Sunday, June 18, 2023
In organizational settings, we take leadership far more seriously than followership. Followership is a rarely used term in organizations. In my career, I’ve only heard of followership once when a wiser colleague proposed we include “willingness to follow” as an expectation for senior individual contributors. But unfortunately, followership and “willingness to follow” sound like sycophancy — doing what your boss wants while sacrificing your values and dignity. But there is more to followership than taking orders.
Followership is a Thing
A widely accepted definition of leadership in psychology is that leadership is a process of influencing a group of people to produce some common goals. The person influencing others is a leader, and leadership is the process of influencing. Wikipedia puts it well by incorporating power — “leadership can be defined as an influential power-relationship in which the power of one party (the “leader”) promotes movement/change in others (the “followers”).” The source of that power varies from situation to situation and person to person. In some cases, the source of power could be authority; in other cases, it could be softer aspects like expertise, trust, and persuasion.
Nonetheless, the people willing to be influenced in a given context for specific goals are followers. Followership exists wherever leadership exists. Leadership is incomplete unless followers are willing to follow. Yet, we rarely discuss followership. There is far more discourse about leadership than followership. For example, some years ago, my employer brought someone to conduct an all-day leadership workshop. The thesis of that workshop was to persuade that everyone is a leader and should act like one. That’s a fine approach. However, that workshop forgot to mention the other side: everyone is a follower too, and followership is a skill to acquire. Such skills help you accomplish your and your organizational goals.
In leadership, influencing others and being willing to be influenced coexist. Suppose you are not ready to be influenced. In that case, the relationship between you and the person looking to influence you will be ineffective, and you won’t be able to work together to achieve that common goal. This happens far more frequently at work than we acknowledge. As a manager, you sometimes run into situations where most of your team likes you, except some who are less willing to ride along. As a follower, you may not get along well with your manager, while your peers seem okay with that manager. What do you do then? Let me focus on the follower side of the issue in this article.
Followership at Work
In organizational settings, for the most part, the org design determines who follows who and who the leaders are. Leadership and followership are roles we play at work. These roles usually start with the org design and hierarchy, and influence comes later. Good managers realize this and begin building relationships with their team from the start, but inexperienced managers may take their leadership and others’ followership for granted. Since they are the anointed “leader,” they expect their “followers” to follow along. Such managers may have good intentions but may tap into their positional power to influence their team, ignoring the softer aspects of power. What do you do when you’re caught in such situations?
In such cases, you could leave the team and the company and find a job elsewhere. You may get lucky to find a better manager elsewhere, but remember that your choice of manager could be one reorg away. As a Gallup survey said, good managers are rare. You can’t keep changing jobs until you find a manager with that you can get along. Your choice of your manager is not entirely in your control. Moreover, choosing their manager can be a luxury for many. Understanding followership and developing followership techniques could help you ride along and grow in your career.
First, most of us construct inflated views of ourselves based on past successes. When we encounter a manager who doesn’t share our opinions and ways, we struggle to influence and be influenced. Hence, put your self-inflated view of yourself aside and figure out your manager. Listen and build empathy. We expect our managers to listen and be empathetic — play the same card toward your manager. Figure out your manager’s context, strengths, weaknesses, how they operate, and their motivations. It takes work, and that’s one of the aspects of managing up.
Second, followership requires adaptation from your views and your way to another person’s views and practices. You should be willing to put aside your views and ways and enthusiastically follow someone else’s views and ways in the context of work. You might develop a better relationship with your manager in that adaptation process. Enthusiasm is vital for survival (i.e., being in the game) and growth (i.e., winning). Don’t be a grumpy and disgruntled follower. In his 1988 article In Praise of Followers, Robert Kelley puts such followers in his “alienated followers” quadrant. In his description, such followers “are critical and independent in their thinking but passive in carrying out their role.” I was in that quadrant more than once in my career. Not a worthy place to be.
But in this adaptation process, you might discover that your manager’s motivations, values, or behaviors are toxic and damaging to you and the rest of the organization. In that case, by all means, you should quit.
Third, also put your expectation of what a good manager should be aside. Be practical. Such views can prevent you from understanding your manager and building a relationship. Since good managers are rare, the odds of you working for a perfect manager are slim. One of my friends once said (quoting someone else) that “You don’t have to like someone to work with them.” You don’t have to like your manager’s values and leadership beliefs. Following does not have to require sacrificing your values. In one difficult situation, my coach once said, “Your manager is acting like a child.” Her point changed my perspective. When I imagined that manager as a tantrum child, my views became clearer, and I could build coping strategies to work with that manager. In any case, a job is a business relationship between you and your company. So, get off the high chair.
To develop personal resilience, you must learn to play leader and follower roles with various people. Don’t always walk away when the going gets tough. As long as you remember that leadership and followership are roles you play in an organizational setting, tone down your inflated views of yourself and inflated expectations of your manager, you can build a better relationship with your manager and resilience. Don’t take yourself seriously. Be humble. Be proactive and a problem solver. Raise your hand. Get feedback and dissent constructively. Don’t be a grumpy and passive follower. Remember that followership, just like leadership, is essential for goal accomplishment.