There Can Be No Leaders Without Followers
Developed by our friend and colleague Gordon Curphy, Ph.D.
Although the importance of a good leader cannot be denied, followers also play an equally important, if often overlooked, role in the success of any group or organization. I believe the strength of any team is in the followers and there can be no leaders without followers, but the vast majority of research to date has focused on the leadership side of this equation. Researchers have only recently given serious consideration to the topics of followers and followership.
Changing Expectations for Followers
There was a time in the not too distant past when followership essentially meant, “be quiet and do whatever I tell you to do.” Followers were expected to keep their heads down, put in an honest day’s work, and only spoke up when asked. Leaders used to have all the power in these hierarchical relationships, but this is no longer the reality facing many organizations.
Over the past forty years, employers’ expectations for work have changed and they now want more out of their employees than paying them to be a cog in a machine. In addition, because of the successive generations entering the workforce, rising education levels, globalization, the flattening of organizations, and an increased willingness to change careers and companies, employees have come to understand they can add more value to doing meaningful work.
The Curphy Followership Model consists of two independent dimensions and four followership types. The two dimensions of the model are Critical Thinking and Engagement. Critical Thinking is concerned with a follower’s ability to challenge the status quo, identify and balance what is important and what is not, ask good questions, detect problems, and develop workable solutions. Critical Thinkers are constantly identifying ways to improve productivity or efficiency, drive sales, reduce costs, etc. Those with lower scores believe it is the role of management to identify and solve problems, so they essentially check their brains and the door and not pick them up until they leave work.
Engagement is concerned with the level of effort people put forth at work. High scorers are energetic, enthusiastic about being part of the team, driven to achieve results, persist at difficult tasks for long periods of time, help others, and readily adapt to changing situations. Low scorers are lazy, unenthusiastic, give up easily, are Unwilling to help others or adapt to new demands and generally would rather be doing anything but the task at hand. Engaged employees come to work to “win” as compared to coming to work to “play the game”.
Self-Starters: Seeking Forgiveness Rather than Permission
These are individuals who are passionate about the team and will exert considerable effort to make it successful. They are also constantly thinking of ways to improve team performance, as they raise issues, develop solutions, and enthusiastically carry out change initiatives. When encountering problems, Self-Starters are apt to resolve issues and then tell their leaders what they did rather than waiting to be told what to do. This followership type also helps to improve their leaders’ performance, as they will voice opinions prior to and provide constructive feedback after bad decisions.
Self-Starters are a critical component of high performing teams and are by far the most effective followership type. Leaders who want to create these followers should keep in mind the underlying psychological driver of this type and the critical behaviors they need to exhibit if they want to create Self-Starters. In terms of the underlying psychological driver, leaders need to understand that Self-Starters fundamentally lack patience and are always thinking – in the shower, during a run or over their Saturday morning coffee. They do not suffer fools gladly and expect their leaders to promptly clear obstacles and acquire the resources needed to succeed. Leaders who consistently make bad decisions, dither, or fail to quickly secure needed resources or follow through on commitments are not apt to create Self-Starters.
Self-Starters want to share their ideas in real-time and want quick feedback outside of the normal workday hours. It is very important for leaders wanting to create Self-Starters to articulate a clear vision, values, and set of goals for their teams, as this type operates by seeking forgiveness rather than permission. If Self-Starters do not know where the team is going and what the rules are, then they may well make decisions and take actions that are counterproductive. And Self-Starters whose decisions get overruled too many times are likely to disengage and become Criticizers or Slackers. In addition to making sure they understand the team’s vision, values, and goals, leaders also need to provide Self-Starters with needed resources, interesting and challenging work, plenty of latitude and regular performance feedback, recognition for strong performance, and promotion opportunities.
The bottom line is that Self-Starters can be highly rewarding but challenging team members, and leaders need to be available, responsive and bring their A-game to work if they want to maximize the value of these followers. It will be hard to provide Self-Starters all they crave in a normal workweek, so being responsive 24X7 will help leaders demonstrate appreciation for their extra efforts.
Brown-Nosers: Seeking Permission Rather than Forgiveness
These are individuals who share a strong work ethic but lack the critical thinking skills of Self-Starters. Brown-Nosers are earnest, dutiful, conscientious, and loyal employees who will do whatever their leaders ask them to do. They never point out problems, raise objections, or make any waves, and do whatever they can to please their bosses. Brown-Nosers constantly check in with their leaders and operate by seeking permission, rather than forgiveness. As such, it is hardly surprising that many leaders surround themselves with Brown-Nosers, as these individuals are sources of constant flattery and tell everyone how lucky they are to be working for such great bosses.
They can also create compelling rationale (“everyone is doing it”) to support taking actions that are inappropriate or unethical when observed in the sunshine of an objective setting. It may not be surprising to know that Brown-Nosers often go quite far in organizations, particularly those not having good objective performance metrics.
Organizations lacking clear goals and measures of performance often make personnel decisions on the basis of politics, and Brown-Nosers work hard to have no enemies (as they can never tell who their next boss will be) and as such play politics very well.
Because Brown-Nosers will not bring up bad news, put everything in a positive light, never raise objections to bad decisions, and are reluctant to make decisions. As such, teams and organizations consisting of high percentages of Brown-Nosers are highly dependent on their leaders to be successful. There are several actions leaders can take to convert Brown-Nosers into Self-Starters, however, and perhaps the first step is to understand that fear of failure is the underlying psychological issue driving Brown-Noser behavior.
All too often Brown-Nosers have all the experience and technical expertise needed to resolve issues, but they do not want to get caught making “dumb mistakes” and lack the self-confidence needed to raise objections or make decisions. Therefore, leaders wanting to convert Brown-Nosers need to focus their coaching efforts on boosting self-confidence rather than the technical expertise of these individuals. Whenever Brown-Nosers come forward with problems leaders need to ask them how they think these problems should be resolved, as putting the onus of problem resolution back on this type boosts both their critical thinking skills and self-confidence. When practical, leaders then need to support the solutions offered, provide reassurance, resist stepping in when solutions are not working out as planned, and periodically ask these individuals what they are learning by implementing their own solutions.
Brown-Nosers should only be rewarded or recognized for observable positive results – it is extremely damaging if the organization perceives them as being rewarded for their sycophant behavior. Brown-Nosers will have made the transition to Self-Starters when they openly point out both the advantages and disadvantages of various solutions to problems leaders are facing or challenge a direction or position the leader is advocating.
Slackers: Working to Live versus Living to Work
These individuals do not exert as much effort toward work, believe that they are entitled to a paycheck for just showing up, and it is management’s job to solve problems. Slackers are quite clever at avoiding work and often disappear for hours on end, make it a practice to look busy but get little done, have many excuses for not getting projects accomplished, and spend more time devising ways to avoid getting tasks completed then they would just get them done. Slackers are “stealth employees” who are very content to spend the entire day surfing the Internet, shopping online, gossiping with co-workers, or taking breaks rather than being productive at work. Nonetheless, Slackers want to stay off their boss’ radar screens, so they often do just enough to stay out of trouble but never more than their peers.
Transforming Slackers into Self-Starters can be very challenging, as leaders need to improve both the engagement and critical thinking skills of these individuals. One interesting observation is that many leaders mistakenly believe Slackers have no motivation. It turns out that Slackers have plenty of motivation; the problem is their motivation is directed towards activity unrelated to work. This type of follower can spend countless hours on videogames, riding motorcycles, fishing, side businesses, or other hobbies, and if you ask them about their hobbies then their passion becomes quite evident. Slackers work to live rather than live to work and tend to see work as a means of supporting their other pursuits. Thus the underlying psychological driver for Slackers is the motivation for work; leaders need to find ways to get these individuals focused on and exerting considerably more effort towards job activities.
One way to improve work motivation is to assign tasks that are more in line with these followers’ hobbies. For example, assigning research projects to followers who enjoy surfing the Internet might be a way to improve work motivation. Improving job fit is another way to improve motivation for work. Many times followers lack motivation because they are in the wrong jobs, and assigning them to other positions within teams or organizations that are a better fit with the things they are interested in can help improve both the engagement and critical thinking skills of these individuals.
Leaders wanting to convert Slackers into Self-Starters also need to determine what role favoritism and the lack of needed resources are contributing to followers’ disengagement and uncritical thinking levels. It may well be that some Self-Starters lack the equipment, technology, or funding needed to perform well and have simply given up. In other cases, leaders may be playing favorites and causing those not in the inner circle to quit making meaningful contributions.
At the end of the day, the work still has to get done, and there are many times the leader does not have the flexibility to assign preferred tasks or new jobs to these individuals (or would want to reward them for substandard efforts). If followers have all resources they need to succeed and favoritism is not an issue, then leaders need to set unambiguous objectives, provide constant feedback about work performance, and then gradually increase performance standards and ask for inputs on solutions to problems. Because Slackers dislike attention, telling these individuals they have a choice of either performing at higher levels or becoming the focus of their leaders’ undivided attention can help improve their work motivation and productivity or cause them to objectively fail.
Leaders should have no doubt, however, that converting Slackers to Self-Starters is a difficult and time-consuming endeavor and may not be doable. As such, leaders may find it much easier to replace Slackers with individuals who have the potential to become Self-Starters than spend time on these conversion efforts.
Criticizers: Finding Fault in Everything You Do
The last of the four types, Criticizers, are followers who are disengaged from work yet possess strong critical thinking skills. But rather than directing their problem identification and resolution skills toward work-related issues, Criticizers are instead motivated to find fault in anything their leaders or organizations do. Criticizers make it a point of telling co-workers what their leaders are doing wrong, how various change efforts are doomed to failure, how bad their organizations are when compared to competitors, and how management shoots down any suggestions for improvement. These pessimistic individuals are constantly complaining, whining, and moaning about the current state of affairs.
In terms of team and organizational performance, Criticizers are often the most dangerous of the four types, as they believe it is their personal mission to create converts. They are frequently the first to greet new employees and “tell them how things really work around here.” And because misery loves company, they tend to hang out with other Criticizers. If not effectively managed, Criticizers can take over teams and entire departments. Dealing with Criticizers can be among the most difficult challenges leaders face.
It turns out that some Criticizers are just immature or foster an unwarranted sense of entitlement, but most were once Self-Starters who became disenchanted because their strong critical thinking skills allowed them to identify where their leaders were acting inconsistently with articulated objectives, values or goals. More specifically, Criticizers can be acutely aware of and offended by recognition awarded to Brown-Nosers in the absence of any observable results.
Because they are motivated to create converts, Criticizers are like an organizational cancer. And like many cancers, Criticizers respond best to aggressive treatments. Leaders need to understand that the need for recognition or any breaches of trust is the key psychological driver’s underlying Criticizer behavior. Criticizers act out because they are mad and crave recognition. Some Criticizers were Self-Starters who got their recognition needs to be satisfied through their work accomplishments, but for some reason, they were not recognized, awarded a promotion they felt they deserved, an organizational restructuring took away some of their prestige and authority, or they worked for a boss who felt threatened by their problem-solving skills. Other Self-Starters became Criticizers when their leaders acted inconsistently with their articulated vision, values, and goals. Leaders will have no chance of converting these latter individuals until they have the self-awareness to recognize and align the values they are asking from the organization with their own actions. With that foundation, leaders can then begin the reconversion to Self-Starters by finding opportunities to listen to and publicly recognize these individuals.
As stated earlier, Criticizers are very good at pointing out how decisions or change initiatives are doomed to failure. When Criticizers openly raise objections, leaders need to thank them for their inputs and then ask how they think these issues should be resolved. Most Criticizers may initially resist offering solutions, as they have drawers full of solutions that were ignored in the past and may be reluctant to share their problem-solving expertise in public. Leaders need to break through this resistance and may need to press Criticizers for help. And once Criticizers offer solutions leaders can live with, leaders need to change and adopt these behaviors or solutions and publicly thank Criticizers for their efforts. Repeating this pattern of soliciting solutions, adopting suggestions, and publicly recognizing Criticizers for their efforts will go a long way towards converting this group into Self-Starters.
If leaders make repeated attempts to engage Criticizers but they fail to respond, then termination is a viable option for this type. However, as they do so leaders should carefully look in the mirror and ask what they did to lose the hearts and minds of these good thinkers. Yet leaders who do not aggressively deal with these individuals may find themselves leading teams made up of nothing but Criticizers and eventually being asked to look for another job.
Leaders wanting to build high-performance teams have to tend to the important role followership plays in group dynamics and team performance. As a society, we spend a lot of time and effort finding and developing leaders, but if the same attention was put on understanding and developing followers, then leaders would have to operate at a much higher level and their resulting impact would be significantly improved.