Do Leaders Have a Responsibility to Protect Followers?

Leaders are expected to monitor performance and assign work tasks. But do they also have a responsibility to protect their followers as well? Should they “take the heat” so employees can be more productive? Former research and development head at 3M William Coyne felt one of his most significant contributions as a manager of creative employees was to prevent them from being bombarded with questions and suggestions from higher-ups. Especially in creative fields, leaders need to make the environment safe for employees to express their ideas, even if it means generating conflict with upper levels in the organization. Leaders may also need to protect up-and-coming employees from longer-tenured employees who see them as a threat.


Important components of servant leadership include putting subordinates first, helping them grow, and empowering them. We might thus expect servant leaders to protect their followers from negative pressures in the organization. Studies also show that higher levels of servant leadership are associated with more citizenship behavior, higher performance, and greater creativity in work groups. As our review of the literature shows, acting to protect workers has a demonstrated impact on effective performance in the real world.

Still, shielding workers may not be in the organization’s best interest all the time. Close personal relationships with subordinates can make it difficult to provide negative feedback when it’s needed. A leader might be coddling a poor performer rather than protecting him or her from excess scrutiny. Thus, leaders need to take care when exercising their protecting role and be objective about what function it is serving.

So what should leaders do to effectively protect workers without falling into the trap of protecting the incompetent? Here are a few suggestions.

  1. Try to identify barriers to effective performance in the work environment and protect employees from these unnecessary sources of political infighting, distraction, and delay.
  2. Assess employee contributions realistically. Try to separate your feelings about an employee from your desire to protect him or her from outside scrutiny.
  3. Sometimes the best thing to do is let an employee handle problems independently and wait for him or her to ask for help. This can be surprisingly hard for many leaders who are used to seeing themselves in a proactive role.

Sources: Based on R. I. Sutton, “The Boss as Human Shield,” Harvard Business Review (September, 2010), pp. 106–109; J. Hu and R. C. Liden, “Antecedents of Team Potency and Team Effectiveness: An Examination of Goal and Process Clarity and Servant Leadership,” Journal of Applied Psychology, Online first publication (February 14, 2011), doi: 10.1037/a0022465; and F. O. Walumbwa, C. A. Hartnell, and A. Oke, “Servant Leadership, Procedural Justice Climate, Service Climate, Employee Attitudes, and Organizational Citizenship Behavior: A Cross-Level Investigation,” Journal of Applied Psychology 95, no. 3 (2010), pp. 517–529.