The HR world talks about leadership from sunup to sundown, yet we often forget the flip side of that coin–and that’s followership. Any successful leader relies on the people around them to get things done. But drones are not the solution. Just as important as leading others is the ability to follow others–and that comes with its own entire set of skills.
What Is Followership?
One definition of followership is simply a person who obeys instructions from a leader. But there is a lot more to effective followership than robot-like behavior.
A more expanded and useful definition of effective followership is based, ironically, on leadership skills. Leaders tell employees what to do, but just as importantly, they “take initiative, help others, and have the courage to speak up when something is wrong.” Except for being in charge of giving instructions, followership and leadership are very similar.
There are many types of followers. Companies depend on those that show various leader-like traits, such as:
- Communication and listening abilities
- High capacity for teamwork
With this idea in mind, here is a revised definition of followership: the ability to receive instructions and then perform them with minimum managerial support, both individually and in teams.
Why Is Followership Important to Leaders?
The whole idea of an organization is to have a group of people with a common goal, working together to do the best job possible. What allows this to happen? Is it a strong leader, or independent workers? The answer is both. Here’s why:
- Even when a leader is top notch, nothing will be accomplished if nobody listens to their orders. A leader can’t repeat instructions constantly, and at some point, employees need to operate by themselves.
- When employees are totally independent, there is nothing that enables them to work together. Someone needs to take charge, if only to find agreement about what tasks need to be done.
So, for an organization to operate effectively, there is always a need for both leaders and followers. Let’s look at some of the traits that allow the leader-follower dynamic to achieve its best performance:
High Capacity for Teamwork
The idea of collective genius is a crucial part of any team that wants to overcome challenges. But even for run-of-the-mill operations, teamwork is critical. When employees don’t get along, or the group has some weak links, it takes valuable time away from the leader to deal with such issues. Strong followers resolve their problems among themselves.
Micro-management is definitely a style, but often a wasteful one. All followers rely on managers to give them initial instructions. But it’s an effective follower who can take orders and then run with them by organizing their activities in a way that fits schedules, the needs of other employees, and quality requirements.
Sometimes, the most important part of a job is showing up. Employees who are conscientious about their schedules are dependable, available whenever the leader needs them, and get their tasks done on time (all else being equal).
Repetition can be a good thing, but that’s mostly for cases where employees need reminding. Leaders have lots on their plate, so the follower who only needs to be told once – because they understand immediately, and remember the details – is a great asset. This type of follower saves time for managers and tends not to make mistakes.
One thing that is striking about the “Act Your Wage” attitude is that it lacks empathy. Many HR concepts focus on the needs of employees. But leaders are people too, and they feel stress, regardless of their pay scale or position in the hierarchy. No wonder that Millennial managers are feeling more stress than other leaders. An empathetic follower will balance their needs with those of their manager as a way of recognizing their humanity.
Leaders cannot foresee every problem with even the most professionally-made plans. And they are not always the person with the most experience to deal with issues. An effective follower will take initiative to resolve whatever challenges come up, or in cooperation with the team, before kicking it upstairs.
Why Are Leaders Important to Followers?
Just as there are a variety of follower types, not all leaders are created equally. From the democrat to the dictator, leaders are hard-wired to some extent. Followers often need to adjust their own styles according to the personality of the leader.
They will also change their long-term behavior according to their leader. Employees tend to follow leaders whom they admire and like, and disengage from tyrants who are also ineffective. This is a significant message for any HR leader who wants to increase retention.
But again, the leader-follower dynamic is important here. An extensive study by Gallup on leadership showed that “the best leaders lead with their followers in mind.” Top leaders actively engage with their people to discover their needs and priorities as a secret to success. But there is a critical issue here – does it pay to listen to every follower?
Types of Followers
Unless a leader is highly in-tune with every person on their team, they will probably experience the effect of how followers have different motives. The type of follower in question influences how that employee works and interacts with the group, and is a factor in the productivity of the team.
Sycophants – These types of followers are “fans,” at least on the surface. There are those who genuinely like their leader and will honestly do their best. But there are also opportunists who seem dedicated but actually have no loyalty, especially when times are tough. Leaders can expect sycophants to obey directions but not give sincere feedback.
Critics – A leader with insight into personality will recognize those on their team who have valid reasons to be critical of decisions and tasks. This type of employee is valuable, even if difficult. However, some employees are critical because they really don’t like their manager or company. They are the classic “two-faced” workers who seem to follow but, behind the scenes, they can hurt the organization.
Realists – Such followers demonstrate a healthy balance between loyalty and critical thinking. A realist will speak up when they see a problem. But, once a choice has been made, they will be professionals about their tasks.
It’s important for leaders to understand the different sorts of followers. Being able to predict how an employee will behave when the manager is not around will give a leader the advantage of directing each type in the most effective way. In addition, it lets the leader know whom they can trust and listen to when they “lead with their followers in mind.”
The Skills of Followership
Some employees have a natural level of followership, while others are ordinarily independence-minded, disagreeable, etc. To enhance the manner in which they cooperate with leaders and do their work to their best ability, training in the following skills can be valuable:
Active listening is particularly important for effective followership. The efficiency of any team is improved when minimal instructions are required.
But listening is only one aspect of communication that helps leaders. Employees should feel comfortable asking questions, providing comments, and making suggestions directly to their manager. It is often the case that an employee sees certain barriers, such as scheduling conflicts, before the manager does, and communication provides all-around benefits in such situations.
In addition, even when the leader is not present, the team will remain productive through communication. Team members with certain abilities can support those who are weaker in some areas. Disagreements can be handled more effectively when coworkers know how to argue properly. This is especially true when a team member takes the initiative to act as a mediator. Such informal leadership can also be useful when the team needs a representative to discuss challenges with their manager.
Employees who take the initiative in the leader-follower relationship are demonstrating adaptability. All plans have some gaps that could not have been anticipated by the leader. An effective follower will adjust to these conditions through adaptive skills such as problem solving, decision making, and change management. The need for a good follower to show adaptability is another way in which leadership and followership are two sides of the same coin.
The ability to work in teams also comes into play here. Stepping up when necessary often results from wanting the group to put in a good performance.
“Critics” often make up part of any team of followers, and they can be tough to manage. But logical and even tough criticism can be an excellent tool for improving the performance of the team, and for keeping leaders on their toes. Great followers have the ability to critique a leader’s plan while avoiding personal bias, delaying judgment until a decision is made, and by acting charitably towards a leader’s decisions. Building critical thinking skills also helps employees to complete individual and personal tasks.
Another skill that is helpful in everyday life is time management. Failing to meet the schedule is, in reality, a sign of project failure. Through planning, prioritizing, scheduling, and record keeping, employees can ensure that they stay on track for finishing the task on time.
Developing Followership Skills
One way of building the skills of an effective follower is through L&D courses. As we’ve mentioned, there is a lot of overlap between leadership and followership. Many of the courses supplied as part of a leadership development program will count towards followership.
But perhaps the best means to develop an effective follower is by working as an employee across roles and for different leaders. Every manager has their own style, and learning how to accommodate each can be a valuable experience. Even managerial candidates should spend time “on the line” as a way to understand how they react as followers to different leadership types. This will help them figure out their own style, and give them insight about how their future subordinates will regard them.
Useful L&D initiatives for this purpose include:
The Leading L&D Platform for Followership Skills
Both followers and leaders need a wide range of skills to compete and excel in today’s ever-changing workplace. With GrowthSpace, companies can design the optimal experience for learning and development initiatives that deliver the right skills, to the right employees, with the right methods.