NCMR: Servant Leadership, Third party Behavior, and Emotional Exhaustion of Followers

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Servant Leadership, Third party Behavior, and Emotional Exhaustion of Followers
By Innocentina-Marie O. Obi, Katalien Bollen, Hillie Aaldering, Wouter Robijn, Martin C. Euwema



Managing conflict is a critical responsibility of leaders. While research on leadership and leaders’ third-party conflict behaviors is relatively limited, available studies have focused mostly on business organizations and workplace contexts. Little is known about leadership and how leaders manage followers’ conflicts as third parties in a community-oriented and value-based women religious institute. Building on the organizational leadership and conflict management literature, we conducted a study to examine whether servant leaders reduce the occurrence of team conflicts – relationship conflict, task conflict, process conflict, and status conflict- and curb emotional exhaustion of followers in the local religious communities- convents. We further investigated leaders’ third-party conflict behaviors – avoiding, forcing, and problem-solving, as underlying psychological mechanisms that explained these relationships. Data were collected from 453 religious sisters (followers), living in 166 convents, in a Catholic Women Religious Institute, mostly based in Nigeria. Structural equation modeling confirmed most of our expectations.



The most exciting findings include that team conflict indeed occurred less when the sisters experienced their leader as servant. This was explained by servant leaders’ behavior when intervening in followers’ conflicts: They were inclined to adopt a problem-solving strategy, rather than to use avoiding and forcing behaviors to end the conflicts. A further intriguing finding was that servant leaders additionally seemed able to curb followers’ emotional exhaustion as long as they applied no force when dealing with followers’ conflicts.


Contributions to the research field

The most significant contribution of this study lies in connecting servant leadership to leaders’ third party conflict behaviors- avoiding, forcing, and problem-solving. Another critical contribution of our study is the process of introducing leaders’ third party conflict behaviors as underlying psychological mechanisms explaining: (1) servant leadership – team conflict relationship, and (2) servant leadership – emotional exhaustion relationship. Given the critical role of context in leadership and conflict studies, a further relevant contribution of our study is the unique context of studying this: A Catholic Women Religious Institute in Nigeria. The Nigerian West African context is a communal culture with high humane orientation and power distance. This study specifically investigated convents, which typically refer to local religious communities where women (Sisters) professed to be religious, live 24/7 community life and work. Their activities characterize daily interactions, and communication regarding both their religious life integrated with their work-life, towards attaining their common goal- serving God through humanity. This religious community context, just like every other organization, is susceptible to the inevitable and ubiquitous challenge to effective collaboration and wellbeing- the occurrence of conflicts. This specific context has long been underrepresented in organizational psychological research.


Implications of study

In practice, our findings suggest that leaders (here, local community leaders) might be crucial in building collaborative and healthy religious communities through problem-solving in conflict situations. Specifically, leaders could apply servant leadership key characteristics of empathetic listening, emotional healing, empowering, building community, putting followers first, and behaving ethically by exhibiting honesty, fairness, trust, and act as role models of integrity. These leaders could also integrate the indigenous African humane and community concept of Ubuntu in this regard. Moreover, our results imply developing leadership programs for effective conflict management, suggesting paying critical attention to providing servant leadership training for enhancing third party problem-solving conflict behavior, while deemphasizing avoiding strategy and forcing behavior in conflict moments.


Authors’ Biographies

Innocentina-Marie O. Obi is a PhD student at KU Leuven, Belgium. She obtained her Bachelor’s degree in Theology at the Catholic Institute of West Africa (CIWA), Port Harcourt, Nigeria, and her Master’s degree in Theology and Religious Studies at KU Leuven, Belgium. She is currently finalizing her PhD in the Faculty of Psychology and Educational Sciences in the Research Group Occupational and Organizational Psychology and Professional Learning at KU Leuven, Belgium. Her research interests include (servant) leadership and conflict management, third party conflict behavior, trust, and wellbeing. Her research interests have two core motivations. First, to reinvigorate and advance servant leadership and constructive conflict management behavior proficiencies among Religious Sisters. Finally, to extend to the broader community/society where the Sisters serve God through humanity by contributing to making a positive social difference through becoming more constructive and more problem-solving in conflict situations. Specifically, to engage in creating awareness, and promoting more (female) servant leaders for constructive conflict management and problem-solving. Innocentina-Marie is a Catholic Nun.


Katalien Bollen obtained her PhD at KU Leuven (“Mediation in hierarchical labor conflicts”). Currently, Katalien works as Senior Expert Family & Business Dynamics. She supports families in their communication and conflict skills in order to improve mutual understanding and learning. Katalien is affiliated to the University of Leuven, where she teaches and co-supervises PhD students. Her research interests focus on processes and online tools that foster empowerment and cooperation (e.g., mediation, coaching, negotiation, leadership). Katalien is Fellow of the Leuven Centre for Collaborative Management (LCM) and involved in different executive master’s programs on mediation.


Hillie Aaldering is assistant professor at the department of work- and organizational psychology at the University of Amsterdam, The Netherlands. She has been an enthusiastic IACM attendee since 2012. Her research is focused on understanding the psychology of individuals in conflicts, both within and between groups, and especially on promoting cooperation through conflict handling and negotiations. She uses both experimental games and field studies in her research. Many of her collaborators are part of the IACM community, where inspiring conferences have led to fruitful collaborations and publications. She has published in leading journals in the field of social and organizational psychology on these topics.


Wouter Robijn is a PhD candidate at KU Leuven (Belgium). His research focuses on leadership, team processes and well-being​. He is currently finishing his PhD on engaging leadership from a conflict management perspective. Besides his academic work, he also works as a trainer and coach with a focus on leadership development and team coaching.


Martin C. Euwema is full professor in organizational psychology at KU Leuven (Belgium), co‐director of the Leuven center for collaborative management, and Chair of the research group occupational and organizational psychology and professional learning (O2L). He is past president of the International Association for Conflict Management (IACM). Martin’s interests are conflict management and mediation, organizational change and (international) leadership. He has a wide experience as consultant and mediator.