Employee Engagement Issues? Try Servant Leadership

Colleagues High Fiving

According to a 2021 Gallup poll, roughly one-third of U.S. employees are actively engaged at their place of work. That means that around two-thirds are either not engaged, or actively disengaged (this last group, according to Gallup, makes up 18%). What does it mean to be engaged? One of the most popular definitions comes from Schaufeli, Salanova, Gonzales-Roma, and Bakker (2002) who defined it as “a positive, fulfilling, work-related state of mind that is characterized by vigor, dedication, and absorption.” Based on this definition, one could say that at a minimum, 66% of employees do not have a positive, fulfilling, work-related state of mind, and that they lack vigor, dedication, and absorption regarding their job. What a sorry state of affairs for U.S. companies. But all is not lost. There is a leadership style that actually improves employee engagement. That style? Servant Leadership.

Four recent studies support the idea that servant leadership improves employee engagement. The first by De Clerq, Bouckenooghe, Raja, and Matsyborska (2014) of 263 employees at four IT companies, found a direct correlation between servant leadership and enhanced employee engagement. Shuck and Herd (2012) in an article on leadership and engagement, stated that addressing follower needs is critical for an engaged workforce. Servant leadership, according to De Clerq et al. (2014), does just that. They were so impressed with their findings that they suggested that because of the critical role servant leadership plays in employee engagement, organizations should invest in helping their leaders become servant leaders.

Klein (2014) also conducted a study on servant leadership and engagement, and also found a direct correlation between the two. While his sample size was small (one Fortune 500 company, with 233 participants for four geographical locations with the U.S.), he specifically found that servant leadership positively impacted employee engagement through improved trust and an enhanced perception of organizational fit. He also noted that while transformational leadership was recently found to be positively correlated to employee engagement, the strength of that correlation was significantly less than that of servant leadership to employee engagement.

The third is a case study of the Cleveland Clinic by Patrnchak (2015). Though the clinic implemented a few different employee engagement efforts to improve their Q12 score in 2008 (a well-regarded employee engagement assessment) Patrnchak, the former CHRO for the clinic, stated that it is reasonable to conclude that servant leadership was having a “significant, positive impact” on employee engagement.

The final study of a small restaurant chain known for its servant leadership style was conducted by Carter and Baghurst (2014) also found that servant leadership positively influenced employee engagement, specifically with regard to commitment, loyalty and personal ownership.

While not a large number of studies, the four presented do point to servant leadership as a strong predictor of engaged employees. Perhaps De Clerq and his associates’ suggestion of investing in servant leadership is not such a bad idea.


Carter. D., & Baghurst, T. (2014). The influence of servant leadership on restaurant employee engagement. Journal of Business Ethics, 124, 453-464.

De Clerq, D., Bouckenooghe, D., Raja, U., & Matsyborska, G. (2014). Servant leadership and work engagement: The contingency effect of leader-follower social capital. Human Resources Development Quarterly, 25(2), 183-212.

Klein, N.D. (2014). The relationship between servant leadership and employee engagement: The mediating roles of trust and fit. (Unpublished doctoral dissertation). Creighton University, Omaha, NE.

Patrnchak, J.M. (2015). Implementing servant leadership at Cleveland Clinc: A case study in organizational change. Servant Leadership: Theory and Practice, 2(1), 36-48.

Schaufeli, W. B., Salanova, M., Gonzalez-Roma, V., & Bakker, A.B. (2002). The measurement of engagement and burnout: A two sample confirmatory factor analytic approach. Journal of Happiness Studies, 3, 71–92.

Shuck, B., & Herd, A.M. (2012). Employee engagement and leadership: Exploring the convergence of two frameworks and implications for leadership development in HRD. Human Resources Development Review, 11(2), 156-181.

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