Tag Archives: followership

Why We Love to Dis the Boss?

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

Top Ten New Supervisor Skills

This began as the top five skills, but it just wasn’t possible, so I’m going for ten.  An interesting discussion on the LinkedIn HR Group listserv recently addressed this as did a speaker at a seminar I attended in August.  There are lots of books out there on this topic, but I’m aiming to keep it short and to the point. We’re talking about folks who have never supervised before, God bless them. 

  1. Understand your new role and maintain boundaries.  You now have some power (or at least your subordinates think you do) and can no longer be one of the gang.  You want to be friendly and empathetic but not get involved in solving personal problems.  You don’t want to go partying and drinking with your subordinates. And so on.
  2. Listen first, then speak, respectfully.
  3. Set clear and measurable expectations.
  4. Learn the fundamentals of delegation, directing and coaching.
  5. Understand the larger system in which you work so you can “manage up” and exercise your “followership” skills.  Your unit does not work in a vacuum — you can help your people only if you understand the universe, including the organizational values, around them.
  6. Develop basic conflict resolution skills.  
  7. Learn how to handle the routine stuff: timecards, leave slips, accident reports, etc.  Read the Employee Handbook, carefully.
  8. Find an experienced manager or supervisor to whom you can go with questions.
  9. Set up a regular but realistic system for meeting with your employees, both as a group and one-on-one.  No one likes a ton of meetings, but it’s absolutely necessary to have some regular meetings.
  10. Figure out how to reward those employees who do well and motivate those who are not engaged.

And what if we had to pick only five central skills?  First, I’d have to eliminate the practical, obvious ones such as learning how to handle the routine stuff, setting up regular meetings, and finding a more experienced person to be a mentor.  My top five then would be numbers 1 – 5 above.  I’d probably also want to figure out a way to squeeze in 6 (maybe by just adding it to #4!).

 What would you pick as the top five?  Did I miss anything?  ~Amy Stephson

The Art of Followership: Part 2

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

The Art of Followership

I was talking to a fellow coach the other day about leadership coaching and he mentioned the concept of “followership.”  I was immediately struck by this: we are inundated with exhortations about how to be a good leader, but rarely hear about what it takes to be a good follower. 

In fact, as noted in a note in the July 2008 edition of the FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, “American culture usually does not hold followers in very high regard. Fascination with leaders far outweighs any consideration for followers. But, at some point, everyone is following, rather than leading.”

So why does followership matter?  Because it’s the followers who get the work done. It’s the followers who determine the success or failure of an organization, project, or other enterprise.  And giving followership the respect it deserves enables both leaders and followers to build a more effective and harmonious organization.

There are many definitions of followership.  One I liked was in the FBI Bulletin above: “Followership … represents an interaction that occurs when subordinates work concurrently with leaders toward a goal of the organization.”  Another one was from a 2006 article by a faculty member at Dalton State College, “Followership is the willingness to cooperate in working towards the accomplishment of the organization’s goals and objectives, to demonstrate a high degree of teamwork and to build cohesion among the group.”

What’s key in both of these definitions is that the follower’s position is not inferior to the leader’s. It’s complementary.

The two articles set out a number of traits that characterize “good followership.”  These include intelligence, independent and critical thinking, self-reliance, dependability, and creativity.  Good followers also take responsibility for their actions and speak truthfully.  I would add that good followers also work and play well with others.

Two other points: It is a key task of leaders to respect and teach good followership. It’s a concept that goes beyond expectation-setting and evaluation because it gives the subordinate’s role value and worth. And as both articles point out, the characteristics of a good follower are also those of a good leader and today’s followers are tomorrow’s leaders.

It’s an idea worth pondering.  Based on my experience in workplaces, more attention to the concept of followership — on the part of leaders and followers — could significantly improve productivity and morale. ~AS