Often called the “other side of leadership,” followership is an important factor in career success. This is to find value in someone else’s vision, follow it, question and challenge it, but also ultimately support it—even if you don’t agree with it. A follower asks questions, listens well, and offers guidance and perspective. They speak up but don’t withdraw from the work if their own idea is not supported or if they aren’t given opportunities to lead.
Discussion of followership is rare, if non-existent, in many workplaces. Also, the term “follower” is often used in a disparaging way, making it a title some want to avoid, as it implies weakness. Thus, conversations about creating engaging work environments are centered on leadership. This isn’t necessarily wrong; bosses have a lot of influence on the workplace, performance, and team culture. But you and your peers matter too. Everyone owns the success of a team, and any one person can make or break that success.
In Good Boss, Bad Boss: How to Be the Best…and Learn From the Worst, Bob Sutton writes about the research that uncovered the impact of a “bad apple” on a team. This could be a person who doesn’t engage or get their work done (a deadbeat), someone who is frequently negative or critical (a downer), or someone who is disrespectful and insensitive to others (a jerk). Just one deadbeat, downer, or jerk on a team can compromise performance by 30-40%, compared to teams that don’t have one.
Think back to the various jobs you have had. What kind of follower were you? Were you competent, consistent, and did you offer support to your peers and boss? Were you passive or maybe preferred to fly under the radar? Did you put on a good face at work but at happy hour shared snarky comments about management? Maybe you were known for being an independent thinker who questioned authority but also didn’t take it personally when your suggestions were ignored.
These questions point to the traits of good and bad followers. The difference between the two matters because being a great follower—and working with others who are—creates a better work environment for all.
Types of followers
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To no surprise, the research on followership is lean. Followers don’t get a lot of attention. However, Robert Kelley’s Followership Model is helpful. It was published in the late 1980s but is still considered one of the most well-known. He identifies five types and defines them based on independent/dependent thinking and passive/active behavior.
- Alienated Followers: While these folks are independent thinkers, they do not take the initiative to act. They are often cynical and demonstrate disgruntled acceptance.
- Sheep: This group does exactly what they’re told to do, has low engagement for the work, and often can’t figure things out for themselves.
- Yes People: Livelier than sheep and often more productive, they are not particularly creative. Some leaders love Yes People. They get the work done and don’t question.
- Survivors: These folks will not actively challenge the leader or blindly accept. Rather, they will sit on the fence and then act when it benefits them.
- Effective Followers: They think for themselves, carry out duties, and respectfully challenge leaders. While they can be a leader’s “right hand,” some leaders don’t like them because they will intelligently question strategy.
Effective Followers are ideal: They are resilient to change, they can operate in ambiguity, and they are equipped to handle conflict. They build relationships across, up, and down the organization and communicate effectively with all. They also question authority, which can frustrate others. But, given they’re open to feedback, they will step back from their questioning if needed. This is because “they are committed to the organization and to a purpose, principle, or person outside themselves.”
Focus on building the skills needed to follow effectively
Embracing followership truly begins with ourselves. Make an honest assessment. What kind of follower are you? Assign yourself a type and determine what kind of contribution you are making on the team. Look for your strengths and your positive impact first. Recognize what you need to keep doing or do more of. Maybe you have a strength in building relationships with people outside your immediate team but don’t do it as often as you’d like. Having strong connections up, down, and across the organization is valuable. This could be something you start doing more of.
Then, take stock of one or two skills that you need to build to be a better follower. Maybe you struggle to speak up and share ideas or disagree with others. This points to building skills in communication or in navigating productive conflict. Or maybe your boss annoys you and you let that annoyance distract you from your day or it impacts how you interact with others. Look into building skills around emotion management to help you redirect your focus into actions that are more productive.
What needs to happen in most organizations is to discuss, shape, and support a way of following at work. The word “follower” needs to be normalized to create acceptance and recognition for it. You can do this by building the skill set required and by recognizing the qualities in others. By fostering a positive connotation for following and learning the skills that make followers successful, workplaces can become the satisfying professional spaces everyone craves.