Relationships between Servant Leadership and Conflict Management Style

Krista S. Clements Orlan and Adele V. DiNatale-Svetnicka

Viterbo University

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Abstract

Servant leadership has been gaining speed as a desired leadership form since its introduction in the 1970s by Robert Greenleaf. With the characteristics of servant leadership focusing on the employee rather than the leader, (Greenleaf, 1970) it seems logical that servant leadership would be desired to successfully manage conflict in the work place. However, limited research exists on servant leadership’s effect on conflict management strategies in the work place. This study sought to provide empirical research demonstrating that servant leadership positively correlates with collaborative, accommodating, and compromising conflict management strategies while negatively correlating with competitive and avoidance conflict management strategies.                                                                                  

Surveys of servant leadership and conflict management attitudes, both utilizing the Likert-type format were received from 94 subjects in and around the campus of Viterbo University in La Crosse, Wisconsin. The results show servant leadership has a significant positive relationship with compromising and collaborative styles while there were no relationships supported with either avoidance or accommodating styles. The results indicate servant leadership having a significant negative relationship with competition but it is regarded cautiously with .68 reliability.

Keywords: servant leadership, conflict management styles, avoidance, compromise, accommodation, collaboration, competition


 

Relationships between Servant Leadership and Conflict Management Style

Conflict occurs everywhere, and the business or organizational setting is no exception. Different personalities and experiences lead to a variety of styles used to manage conflict; not all of them conducive to a productive and pleasant work environment. While much information is available on conflict management behaviors, there have not been a great number of studies on servant leadership’s affect on conflict management styles. By bringing servant leadership practices to conflict management styles, the consideration and development of the individual is considered as foundational to attaining a satisfactory resolution with any conflict.

Successful conflict resolution is beneficial for an organization as it positively affects job clarification, job satisfaction, and therefore better job performance. This led to our study of five research hypotheses: 1) Servant leadership is negatively related to competitive styles of conflict management; 2) Servant leadership is negatively correlated to avoidance styles of conflict management; 3) Servant leadership is positively related to collaborative styles of conflict management; 4) Servant leadership is positively correlated to accommodating styles of conflict management; 5) Servant leadership is positively related to compromising styles of conflict management.

Review of the Literature

Overview

Our study considers the relationship between the variables of servant leadership and conflict management.  First we examined published literature about servant leadership in regards to organizational practice, and then explored the understood dynamics of conflict management in the workplace. 

Servant Leadership (SL)

While the notion of servant leadership has been practiced since biblical times, the concept as a distinct management style has only been of interest in recent history.  Greenleaf (1970, 1977) generalized this set of behaviors as a leader’s desire to be “servant first” rather than “leader first”, putting others’ needs before their own.  The field of servant leadership has grown over the years with a deepening understanding around the theological and philosophical implications, while empirically based studies linking servant leadership to business practice have emerged only recently.

Current studies show servant leadership positively impacts employee performance and workplace behaviors (Al-Sharafi & Rajiani, 2013; Hu & Liden, 2011; Susanj & Jakopec, 2012; Walumbwa, Hartnell, & Oke, 2010).  Hu and Liden (2011) found that team leaders who use servant leadership naturally raise the confidence of the team through positive motivation, leading to higher levels of overall team effectiveness and team organizational citizenship behaviors (OCB), or positive behaviors beyond the duties of the job position.  SL can enhance team effectiveness regardless of the starting level of team potency (Hu & Liden, 2011).  This style of leadership not only indirectly raises team effectiveness by elevating the level of team potency, but it also seems to directly increase team effectiveness (Hu & Liden, 2011).  Supervisors who engage in SL serve their employees by making sure they understand their work goals and have the tools at their disposal to engage in the process of completing those goals.  This in turn raises the level of team potency (Hu & Liden, 2011), facilitating a collaborative team environment.

While OCBs can be developed naturally by working with the SL, formal training can facilitate positive organizational climates:  “…servant leadership is instrumental in developing positive climates that can then be used to enhance employee citizenship behavior in organizations … leadership programs aimed at enhancing procedural justice climate and service climate can be improved further by incorporating training in servant leadership skills” (Walumbwa, Hartnell, & Oke, 2010, p. 527), as well as a discussion on fairness in decision making and specific work related practices and policies, and quality customer service.  All three practices heighten the willingness to learn more and to assist others outside of defined job roles (Walumbwa, Hartnell, & Oke, 2010).  Jones (2012) also recommended upper management make a priority of establishing people-centered hiring and training practices that would recruit and develop the type of employee base where a servant leadership organizational culture would flourish.

Many of the organizational citizenship behaviors encouraged by servant leadership, whether through a training program or by working alongside a SL, are attitudes indicative of servant leadership in themselves.  Gibbs, Rosenfeld, and Javidi (1994) noted the OCBs of sportsmanship and conscientiousness positively influence job satisfaction.  Both OCBs are reflected in different attributes common to SL:  sportsmanship requires humility to sustain and conscientiousness is a product of empathy.  In terms of sportsmanship, people who are generally satisfied with their job are less likely to complain (Gibbs, Rosenfeld, & Javidi, 1994).  Even those who may not be satisfied with their coworkers, but are satisfied with all other aspects of their job, will tend to be conscientious because these behaviors are not individual specific but something one does in the spirit of being a good employee (Gibbs, Rosenfeld, & Javidi, 1994).  Compromise for the common good is developed in emerging SL employees.

While Gibbs, Rosenfeld, and Javidi (1994) found SL infused OCBs positively correlated to job satisfaction, Susanj and Jakopec (2012) found job satisfaction and fairness perceptions to be positive mediating factors between active leadership and OCB.  Servant leadership can be categorized as a type of active leadership according to Susanj and Jakopec’s (2012) definition whereby the leader motivates others to do more than they intended, or even thought possible; provides clear goal and process clarity; and rewards and disciplines fairly based upon the follower’s performance.  They also found no relationship when considering passive/avoiding leadership.  Because of this, Susanj and Jakopec (2012) recommend managers be active in clarifying job requirements, providing direction as needed and rewards for good job performance, while at the same time setting an example of work ethic by creating optimistic vision that inspires problem-solving, and treating each team member with dignity and respect.  Putting it simply, “managers should practice (active) leadership and avoid avoiding it” (Susanj & Jakopec, 2012, p. 522).

Walumbwa, Hartnell, and Oke (2010) expand the idea of servant leadership from individual attributes to the organizational level conceptualizing it “as ambient behavior directed toward the leader’s entire work unit that is a common stimulus shared among group members” (p. 518).  This organizational servant leader culture can be expressed as “corporate integrity”.  According to Soye (2011), “It is thus appropriate to conceptualise integrity as an organizational level concept since organizations are engaged in a web of relationships with stakeholders and are therefore bound by the ensuing expectations and agreed standards of operation” (p. 79).  Integrity in itself encapsulates SL.  This is further highlighted when considering the fullness of integrity as character, truthfulness, honesty, and conscientiousness – all characteristics commonly attributed to servant leadership (Soye, 2011).  SL can be lived and worked on individual and corporate levels.

For the purposes of this study we conceptualize servant leadership as an ambient behavior set of attributes as described by Spears (2010): listening, empathy, healing, awareness, persuasion, conceptualization, foresight, stewardship, commitment to the growth of people, and building community.  These are communicated within individuals and between organizational units.  According to Soye (2011), this integral culture of servant leadership on an organizational level has the power to heal conflict from within so as to reach outside the organization into the community in ways that promote conflict resolution.

Summary

Servant leadership is an ancient concept that is finding new applications in today’s culture.  In the workplace, the practice of SL leads to increased job performance.  It can be utilized by supervisors in their daily interactions with employees, and taught more formally through specialized training.  These servant leadership practices develop organizational citizenship behaviors that further promote a SL culture.  Once servant leadership is established on an organizational level, there is a corporate tendency to heal from within that is facilitated through various types of conflict management styles.

Conflict Management Styles (CMS)

The prevalence of conflict in the workplace requires that its resolution be of great importance to organizational management.  Conflict Management Strategies can have either positive or negative effects on an organization’s employees and their performance. Conflict, as seen in this study, is a disagreement that naturally occurs when individuals or groups have different attitudes, needs, values, or beliefs (Bakhare, 2010).  We agree with Soye (2011) that conflict management is a communication behavior and that an effective vehicle is needed for that communication to be successful. This desired successful communication will come from knowledge of effective conflict management styles that lead employees to work together and talk through their contrary stances in reaching a united consensus. As stated in Mohd Soieb, Othman and D’Silva (2013) an organization’s success and soundness relies on its managers’ capability not only to recognize conflict but to manage it well and effectively; they should model positive styles of conflict management.  

While individual managers have great influence in aiding conflict resolution between employees, their effectiveness is enhanced when the organization as a whole provides a conducive environment for constructive conflict management strategies (Mohd Soieb, et al., 2013).  This is “conflict culture” (Gelfand, Leslie, Keller, & de Dreu, 2012, p. 1131).  With both organizations and managers effectively recognizing, managing, and allowing an environment conducive to positive conflict management styles, trust between employees will increase when working within their own team as well as with other teams (Hempel, Zhang, & Tjosvold, 2009).   Given the many studies conducted on CMS, some with variations of labels, we will use the concept labels developed by Kilmann and Thomas (1974): compromising, accommodating, competing, avoiding, and collaborating.  As with servant leadership, developing personal relationships is key to effective communication and a willingness to understand the other’s point of view in managing conflict. In using the conflict management styles developed by Thomas and Kilmann (1974); competing, avoiding, accommodating, compromising, and collaborating, different skills are utilized in each area. As reiterated by Bakhare (2010) these styles can be distinguished by two scales: assertiveness and cooperation, and she goes on to elaborate on each style giving concise summarized skill sets for each style. With Bakhare (2010), we define compromising as “moderate assertiveness and moderate cooperation. Some people define compromise as ‘giving up more than you want,’ while others see compromise as both parties winning” (Bakhare, 2010, p. 46). There may be times when compromising is more appropriate than others, especially when the issues at hand are of moderate importance, the balance of power remains equal, or when resolving the issue is of utmost priority. The skills attached to being able to compromise are “negotiating, finding a middle ground, assessing value, and making concessions” (Bakhare, 2010, p. 47).

The style of accommodating is characterized by low assertiveness and high cooperation (Bakhare, 2010).  Situations indicating use of this style would be appropriate when it is desired to show fairness, improve performance, develop community and fellowship, and to maintain peacefulness. This style could be used when an issue or result is of little concern to someone. However, accommodation can cause problems if the person keeps track of all the times he or she accommodates, especially when it is not reciprocated. Skills used to accommodate are “forgetting your desires, selflessness, ability to yield, and obeying orders” (Bakhare, 2010, p. 47).

A competition type of CMS is high in assertiveness and low in cooperation (Bakhare, 2010).  Situations when this style would be appropriate would be when a quick decision or action is needed, when the decision needing to be made is unpopular, when essential issues need to be addressed, or when protection of one’s self interests is needed (Bakhare, 2010).  Competition type skills would include “arguing or debating, using rank or influence, asserting your opinions and feelings, standing your ground, and stating your position clearly” (Bakhare, 2010, p. 47).

The avoidance mode is low in both cooperation and assertiveness; it tends to be used because of a lack of ability or lack of confidence in that ability or just because there is a fear of engaging in conflict. Avoidance may be appropriate in times when the issue is not of high importance, tensions need to be reduced, if someone is in a position of lower power, or if more time will be gained with avoidance (Bakhare, 2010).  Skills found in avoidance are the “ability to withdraw, ability to sidestep issues, ability to leave things unresolved, and a sense of timing” (Bakhare, 2010, p. 48).

With collaboration one will find a great amount of both cooperation and assertiveness. Collaboration uses many ideas from multiple people leading not only to the best solution, but a better solution than would have been created by just a single person. Because collaboration produces such positive results some people believe it should always be the CMS to use. It should be kept in mind that collaboration takes a good deal of time and effort thus it should be used when the time and effort are available to allow it to work. Collaboration would be suitable for times when issues are too significant to compromise, when different perspectives are combined, when increasing commitment and developing relationships, when learning, and when the conflict is important to those who are building an assimilated solution (Bakhare, 2010).  Collaboration would include skills such as “active listening, non-threatening confrontation, identifying concerns, and analyzing input” (Bakhare, 2010, p. 48).

As stated in Gelfand, et al., (2012) cultures in which conflict is managed with a collaborative style will lend itself more to “viability (i.e. be characterized by high cohesion, high potency, and low burnout)” (p. 1135) while culture that uses a dominating conflict management style will have viability negatively affected  with “low cohesion, low potency, and high burnout” (p. 1135). Whereas conflict cultures that have the prevalent CMS of avoidance will find employees’ creativity stifled and a reduction in viability (Gelfand, et al., 2012).  In these situations an organization itself acts as the mediator between the conflicting parties in which it is vital that the manager is effective in carrying out their knowledge and experience in conflict management (Mohd Soieb, et al., 2013).

Hempel, Zhang, and Tjosvold (2009) found that a cooperative conflict management style increases trust among employees, especially team members, while a competitive conflict management style decreases this trust. They also found that the cooperative conflict management style affects conflict management between different teams by positively aiding the conflict resolution within that team and lessening the competition between teams. This is opposite of the competitive CMS that adds to internal competition within the team and makes it less likely that there will be cooperation between teams (Hempel, Zhang, & Tjosvold, 2009).

Summary

In general, we regard collaboration, compromise, and accommodation to be the preferred and more productive conflict management strategies. They tend to enhance effective communication and personal relationships, and positively contribute to a culture that handles conflict well thereby increasing employees’ viability and trust.  Contrasting that, avoidance and competition are less preferred as they tend to inhibit effective communication which negatively affects personal relationships and employee viability. We discern that servant leadership is highly in line with the collaboration style, and would serve compromising and accommodation well; while servant leaders would tend not to use avoidance or competition.


 

Conclusion

A hallmark of servant leadership is the willingness to engage with others in the task of problem solving.  Certain relational identifiers are encompassed in the ambient behaviors of servant leadership: collaboration, compromise, and accommodation to name a few.  These servant leader traits might be identified as specific styles of conflict management, as they align with Spears’ (2010) SL attributes of listening, empathy, healing, awareness, persuasion, conceptualization, foresight, stewardship, commitment to the growth of people, and building community to some extent, while avoidance and competition do not.  The goal of this study is to investigate these relationships.

Rationale

Servant leadership is a subset of transformational leadership. While transformational leadership seeks organizational change by inspiring employees (Bass, 1990; Susanj & Jakopec, 2012), SL promotes change by serving. Servant leadership is generally regarded as visionary and inspirational (see Spears, 1998). This underscores a fundamental tension in the servant leadership literature regarding management style. In day-to-day managing, serving others may build trust and good will as is often demonstrated through OCB (Hempel, Zhang, & Tjosvold, 2009; Hu & Liden, 2011; Walumbwa, Hartnell, & Oke, 2010). Organizational members may elect to follow the SL as a gesture of faith in her or his judgment and acknowledgement of the common ground they share (Walumbwa, Hartnell, & Oke (2010). In tumultuous times, however, the motive for following a SL is less clear. The SL may need to privilege one set of followers over others, prioritize one organizational unit over others, or discipline a follower when a legitimate need runs counter to the greater good (Susanj & Jakopec, 2012). 

Conflict is a normal experience within organizations.  Regardless of the pervasive leadership style within an organization there will be some conflict amongst team members because of differing preferences, opinions, and world views (Bakhare, 2010).  In a conflict context, the motivation to follow a SL may be eroded. The SL may elect to counter this erosion by using a conflict management style that adapts to followers’ situations, expectations, and preferences, or they may choose to model positive CMS that promotes organizational success (Soieb, et al, 2013).  Figure 1 demonstrates where each of Wilmot and Hockers’ CMS fall within an axis of interpersonal preference as well as the perceived outcomes for the parties involved in the conflict.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Figure 1: Wilmot and Hockers’ (2014) CMS model.

This study attempts to add to the literature by identifying the relationship between servant leadership and the type of conflict management styles typically used by those who espouse SL.

The SL’s role is to build community by working with others for their benefit instead of selfish motives (Spears, 1998).  By listening to employee concerns and empathizing with their struggles, the SL models behavior that is reflected throughout the team (Soieb, et la, 2013; Walumbwa, Hartnell, & Oke, 2010).  Hempel, Zhang, and Tjosvold (2009) found competitive CMS to diminish trust and increase internal conflict within the team and organization.  Thus it is reasonable to conclude that:

H1:  Servant leadership is negatively correlated with competitive CMS.

Spears (1998) suggests persuasion, foresight, and healing are important attributes of servant leadership.   SLs naturally raise team potency through positive motivation techniques (Hu & Liden, 2011).  Bakhare (2010) notes avoidance is typically used by those with high fear and low confidence.  Susanj & Jakopec (2012) recommend managers utilize positive vision in order to inspire problem-solving.  SL on the organizational level has the power to heal from within in a way that promotes conflict resolution even beyond the organizational boundaries (Soye, 2011).  Thus it does not appear a SL would avoid conflict:

H2:  Servant leadership is negatively correlated with avoidance CMS.

The collaborative CMS is characterized by active listening and identifying concerns (Bakhare, 2010), which Spears (1998) identifies listening and empathy as key SL attributes.  Gelfand, et al (2012) found collaborative conflict cultures to be highly conducive to team potency, along with several other viability factors.  Likewise, Hu and Liden (2011) found SL to raise team potency levels.  Collaboration is the best CMS when aiming to gain commitment and improve relationships (Bakhare, 2010).  Employee commitment has been shown to be a positive mediator between SL and OCB (Walumbwa, Hartnell, & Oke, 2010), thus it is reasonable to predict:      

H3:  Servant leadership is positively correlated with collaborative CMS.

Putting others first by placing personal needs to the side, acts of selflessness, and obeying orders are all typical skills in the accommodating mode of conflict management (Bakhare, 2010).  “Servant first” is Greenleaf’s (1970) motto for the servant leadership movement.  Walumbwa, Hartnell, and Oke (2010) found training in SL skills increased willingness to do things for others, especially OCBs.  Therefore:

H4:  Servant leadership is positively correlated with accommodating CMS.

Bakhare (2010) notes compromise as the typical CMS among individuals of equal power.  The ideal model of SL is not a hierarchical one, but similar to a flat plate with an unobtrusive bump in the center (Greenleaf, 1977/2002), an organization of equals.  In order to work effectively amongst equals, a SL demonstrates humility.  Gibbs, Rosenfeld, and Javidi (1994) noted employees working alongside SL would use the OCBs of sportsmanship (humility) and conscientiousness (empathy) when resolving conflicts with other coworkers.  Because of the willingness of the servant leader to engage in “give and take” behaviors in the interest of the common good it is plausible that:

H5:  Servant leadership is positively correlated with compromising CMS.

Methods Section

Participants

Participants for the experiment were recruited around a small, private university campus.  While the survey sample was random and demographic information was not collected, it is assumed the subject population resembled the demographics surrounding the campus community in terms of age, ethnicity and gender. 

Participants were spontaneously approached by the researchers with paper surveys to complete on the spot, taking about 12 minutes to complete.

Instruments

The Interpersonal Conflict Scale (Hocker & Wilmot, 2014) was used to assess the subject’s personal conflict management style.  A total of 25 items were presented in a Likert-type format with a scale ranging from (1 = never) to (5 = always).  Five items measured avoidance (e. g., “I like to avoid being “put on the spot”; I keep conflicts to myself.”), five items measured compromise (e. g., “I negotiate with the other to reach a compromise.”), five items measured competition (e. g., “I sometimes use my power to win.”), five items measured collaboration (e. g., “I try to integrate my ideas with the other’s to come up with a decision jointly.”), and five items measured accommodation (e. g., “I usually accommodate the other’s wishes.”)

The Servant Leadership Attitudes Inventory was used to assess the participant’s propensity to servant leader attitudes (SLAI; Preiss, 2012).  A total of 36 items were presented in a Likert-type format with a scale ranging from (1 = strongly agree) to (5 = strongly disagree).  Six items measured “community service and stewardship” (e. g., “I would like to work for a leader who encourages me to have a community spirit in the workplace.”), six items measured “authenticity/trust” (e. g., “I would like to work for a boss who considers the opinions of others as a basis for making appropriate decisions.”), six measured “humility/accepts others” (e. g., “I would like to work for a boss who is courteous and respectful.”), six items measured “helps subordinates succeed while standing back” (e. g., “I would like to work for a boss who stands aside and lets me do my best work.”), six items measured “conceptual skills, vision, and accountability” (e. g., “I would like to work for a manager who admits his or her mistakes and improves performance by learning from errors.”), and six items measured “behaves ethically and courageously” (e. g., “I would like to work for a boss who is willing to make personal sacrifices when ethical principles are at stake.”) .

Data analysis involved conducting a reliability analysis for each instrument, computing composite scores for each instrument, and computing a correlation matrix for all instruments.

Results

Ninety-two of 94 responses to our survey utilizing the Servant Leadership Attitudes Inventory and the Interpersonal Conflict Scale were used.  Two surveys were incomplete and not included in some calculations. Examination of frequency statistics indicated that both surveys performed as expected and were found to be reliable. The measure of central tendency and dispersion for the Servant Leadership Attitudes Inventory (SLAI) (M = 152.61; SD = 14.96) and the Interpersonal Conflict Scale (ICS) for competition (M = 13.53; SD = 3.07), avoidance (M = 16.1; SD = 3.4), collaboration (M = 19.43; SD = 2.83), accommodation (M = 16.63; SD = 2.86), and compromise (M = 17.68; SD = 2.91) were consistent with earlier studies using these scales. The reliabilities of the instruments were satisfactory (SLAI alpha was .91; ICS alphas  =  competition (.68), avoidance (.76), collaboration (.77), accommodation (.76), and compromise (.75).  All of which are above the minimum alpha of .70 except for competition. This led us to be cautious about the finding in regards to the competition variable.

The test of our first hypothesis, servant leadership is negatively related to competitive conflict management strategies (CMS), involved correlating the SLAI and the ICS.  The result supported the hypothesis of a negative relationship with the correlation of r = -.19, p = .04, n = 92. However with r being so small and the reliability only being .68, we hesitate to readily accept this result and are cautious in its consideration.

Our second hypothesis’ testing, servant leadership is negatively related to avoidance CMS, involved correlating the SLAI and the ICS. Contrary to the hypothesis, the scores on the two questionnaires were not significantly associated. This correlation was r = .03, p = .38, n = 92.

The third hypothesis’ test, servant leadership is positively related to collaboration type CMS, involved correlating the SLAI and the ICS. This correlation was r = .46, p = .00, n = 92 supporting the hypothesis and showing a highly significant positive relationship between servant leadership and collaborative behaviors.

Testing of our fourth hypothesis, servant leadership is positively related to accommodation CMS, involved correlating the SLAI and the ICS. Contrary to our hypothesis, there was no statistical significance and it does not support the hypothesis. The correlation was r = .11, p = .14, n = 92.

The testing of our final hypothesis, servant leadership is positively related to compromising CMS, involved correlating the SLAI and the ICS. As hypothesized, the scores on the two questionnaires were significantly related showing a positive relationship. The correlation was r = .47, p = .00, n = 90.

Discussion

Conflict exists in all types of organizations and is something every leader needs to manage on a daily basis to some extent.  Depending on how conflict is managed, it can have positive and negative impacts on individuals and the institution as a whole.  This study was undertaken to increase the empirical data on the relationship between servant leadership and conflict management strategies.  There is no existing research investigating correlations between either individual servant leaders or servant leader organizations and their preferred style of conflict management in the literature to date.  This study appears to be the first attempt to validate certain assumptions as to how servant leaders operate in organizations with conflict.  We will begin with a discussion of the findings on how servant leadership relates to each of the five conflict management styles.  Limitations of the study will be identified and put into context.  Finally, recommendations for future research in this area will be made.

A significant finding from the study showed servant leadership to be positively correlated with compromise, the conflict management style typically used between equals (Bakhare, 2010).  Greenleaf (1977/2002) emphasized the concept of a community of equals, as well as the idea that everyone is called to be a servant leader, in his writings on servant led institutions.  The concept of equality is fundamental to both servant leadership and compromise, so it is to be expected in a power relationship where each individual has the opportunity to be leader and follower concurrently, that these individuals would use compromise in solving conflict because of its give and take nature.

The study findings also revealed that servant leadership has a highly significant influence on collaboration being used in conflict management. This result was expected, as servant leaders tend to listen to others’ points of view and seek to understand it, thereby being more apt to use or incorporate others’ ideas (Spears, 1998) and collaboration is characterized by these attributes according to Bakhare’s (2010) definition of the style.  Studies showed a positive correlation between both servant leadership and collaborative conflict management to team potency (Gelfand, et al., 2012; Hu & Liden, 2011).  The high significance of the correlation was not surprising because collaboration epitomizes the servant leader value of interpersonal relationship.

The research tentatively confirmed the hypothesis that competition between coworkers is not typical in servant led organizations.  While a significant negative correlation was identified, the measure only approached reliability indicating the results should be considered carefully.  This being noted, building community and commitment to the common good are hallmarks of servant leadership (Spears, 1998) with positive interpersonal relationships and teamwork dynamics emphasized within servant led organizations (Soieb, et al., 2013), all behaviors that are not typically associated with competition.  Considering this, and the fact the measure very nearly approached reliability, these findings can be seen in a preliminary fashion with further testing necessary to fully validate.

Surprisingly, there was no significant relationship found between servant leadership and conflict avoidance.  A negative correlation had been predicted as interpersonal communication is highly emphasized in servant leadership training and techniques in order to raise team confidence levels (Hu & Liden, 2011).  Servant leaders communicate their vision to team members in a persuasive fashion in order to inspire problem-solving in the face of conflict (Spears, 1998; Susanj & Jakopec, 2012).  Avoidance of conflict is antithetical to these qualities.  The results may be explained by the fact that avoidance can be used in positive ways depending on the situation, for example, when the conflict is of minimal importance in the big picture or as a tactic when trying to gain time in order to address the conflict in a more appropriate environment (Bakhare, 2010).  Servant leaders may use avoidance in a situational context as opposed to a preferred style.

Another surprising finding was that there was no significant relationship between servant leadership and accommodation.  Accommodation is embodied by selflessness and placing others’ needs first, all attributes that are strongly identified with servant leadership (Bakhare, 2010; Greenleaf, 1970).  Walumbwa, Hartnell, and Oke (2010) had found servant leadership skills increased employee willingness to accommodate others by way of OCB.  However the hypothesis that accommodation would be a frequently used conflict management style by servant leaders was left unsupported by the current study.  A possible explanation for this inconsistency between theory and empirical data is because of servant leaders’ strong propensity for compromise (win-a-bit/lose-a-bit) and collaboration (win/win) there is rare occasion to enter into a conflict management style where there is a clear winner and loser in the interaction, especially when the issues are highly important or essential.

There were several limitations to this study because of its small scale, classroom-oriented nature, and limited time frame.  The participant sample was small and completely random in its demographics.  All of the people surveyed were from around the Viterbo University campus, an institution known for its servant leadership emphasis in curriculum and culture. It is likely the sample, though random, possessed above average knowledge and practice of servant leadership behaviors.  This knowledge of servant leadership may have also enhanced the study reliability because participants put these concepts into practice on a regular basis as a natural part of the culture and not just a theory.  The time allotted to collect the samples was extremely limited, from the end of one class day until the beginning of the next class day, and during summer evening hours when campus activity is limited and transient. This potentially had an adverse affect on the quantity of the samples as many participants were interrupted in their end of day activities.  Future studies should allow for more time to gather a larger sample. It should also be considered whether or not a completely random selection of participants is best or whether participants should be more uniform in background.

Future studies are needed to gain better understanding into the relationships between servant leadership and conflict management as this is an emerging area for research.  Modifications can be made to the current study to make it more rigorous.  There is a need to address the reliability issue with the competition component of the tool.  A more exhaustive study including essay questions and follow up interviews, along with the Likert-type questions would give additional information and insight into the responses, potentially filling in some gaps in the data.  Subsequent investigations into why servant leadership does not correlate to avoidance and accommodation would provide further clarity.

Potential questions for further study of servant leadership and conflict management include: is there less perceived conflict in servant led organizations as opposed to other organizations; what formal conflict resolution processes are utilized by servant led institutions; what type of disciplinary measures do servant leaders typically use in the workplace?

Conclusion

Each individual will encounter conflict at some point when working with others.  Servant leaders have the unique ability to look at the world through the lens of equality, humility, and community-focus, vastly different qualities from other leader contemporaries.  Many of the attributes typically associated with servant leadership lend them to prefer various conflict management styles over others.  Servant leaders tend to utilize compromise and collaboration, and avoid competition, when managing conflict in their organizations.  They value opportunities to work alongside others in solving differences, and navigate away from situations where more conflict may be generated.


 

Acknowledgements

We would like to thank Dr. Barbara Mae Gayle and Dr. Ray Preiss for their invaluable help with this study.  Dr. Gayle was instrumental in outlining the writing format for this article, and Dr. Preiss lead us through the IRB process, developed one of our tools, analyzed the data, and contributed to the overall rationale for conducting this research.

 

 

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Bowlby, K., McDermott, E. P., & Obar, R. (2011). Personal values, behavior and conflict resolution styles: A study of contemporary mainland chinese business students. Journal of International Business Ethics, 4(1), 42-59. Retrieved from 

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Ding, D., Lu, H., Song, Y., & Lu, Q. (2012). Relationship of servant leadership and employee loyalty: The mediating role of employee satisfaction. iBusiness, 4, 208-215. doi: 10.4236/ib.2012.43026.

Gelfand, M. J., Leslie, L. M., Keller, K., & de Dreu, C. (2012). Conflict cultures in organizations: How leaders shape conflict cultures and their organizational-level consequences. Journal of Applied Psychology, 97(6), 1131-1147. doi:10.1037/a0029993

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Greenleaf, R. K. (1970). The servant as leader. Newton Centre, MA: Robert K. Greenleaf Center.

Greenleaf, R. K. (1977/2002). Servant-leadership: A journey into the nature of legitimate power and greatness. Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press.

Hempel, P. S., Zhang, Z., & Tjosvold, D. (2009). Conflict management between and within teams for trusting relationships and performance in china. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 30(1), 41-65. Retrieved from http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=bth&AN=35859172&site=ehost-live

Hocker, J. C., & Wilmot, W. W. (2014). Interpersonal conflict (9th ed.). New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.

Hu, J., & Liden, R. C. (2011). Antecedents of team potency and team effectiveness: An examination of goal and process clarity and servant leadership. Journal of Applied Psychology96(4), 851-862. doi: 10.1037/a0022465

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Instrument Appendix

 

 

Think of a situation where you have had a conflict, disagreement, argument, or disappointment with someone. Examples might be someone you live with or a work associate. Then, use the following five point scale to respond to each question.

1=Never        2=Seldom             3=Sometimes 4=Often                 5=Always

We would like to know how you deal with a conflicts involving the other person. There are no right or wrong answers, so work quickly and provide your first impression. 

____1)   I like to avoid being “put on the spot”; I keep conflicts to myself.
____2)   I like to use influence to get my ideas accepted.
____3)   I usually try to “split the difference” in order to resolve an issue.
____4)   I usually try to satisfy the other’s needs.
____5)   I usually try to investigate an issue to find a solution acceptable to us.
____6)   I like to avoid open discussion of my differences with the other.
____7)   I like to use my authority to make a decision in my favor.
____8)   I usually try to find the middle course to resolve an impasse.
____9)   I usually accommodate the other’s wishes.
____10)  I try to integrate my ideas with the other’s to come up with a decision jointly.
____11)  I try to stay away from disagreement with the other.
____12)  I try to use my expertise to make a decision that favors me.
____13)  I propose a middle ground for breaking deadlocks.
____14)  I give in to other’s wishes.
____15)  I try to work with the other to find solutions that satisfy both our expectations.
____16)  I try to keep my disagreements to myself in order to avoid hard feelings.
____17)  I usually pursue my side of an issue.
____18)  I negotiate with the other to reach a compromise.
____19)  I often go with the other’s suggestions.
____20)  I exchange accurate information with the other so we can solve a problem together.

____21)  I try to avoid unpleasant exchanges with the other.
____22)  I sometimes use my power to win.
____23)  I use “give and take” so that a compromise can be made.
____24)  I try to satisfy the other’s expectations.
____25)  I try to bring all our concerns out in the open so that the issues can be solved.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Directions:  We are examining the preferences people have for various styles of business leadership.  We are interested in the qualities people would like to see in their employers. Please consider each of the statements in this scale and select the number that corresponds to how you feel about each statement.  Mark a “5” if you extremely disagree with the statement.  Write a “4” in the blank if you disagree with the statement.  If you are neutral, write a “3” in the blank.  If you agree with the statement, write a “2” in the blank.  If you strongly agree with the statement, mark a “1”.

 

    Strongly                        Agree                         Neutral              Disagree              Strongly

    Agree                                                                                                            Disagree

         1                     2                                  3                             4                         5

Community Service and Stewardship

_____1. I would not want to work for a boss who is always talking about the company’s potential to contribute to society.

_____2. I would like to work for a leader that encourages me to have a community spirit in the workplace.

_____3. It makes no sense to work hard for a boss that believes the organization needs to play a moral role in society.

_____4. I would like to work for a leader that is always preparing the organization to make a positive difference in the future.

_____5. I would like to work for a boss who is committed to serving coworkers, the organization, and society.

_____6. I would like to work for a boss who responds to the needs of individuals who live in today’s modern workplace.

 

  


 

Strongly                  Agree                        Neutral              Disagree              Strongly

    Agree                                                                                                            Disagree

         1                      2                                3                             4                         5

Authenticity/Trust

_____1. I would like to work for a boss who is assertive and supports others’ decisions.

_____2. I don’t think it would be wise to work for a leader who lets me know exactly where he or she stands.

_____3. I would like to work for a boss who I can trust to sacrifice his or her time for the benefit of the company.

_____4. I would like to work for a leader who is honest enough to consult others in the organization when he or she does not have all the answers.

 _____5. I would like to work for a boss who considers the opinions of others as a basis for making appropriate decisions.

_____6. I would not like to work for a boss who is authentic and reliable.

 

   Strongly                   Agree                         Neutral             Disagree               Strongly

    Agree                                                                                                            Disagree

         1                      2                                  3                            4                         5

Humility/Accept others

_____1. I would NOT like to work for a leader who is humble and accessible.

_____2. I would feel uncomfortable if my superior appeared to be genuinely interested in me as a person.

_____3. I would work hard for a leader who does not call attention on his or her own accomplishments.

_____4. I would like to work for a boss who is courteous and respectful.

_____5. I would like to work for a boss who engages with and accepts others for who they are.

_____6. I would like to work for a boss who treats all people equality and with dignity.

 

  


 

Strongly                Agree                         Neutral             Disagree               Strongly

    Agree                                                                                                            Disagree

         1                      2                                  3                            4                         5

Help subordinates succeed while standing back

_____1. I would like to work for someone who enables me to solve problems on my own.

_____2. I would enjoy working for an employer who gives me the training and opportunities to do my best work.

_____3. I would like to work for a boss who provides opportunities for learning and growth.

_____4. I would question the judgment of a leader who remains in the background and gives credit to others.

_____5. I would be suspicious of a boss who tries to helps me grow on the job and be a better person in all aspects of my life.

_____6. I would like to work for a boss who stands aside and lets me do my best work.

   Strongly             Agree                         Neutral             Disagree               Strongly

    Agree                                                                                                            Disagree

         1                      2                                  3                            4                         5

Conceptual skills, vision, and accountability

_____1. I would like to work for a boss that seeks my commitment concerning the shared vision of our company.

_____2. I would feel manipulated if a leader tried to include my vision into the firm’s goals and objectives.

_____3. I would like to work for a manager who admits his or her mistakes and improves performance by learning from errors.

_____4. I would like to work for a boss that has a clear and concise vision of what the company wants to become in ten or twenty years.

_____5. I would like to work for a boss who has the ability to conceive new ideas, to re-think current procedures, and to guide the company to new levels of success.

_____6. I would NOT be motivated by a leader that encourages me to dream big and makes my vision part of the organization’s vision.

 

   Strongly             Agree                         Neutral              Disagree              Strongly

    Agree                                                                                                            Disagree

         1                      2                                  3                            4                         5

 

Behave ethically and courageously

_____1. I would work for a leader who creates a culture that fosters high standards that are based upon clear ethical principles.

_____2. I would like to work for an employer who is a role model of good moral principles in his or her actions and words.

_____3. I would feel uncomfortable working for a boss who has the courage to take action for moral reasons that may have risky consequences.

 _____4. I would like to work for a boss who uses ends and means that are are morally legitimate, thoughtfully reasoned, and ethically justified.

_____5. It is NOT a good idea to work for a leader who adheres to moral and ethical principles.

_____6. I would like to work for a boss who is willing to make personal sacrifices when ethical principles are at stake.

 

 

 

 

 

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