leader is servant first, it begins with a natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first, as opposed to, wanting power, influence, fame, or wealth.

Greenleaf outlined 10 main principles of servant leadership that guide the servant leader in their actions and behaviors: listening, empathy, healing, awareness, persuasion, conceptualization, foresight, stewardship, commitment to the growth of people, and building community. 

Why It Matters

Servant leadership has been the subject of much research in the field of management over the years. You may have seen many articles about it in popular publications over the last decade, but you may not know how the principles of servant leadership help leaders bring out the best in their team members and maintain a positive, inclusive work environment.

The goal of servant leadership is to build authority and influence through supporting and serving employees. It avoids the potentially toxic, more controlling tactics of some leadership styles and the hands-off approaches of others (more on this later). Servant leaders encourage their team members to work with autonomy but remain a positive influence, guiding them toward growth.

Servant leaders put the well-being and growth of those they lead before their ambitions and help them reach their full potential, which helps the organization reach its full potential.

They build resilient teams that are adaptable, collaborative, inclusive, innovative, and united in achieving the organization’s vision. They forge strategies that support high performance, productivity, and profits without burning employees out or causing avoidable stress.

Its Benefits

Servant leadership offers an array of benefits, including high levels of trust, a positive work environment, and better collaborative efforts. These benefits help organizations achieve the results they want while supporting the growth and well-being of employees and create a highly motivating work environment.

High Level of Trust

Servant leaders work continually to build trust with team members, which reinforces culturally aligned core values and generates cultural buy-in, both of which are essential for keeping employees motivated and committed to the vision.

Building trusting relationships with team members requires more than a job title or positional authority. Good leaders convince those they lead to follow them not because they have to but because they want to. Building influence in this way helps create a high level of trust that facilitates real teamwork and a respectful work environment.

Positive Work Environment

Servant leaders understand that the key to keeping employees satisfied in their roles and motivated to consistently perform well is providing a positive work environment where all team members feel included and supported. 

Servant leaders do this by leading compassionately. Compassionate leadership provides the ideal conditions for team members to do great work, helps them grow as people, and improves their overall well-being. It fosters a positive work environment that is inhospitable to the toxic behaviors that drive turnover and disengagement. 

Better Collaborative Efforts

Servant leaders are invested in helping all team members succeed and understand that the best way to achieve this is to help them unite around a shared sense of purpose that they work toward through collaborative efforts. 

Building trust (between leaders and team members and between team members and their co-workers) and helping team members see a purpose in their work beyond their day-to-day job duties improves collaborative efforts throughout the organization and an organization’s ability to collaborate with partners and clients.

How It Compares To Other Leadership Approaches

The most effective leaders possess a high degree of self-awareness, invite employees to participate in decision-making, invest in the growth of others, and forge relationships with team members that are rooted in trust. They care about their employees and make the growth of team members their goal. 

Unfortunately, many traditional approaches to leadership aren’t designed to bring out the best in our teams. In traditional leadership models, productivity, performance, and profits are the focus of the leader’s efforts and how they measure success. And it shows

Traditional leaders lead in ways that they believe will increase all these metrics, but they are often less concerned about how the methods and strategies they use to achieve the business outcomes they want can negatively impact their employees. They often also fail to realize that the negative impacts on employees will inevitably negatively impact the organization’s future in the long term. 

Their followers follow them because of positional authority. They may be more focused on accruing more power and seeking personal gain than they are on ensuring that their followers have the tools they need to find their own success.

Servant leadership, on the other hand, is more focused on serving others to achieve desired business outcomes. It emphasizes consensus over coercion and serving over commanding. 

While productivity, performance, and profits are important to servant leaders, they seek improvements in these areas by encouraging the growth of team members and setting goals and strategies that support their well-being. This is why servant leadership offers benefits that traditional leadership styles often fail to deliver.

How It Creates a Positive Work Environment and Motivated Employees

Because servant leaders put the needs of team members first, employees feel a greater sense of satisfaction and fulfillment in their work. They are more engaged and more likely to find greater meaning in their jobs. 

Servant leaders give their team members the support they need to grow, feel a sense of belonging, and form cohesive and productive relationships with their teammates. 

Following the guiding principles of servant leadership can create a highly ethical, transparent, and respectful work environment where employees are culturally aligned with the organization and committed to achieving positive outcomes.

The 10 principles of servant leadership are informed by three characteristics that set servant leadership apart from many traditional leadership styles: authenticity, growth, and sustainability. Using the 10 principles of servant leadership as a guide, servant leaders build authentic influence with followers, focus on the growth and success of others, and commit to achieving goals sustainably and without harming employees’ well-being.

Let’s take a look at how these characteristics and the principles of servant leadership create a motivating and positive work environment.

Build Authentic, Trust-Based Influence with Followers

Servant leaders grow influence with those they lead by building authentic, trust-based relationships with them that are conducive to collaborative, inclusive work environments where employees feel valued and motivated to do great work. 

Servant leaders are guided by a set of principles that require a high level of emotional intelligence: listening, persuasion, empathy, healing, and awareness. 

Listening: Good communication is an essential skill for any leader who wants to lead well. Unfortunately, many in leadership fail to realize that listening is the most important part of the communication process—and crucial for building trust with team members. Servant leaders engage in unbiased listening and are always open and receptive to feedback from their teams.

Persuasion: Servant leaders don’t command team members to follow them, they persuade them and invite them into the decision-making process. Servant leaders want to convince, not coerce, and rather than focusing on compliance to get results, they work to build consensus.

Empathy: When we empathize, we understand and share the feelings of another person. Servant leaders seek not only to understand where their employees are coming from but also to empathize with them to better serve them. They listen with empathy, understand with empathy, lead with empathy, and encourage empathetic behaviors in their employees, which increases trust between team members and their co-workers, as well as leadership. 

Healing: In “The Servant as Leader,” Greenleaf said, “There is something subtle communicated to one who is being served and led if, implicit in the compact between servant-leader and led is the understanding that the search for wholeness is something they share.” Servant leaders recognize that leadership provides them with the opportunity to improve people’s lives and help them overcome past hurts so that they can move past them and maintain trusting relationships. 

Awareness: A strong awareness of ethics and values, combined with a strong sense of self-awareness, guides servant leaders in all their actions and behaviors. Greenleaf said that when we lack awareness, “we miss leadership opportunities.” We also miss opportunities to build trust when we lack awareness. When we are aware of ourselves and where our team members are coming from, we are better leaders to them, and they will trust us more for it. 

Focus on the Growth and Success of Others

Servant leaders are focused on the greater good and serving others—whether it’s their employees, customers, or other stakeholders. Servant leaders demonstrate this by committing to the growth of people and building community, which can build up a team’s intrinsic motivation and supercharge their collaborative efforts. 

Commitment To the Growth of People: Servant leaders are committed to the growth of team members and interact with them in ways that facilitate and encourage personal and professional growth. They are able to see the intrinsic value their employees bring to the table, which goes beyond their more tangible contributions or the monetary success they can help the organization achieve. 

Building Community: Whether it is helping co-workers connect or helping the organization connect with the community it serves, servant leaders recognize the importance of building community and forging connections that help their teams both grow and commit to the growth of others. This principle is tied strongly to the core philosophy of servant leadership: that leaders serve and inspire their followers to also serve others.

Commit To Achieving Goals Sustainably and Without Harming Employees’ Well-Being

Servant leaders take care of the resources they have been entrusted with and always consider the impacts their actions and decisions can have on their teams and the long-term success of the organization. 

This kind of sustainable management ensures employees stay motivated to continue producing quality work and helps them to avoid potential motivation killers, like overwork, burnout, lack of resources, and stress. 

Servant leaders are guided in their decision-making by the principles of conceptualization, foresight, and stewardship.

Conceptualization: The aspect of servant leadership that truly represents the servant leader’s capacity to help their teams stay motivated and united around a shared purpose is its emphasis on the conceptual perspective. Leaders sometimes focus so much on achieving short-term operational goals that they miss the big-picture view and opportunities for everything from innovation to employee development. Servant leaders conceptualize problems that do not currently exist, and motivate their employees to keep working toward solutions to those problems. 

Foresight: Foresight refers to the ability to foresee possible outcomes of situations and approaches to addressing them. Like conceptualization, it helps servant leaders identify the best approaches and the ones that are most closely aligned with the organization’s mission and achieving its vision, which reinforces purpose for team members (so necessary for employee motivation). Servant leaders engage in decision-making that is informed by both the current reality and a consideration of the potential long-term impacts of the decisions they make, including impacts on team members.   

Stewardship: Stewardship is the ultimate guiding force of the servant leader as they tend to the growth and success of their teams. Servant leaders are good stewards who are more focused on care than control, value the resources and people with which they have been entrusted, and ensure that they leave a strong legacy behind that inspires and motivates others. This can create a positive, motivating work culture for employees that becomes encoded in an organization’s DNA.

Matt Tenney has been working to help organizations develop leaders who improve employee engagement and performance since 2012. He is the author of three leadership books, including the groundbreaking, highly acclaimed book Inspire Greatness: How to Motivate Employees with a Simple, Repeatable, Scalable Process.

Matt’s ideas have been featured in major media outlets and his clients include numerous national associations and Fortune 500 companies.

He is often invited to deliver keynote speeches at conferences and leadership meetings, and is known for delivering valuable, actionable insights in a way that is memorable and deeply inspiring.

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