Skip to content

How to improve servant leadership with shared decision-making


When you think about servant leadership, the first words that come to mind are probably empathy, awareness and listening – but maybe not shared decision-making.

However, shared decision-making does make the list of important tools in a servant leader’s toolbox.

What is shared decision-making?

Shared decision-making is a process that draws on the combined knowledge of many stakeholders (whether that’s members of your team or other leaders) to make smarter, more effective decisions.

In this article we’ll answer:

  • What makes it different from collaboration?
  • What are the benefits?
  • What does it look like?
  • How can you adapt a shared decision-making mindset if you’re used to making top-down decisions?

Shared decision-making is different from collaboration

Shared decision-making and collaboration both involve groups of people working together to achieve a goal. However, the goals for shared decision-making and collaboration are subtly different.

The shared decision-making process brings people together to decide on something. Collaboration brings people together to produce work.

Take the example of a product manager who needs to decide which new features to include in a software update.

In a non-shared decision-making process, the manager might:

  • Think about the (perceived) needs of their team and recommend changes or additions based on their understanding and insights

 In a shared decision-making process, the manager might talk to:

  • The product planning, engineering and marketing people on their team for input
  • Customer service representatives and salespeople who hear directly from customers about the current software version’s pros and cons
  • Top customers about what they need
  • Other product managers in different regions to get their perspective and learn how they approach product updates

When it’s time to build the features that will be included, the product manager may collaborate with some or all those stakeholders to produce them.

The benefits of shared decision-making in management

Health care and education are two fields that often use shared decision-making to improve outcomes for patients and students. But any organization can benefit from it because the process brings in perspectives and information that decision-makers might otherwise miss.

From a servant leadership perspective, shared-decision making is another tool for both coaching and collaboration. It’s about empowering others to find innovative solutions that maybe wouldn’t have been considered in a top-down strategy.

Here are some advantages:

1. Better employee engagement

When employees know that their input matters and see how it can contribute to business goals, they’re more likely to be engaged. This is especially important to employees in a post-pandemic workplace, where individuals are placing more value on their time and impact.

And when employees are brought into the decision process to share and discuss ideas, it boosts employee engagement.

2. Better customer loyalty

Servant leadership doesn’t always have to apply to your direct team – your influence may sometimes be out of the scope of personnel management. Therefore, sometimes the decision making process can go beyond the business walls as well. When you’re planning to make a decision that will impact your customers, it makes sense to hear from them.

In a shared decision-making process, you can also survey your customers and use that data to inform your decisions. When customers know you’re listening to and delivering on their needs and wants, they’re more likely to stay engaged with your product.

3. Improved change management

You may have heard the statistic that 70% of change initiatives fail due to poor communication and a lack of buy-in.

But with shared decision-making, communication is more open and frequent among leaders, front-line managers and employees. That can improve buy-in at all levels.

Shared decision-making and servant leadership can be a critical success factor for leading through change. Even if a decision needs to be made – and maybe not with the direct involvement of all employees – you can still include them in the decision-making process through transparency:

  1. “This is a decision we are considering.”
  2. “Here are options we are exploring.”
  3. “This is what we decided, and why.”

4. Fewer unintended consequences

No one wants to make a business decision that goes badly. When you make a decision on your own, you may not have all the information you need, which raises the risk of making a bad decision. That’s bad for the business and could be bad for your job, too.

When you get more perspectives and information during the decision-making process, you’re less likely to run into problems you didn’t anticipate once the decision is made.

How to put it into practice

If you’re new to management, or if you’re used to working in organizations with a top-down decision-making culture, moving to shared decision-making can take some getting used to.

Here are five steps to make the switch:

1. Start small

Focus on small changes you can make within your own team or department first.

Trying to make changes that affect groups outside your immediate sphere of influence is too much to take on when you’re just getting used to the shared decision-making process.

2. Start early in the decision-making process

The sooner you gather the information you need, the more likely it is you’ll make good decisions. You’ll also save time.

For example, if you know your employee benefits portal needs an overhaul, it’s better to talk to your stakeholders before you start deciding what elements should be part of the new site.

3. Make it a natural part of your workplace conversations

Finding time to loop people into the decision-making process can be a challenge. And making the discussions too formal can make stakeholders uncomfortable.

One way to ease into the process is to start asking questions related to your upcoming decisions, whenever you’re chatting with team members, customers and colleagues.

When you’re always seeking input, people may be more comfortable answering your questions – and they may start coming to you with their ideas.

4. Ask exploratory questions

It’s hard to make a good decision if you don’t know what you don’t know. Asking your stakeholders open-ended questions will give you more useful information than yes-no questions.

For example, do you need to write job descriptions for new roles? Make a point of asking team members who’ve done that job, or one similar, what skills they think are essential and why.

Encourage your stakeholders in the decision-making process to ask you and each other questions, too. They may raise issues you hadn’t considered.

5. Know when to call a meeting

Casual conversations can give you initial information to help you see where your decision-making process needs to go. However, when a decision will affect your entire team, you’ll need to get everyone together to talk about it for the sake of transparency, brainstorming and buy-in.

The leader owns the decision

With many people contributing to the process, it’s natural to wonder who takes responsibility for the finalized decision.

The leader or manager guiding those conversations is responsible for the decision and the outcome.

In the example of the product manager planning a software update, the manager may get a dozen suggestions for new features from other stakeholders. Based on those conversations along with other factors like budget considerations, it’s the manager’s responsibility to decide which ones to include.

If that decision turns out to be the wrong call, a good manager will take responsibility for it, rather than use shared decision-making as an excuse. However, with all the stakeholder information that it provides, a bad call is less likely than if the manager was making the decision alone.

By tapping into the collective knowledge and insights of your employees, colleagues and customers, it can strengthens your ability to make choices that benefit your company, your customers and your career.

Download our complimentary magazine, The Insperity guide to leadership and management, for more leadership tools that will help your company thrive.