Are you in service or servitude?

Copyright © Jenn Shallvey

Copyright © Jenn Shallvey

Serving is not servitude.

Work is often about how you serve others. 

Service in leadership is a powerful combination. 

Service is about how you are as a person in the world helping others.  

It is not about being in servitude. 

I use the word servitude to mean be indentured or obliged or in a sense tied to someone else telling you how to be, how to live.  (Yes I am aware of the literal use of the word which I do not refer to in this post). We can often be confused with the two. We can say and think ‘I am in service’ when in reality we are in a dependent relationship that does not support us. In the latter, we end up giving away not just our service but ourselves. 

This is the crux of the difference. When we only give away ourselves there is no more left to give. This over-giving is the consequence that leads to problems. How do you get back out of this imbalance after you cross the line?

Consider that when in servitude there are a lot of people who collude with you.  The people you think you are serving certainly are not going to say anything because they get what they want. Even if these implicit relationships are not conscious, they are finding a way for you to do what they want which makes their lives a whole lot easier. If this arrangement makes their life easier then they are probably going to keep finding ways to make it happen. Your state and ability is not of concern. 

In business

Now in the world of business I find this an interesting dynamic.  We have service in the people we work with.  We might even be in an industry of service where we are all talking about service.  We serve our clients and our customers and we go on about that. To keep the balance towards serving there will be comments like ‘we need to do this to make the customer happy’ or ‘we have to do this to be in service because we are a service company’.

We even elevate people to hero status with company stories, awards, measures and choice over what we reward in terms of customer service.  The authenticity of these types of attitudes and enticements depend on the culture of the organisation and associated leaders.  No doubt the genuine actions create positive outcomes for all. 

Rethinking is rebalancing

I am not here to say stop serving. By no means do I think that should happen. I think the world needs to have us serving. I think we have room for more, genuine and consistent service.  We face frequent examples of selfish greed in the world right now.  This is just my opinion.  I do think people are going around saying ‘me me me me’ and forgetting about ‘we we we we’. When we go into servitude it’s all about ‘you you you you’. When we do all ‘you you you you’ and the me or we is not in the equation anymore then there is nothing left.

This depletion, emptiness and imbalance is what I am focusing on. I am talking about that feeling of ‘I’m exhausted’, ‘this person reminds me of this’, ‘I can’t do this anymore’. And when you have hit that you know you have crossed the line.

What to do

A few things to consider.

How do you recognise you are in an imbalanced relationship rather than one of genuine service

  • You feel or have a sense that something is not right.
  • Actions you take are not acknowledged but assumed.
  • Emotionally you fear consequences of non service.
  • When you do provide service it is conditional.
  • Power is all with the person you are serving.
  • You are not respected but expected to serve.
  • Being unconditional or selfless in your actions makes you angry.
  • Criticism, negative feedback or complaints are one sided and the norm. 

What do you do once you realise you are in this situation?

  • Accept and acknowledge to your self without judgement.
  • Seek out an independent and objective friend, mentor or other person to help you to balance.
  • Monitor and observe your behaviours and responses to identify what triggers you.  
  • Find ways to create boundaries that help you.
  • Practice in small steps being assertive about your needs.
  • Reclaim a sense of self, what you stand for and who you are.
  • If the relationship has a solid foundation, then engage in a real conversation about your experience.
  • If you are not able to rebalance the relationship, or you reach crisis point, then consider and plan an exit now or when appropriate.
  • Ensure you are supported and surrounded by others who do ‘get you’ and respect you.
  • Take away learning for the next time.

These suggestions and ideas are general and offered for your reflection and consideration. Your situation will have it’s own nuances and dynamics. For example you may have aspects of what is mentioned above in different relationships. Or you may find there is a consistent pattern of behaviour on your part that needs deeper investigation. Listen to yourself and take action that supports you.




Jenn Shallvey