Servant Leadership Can Dampen Emotional COVID Impact

Fears related to COVID and mortality can derail many people from their work responsibilities. However, a new international study proves business leaders can not only alleviate some of this fear but also increase community engagement.

Research conducted in the United States and China shows that while the pandemic has led to an increased fear of death — often causing issues at work for people — business leaders can soften this by being attentive and uniting followers behind a common purpose.  Evidence shows this leads to those same worried individuals remaining engaged at work and contributing to their communities in higher numbers.

Three studies led to these conclusions. The first was conducted in Eastern China, where 163 employees at an information technology company completed surveys twice a day over the course of three weeks while the number of COVID cases was quickly ballooning. Unsurprisingly, the more these individuals thought about people dying from the disease, the more anxious they became and the less engaged they were at work.

But not everyone was the same at the end of the study; it all depended on who led them. These employees fared better if their bosses exhibited servant leadership, which is when leaders attend to their followers’ emotional needs and have them focus on community service. The more these bosses displayed servant leadership, the less anxiety took hold of the employees.

This is because servant leaders care about their employees’ well-being and prioritize their personal growth and happiness at their jobs. These types of leaders made it easier for their employees to deal with the anxiety associated with the pandemic.

These servant leaders encouraged their employees to find meaning in the pandemic by channeling their anxiety into helping less fortunate people in their communities. And that’s exactly how their followers responded.

Two similar studies in the United States were conducted. Participants were instructed to imagine they were consultants advising a retail company on sales. One group read information that made the pandemic look especially bleak; the other one contained less fear-inspiring information.

Afterward, half read a scenario about their fictitious boss in this imaginary scenario displaying servant leadership. The other half read about a different boss who did not. Results followed in step with the Chinese study.

One part that was not imaginary: The American subjects were paid a small fee for their involvement in the study. At the end, they were given an opportunity to donate some or all of this income to charity. The ones who read about the boss exhibiting servant leadership were more generous — proving the point once more about this type of leader inspiring pro-social behavior.

In one of the two studies, the researchers asked specifically about how much participants were worried about their own deaths related to COVID. Results were similar to the study in the Chinese company.

The bottom line is that servant leadership is especially critical during this uncertain and fearful time across the globe. If you lead a team of people, please take the results of these studies to heart.

Co-authors on the study were Wei He of Nanjing University and Kong Zhou of Huazhong University of Science and Technology, both in China.


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Here at Lead Read Today, we endeavor to take an objective (rational, scientific) approach to analyzing leaders and leadership. All opinion pieces will be reviewed for appropriateness, and the opinions shared are solely of the author and not representative of The Ohio State University or any of its affiliates.