I recently read an interesting article in the November issue of Coaching World entitled, “Leadership Dilemma: The American Leadership Paradox.” For me it was a reminder that effective “followership,” which I discussed in two previous posts, is a difficult concept in the American workplace.
The author, Keith Lawrence Miller, states the issue succinctly: “Society demands a powerful altruistic leader…. However, America is a nation of individualists who strive to be the leader, and are ashamed to be categorized in the role of follower.… American culture frowns upon the follower and the omnipotent leader is exaggeratedly admired.”
He then goes on to discuss some of the ways he believes this plays out in our culture:
- Americans want community and togetherness, but also want capitalism and individual freedom.
- Americans value family, but love the rebel.
- Americans scoff at and criticize leaders – believing they could do better – instead of following them.
- Americans tolerate highly imperfect leaders because the imperfections enable individuals to feel superior and better qualified.
Thought-provoking stuff. Does it apply in the workplace? Not as much as in the political arena, but it does explain to some degree the disrespect and distrust many employees have for their supervisors and managers – even for those who are good at their jobs. It also explains, perhaps, why workplace change initiatives are so fraught with difficulty and resistance.
Keith Miller’s solution? Leadership coaching that is cognizant of these attitudes. I think that’s a good starting point. Another solution may be training that addresses and fosters respect for the role of followers. Also important is to remember that the attitudes of employees from other countries and cultures toward leadership may be different than those of US-born employees.
What other ways do you see American attitudes toward leadership and followership play out in the workplace? Do you have any other ideas on how to address these attitudes? ~Amy Stephson
An ever-interesting issue that comes up when managing employees is: can people really change? Employers, of course, generally assume that employees can change and therefore set expectations, create goals, evaluate, develop performance improvement plans, and the like. In many cases employees can and do change, so these tools are necessary and effective.
What about the employee who doesn’t seem to change? The one who continues – despite supervisory attention – to be tardy, to not finish assignments, to play poorly with others, or to yell at co-workers when stressed? In many of these cases, change is possible if a few basic principles are understood:
- Change at the margins is easier than fundamental personality change. What’s at the margins will depend on the person, but examples are: dressing professionally, getting to meetings on time, following procedures, counting to ten before exploding, etc. Sometimes small changes can have a huge impact on how the employee is viewed by others and views him or herself. Small do-able changes should not be sniffed at.
- Change requires the appropriate carrot and stick to ensure that the employee understands what is expected and is motivated to make the needed change. Many managers wonder: “Why can’t I just ask my employees to do something and it gets done? Why do I have to baby them? This is a job!” The answer: humans are complicated. Resistance and resentments can arise for a host of reasons. The manager may come across as a nagging parent or spouse and the employee responds accordingly. The manager and subordinate may have scripts that they just keep repeating. The employee may have insecurities or inadequacies that he or she is hiding. And so on. The supervisor him or herself often needs to change his or approach to the problem.
- Adding a positive behavior is often easier than eliminating a negative one. For example, it may be easier for a bullying supervisor to learn to say hello in the morning to each of his or her subordinates and to bring in donuts once a month than to stop yelling when a hot button is pressed. By adding these positive behaviors, the entire dynamic may change such that it’s then easier for the supervisor to change the negative behaviors. If nothing else, these positive “deposits in the bank” may reduce the impact of the negative behaviors.
In other situations, however, change may not be easy or possible:
- Change will be hard if the person is in the wrong job. People succeed in jobs that align with their strengths. The opposite is also often true. If an employee is poor at numbers, an accounting or finance related position is rarely going to work. If they’re basically antisocial, customer service is not a good field for them. In such a situation, the employee may not be able to change sufficiently to meet the demands of the job.
- People often cannot change fundamental personality traits . In these cases, the employer certainly should give the employee the opportunity to make the needed changes – with a focus on behavior and action, not personality. But at some point, the employer will need to accept the reality that it’s not going to work out and act accordingly. These situations can be very difficult.
- Finally, in some cases the employee just doesn’t want to change and sees it as unnecessary. Termination may be the only way to address this type of employee.
Do you have other ideas on helping employees change? ~Amy Stephson
In my previous post, I discussed the importance of followership — as distinct from but related to leadership. Reduced staffing and the increasing complexity of organizational problems mean that good followers are all the more critical in today’s workplace. The question remains: what makes a good follower? Researching this topic, I found some fascinating prescriptions.
One favorite is “The Ten Rules of Good Followership” by Air Force Colonel Phillip S. Meilinger. It’s not long and is well worth reading in full. A quick summary of several of his rules:
- “Don’t blame your boss for an unpopular decision or policy; your job is to support, not undermine.” This one is huge. It may seem inapplicable to non-military settings and perhaps to some extent it is. But the basic principle – respect the boss’s position and help the boss succeed – is applicable in all workplace settings. In my experience, managers are too often demonized and belittled, rather than supported.
- “Fight with your boss if necessary; but do it in private, avoid embarrassing situations, and never reveal to others what was discussed.” This is a corollary to the first point: the good follower is not a “yes-man” but speaks his or her mind honestly and frankly, just not in a challenging way at the weekly staff meeting.
- “Make the decision, then run it past the boss; use your initiative.” This, the author says, is the antidote for micromanagement. Managers will be far less likely to micromanage if subordinates take some initiative in solving problems.
- “Accept responsibility whenever it is offered.” In other words, be a volunteer and risk taker — not the person who says, “That’s not my job.”
- “Do your homework: give your boss all the information needed to make a decision; anticipate possible questions.” As noted in the article, if done well, this often leads to the follower being the one who actually makes the decision.
- “If you see a problem, fix it. Don’t worry about who would have gotten the blame or who now gets the praise.” Trust in good karma!
Another brief article, “Leading Your Boss” by Michael Useem in The Economic Times, says this about followership:
“Done well … managing the boss becomes an essential platform for then leading the boss. Once the chief knows that a manager brings judgment and gets results, the way is clear for the manager to help lead the chief. … Above all, upward leadership requires the conscious subordination of personal gain to organizational purpose.”
A third article, much longer but valuable, is entitled, “Dynamic Followership: the Prerequisite for Effective Leadership.” It lists a number of other characteristics of the good follower, including that he or she:
- works effectively with others
- embraces change
- is competent
- sees him or herself as a resource
- communicates courageously
- “partners in success” with the leader and follows the leader’s vision
- builds trust with others
Being a good follower is not easy, nor does it necessarily bring glory. If everyone sought to exercise the above traits, however, wouldn’t the workplace be A LOT better? ~Amy Stephson
Have you ever tried to change something involving people and found resistance? A silly question indeed – of course you have. Whether the change you’re trying to make is in yourself, or in your workplace, ultimately the forces that affect your ability to make that change are the same.
In their new book Switch: How to change things when change is hard, Chip Heath and Dan Heath present a practical way of looking at this issue. So very many business (and other) books have addressed change that when I heard there was yet another book I was skeptical that it would present anything new. And, in many ways it doesn’t.
What it does do is present successful change as a commingling of the rational and emotional, placed in the environmental setting. The Heath brothers demonstrate, with one anecdote and case study after another, how it all works. Ever been totally puzzled when you presented someone with a convincing set of data to promote your plan, only to have them shut you down? That’s the emotional undercutting the rational. They present real-life strategies (from real-life situations) for engaging mind and heart, and bring in the support network in the environment to make it all happen.
So, go out there and check into this recently published book. Read the very entertaining tales, learn from the examples, and apply the strategies…then let us know how it worked for you! ~ DS