Servant leadership and engagement: a dual mediation model Yuanjie Bao and Chaoping Li
School of Public Administration and Policy, Renmin University of China, Beijing, China, and
Hao Zhao Lally School of Management, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy, New York, USA
Abstract Purpose – The purpose of this paper is to compare two mediating mechanisms of servant leadership’s effect on followers’ work engagement: the social exchange mechanism (represented by leader-member exchange (LMX)) and the social learning mechanism (represented by public service motivation in Study 1 and prosocial motivation in Study 2).
Design/methodology/approach – In Study 1, the authors collected two-wave matched data from 216 public sector employees. In Study 2, the authors collected two-wave matched data from 178 private sector employees. The authors use hierarchical regression and bootstrapping to test the hypotheses. Findings – Servant leadership is positively related to follower’s work engagement and this relationship is mediated by LMX, but not by public service motivation (Study 1) or prosocial motivation (Study 2).
It suggests that servant leadership promotes followers’ work engagement mostly through the social exchange mechanism. Research limitations/implications – The data were collected from Chinese employees, and future studies are necessary to verify the findings in other cultural contexts. Originality/value – This study sheds light on a more nuanced picture of the effect mechanisms of servant leadership. Keywords Servant leadership, Leader-member exchange, Public service motivation, Prosocial motivation, Work engagement Paper type Research paper
Introduction Servant leaders put followers’ interests before their own and act in a moral and humble manner (van Dierendonck, 2011). Empirically, researchers reported that servant leadership is related to various outcomes, such as job performance (e.g. Schwarz et al., 2016), organizational commitment (e.g. Carter and Baghurst, 2014), helping (e.g. Neubert et al., 2008), organizational citizenship behavior (e.g. Walumbwa et al., 2010) and engagement (e.g. Sousa and van Dierendonck, 2017).
We find engagement, as a positive job attitude (van Dierendonck, 2011), is a relatively under studied but important outcome. Engaged workers display desirable motivation and behaviors like vigor, dedication and absorption (Schaufeli et al., 2006). In this paper, we investigate how servant leadership affects followers’ work engagement using one sample from the public sector and another sample from the private sector.
Extant research has taken two directions to explain the effects of servant leadership. The first proposed mediating mechanism is based on social exchange theory (Blau, 1964). Servant leaders can form “social exchange relationships with their followers, rather than relying solely on the economic incentives in the employment agreement or the authority vested in their
Journal of Managerial Psychology Vol. 33 No. 6, 2018 pp. 406-417 © Emerald Publishing Limited 0268-3946 DOI 10.1108/JMP-12-2017-0435
Received 23 January 2018 Revised 15 April 2018 8 August 2018 Accepted 28 August 2018
The current issue and full text archive of this journal is available on Emerald Insight at: www.emeraldinsight.com/0268-3946.htm
The authors gratefully acknowledge the financial support provided by National Science Foundation of China (Grant Nos 71772171 and 71372159), the project of “985” in China and the Social Sciences planning projects from the Ministry of Education (Grant No. 17YJA630073). The three authors made equal contribution to this paper. The order of author names is presented by the alphabetical order of their family names.
positions” (Liden et al., 2008, p. 163). Social exchange involves at least an expectation of reciprocation, so that both parties will find the relationship rewarding and worthwhile to continue (Blau, 1964). It is assumed that by helping the personal and professional growth of employees, a servant leader creates an obligation on followers to reciprocate in the long term, and the target of the reciprocation is the leader or the organization represented by the leader.
Servant leadership researchers examined various mediators in the social exchange category, including leader-member exchange (LMX; e.g. Newman et al., 2017), followers’ need satisfaction (e.g. Chiniara and Bentein, 2016; van Dierendonck et al., 2014), commitment to the leader (e.g. Walumbwa et al., 2010) and affective trust in the leader (e.g. Schaubroeck et al., 2011).
The second mediating mechanism is based on social learning theory (Bandura, 1977), especially the vicarious learning process. Through the observation of positive, role modeling behaviors by the servant leaders, followers will learn these behaviors and will seek to replicate them in other social contexts, such as when interacting with the community, the customers or the coworkers. It goes beyond the dyadic exchange relationship between the leader and the follower, to benefit a broader range of stakeholders.
It is consistent with the tenet of servant leadership theory that servant leaders take into account multiple stakeholders, including the larger society (Liden et al., 2008). In essence, through their altruistic behaviors, servant leaders will be able to induce followers to mirror and become servants themselves. There are only a few empirical studies examining the social learning mechanism, and the key mediating variables examined include serving culture (e.g. Liden et al., 2014) and service climate (Hunter et al., 2013) at the group level, and public service motivation at the individual level (e.g. Schwarz et al., 2016).
These two perspectives imply very different and even contrasting processes, in that the first is driven by self-interest and the second by altruism. Unfortunately, so far researchers overlooked the theoretical difference, and to our knowledge, no study has examined the two types of mediating mechanisms in the same research model side by side. We fill the gap by testing the dual mediation model with one sample from the public sector, and another sample from the private sector. This differential replication design (Lindsay and Ehrenberg, 1993) is necessary to validate our results, because employees who self-selected into the public sector and private sector may have different levels of altruistic motivation, and different work expectations.
Study 1 Servant leadership and work engagement Servant leaders put the interests of the served before their own. It is these conscious choices made by the servants that eventually made them leaders (Graham, 1991). Servant leaders are moral, socially responsible and emphasize followers’ interests and developments (Parris, 2013; van Dierendonck, 2011; Avolio et al., 2009).