Source: The Wall Street Journal
Subject: The Joy of Following
We hear a lot of talk promoting leadership in the workplace. But few people aspire to be followers.
Most offices are populated with too many leaders and too few followers as a result. Now, some employers are training people in “followership.” That doesn’t mean being a doormat or a docile sheep, but taking responsibility for shared goals, being a self-starter and telling leaders the awkward truth when they mess up.
It isn’t an easy sell. When consultants Marc and Samantha Hurwitz arrive to hold corporate-training programs in followership, some employers ask them not to use “the F-word,” says Ms. Hurwitz, co-author with Mr. Hurwitz of “Leadership Is Half the Story.” Employers, Mr. Hurwitz adds, say “Can you call it something else, like ‘leader support?’ ”
Countless employers, authors and coaches promote leadership skills, but what if there’s nobody to follow? WSJ’s Sue Shellenbarger discusses the traits of a good follower with Tanya Rivero.
People who see themselves as leaders can have problems working together. Adventurous and assertive by nature, David Donaldson says he often butted heads with previous bosses. He also clashed recently with a fellow board member at a nonprofit organization where he volunteers as an instructor. “The harder I pushed, the harder he pushed back, ” Mr. Donaldson says.
He realized after reading the Hurwitzes’ book that “sometimes I need to back off and let other people lead,” says Mr. Donaldson, a practice leader at TidalShift Inc., a Toronto training and consulting firm. He tried supporting more of his fellow board member’s ideas. After they stopped butting heads, meetings of the entire board went more smoothly, he says. “It’s easier to get more done.”
The follower role is hard for people to embrace, researchers say. Good leaders are seen as the heroes of the American workplace. Employees imbued with an “up-or-out” model of career management often assume there’s something wrong with them if they don’t aspire to leadership.
Sheep-like employees are passive and obedient. Yes-people are sycophantic. And cynics voice criticism but only behind the boss’s back.
But following doesn’t reflect innate weakness. It also goes beyond the self-serving behavior called “managing up,” which involves manipulating bosses for one’s own benefit. Followers aren’t the same as team players, either—people who can work well in a group.
Following well doesn’t mean giving up all agency or supporting a boss’s every idea. Skillful followers are self-starters who think independently, notice and solve problems, help the boss meet goals and deliver criticism to higher-ups when needed. “Just as leaders are responsible for bringing out the best in their followers, followers are responsible for bringing out the best in their leaders,” says Ira Chaleff, a Huntly, Va., consultant and author of “The Courageous Follower.”
Such skills are so important that they are a formal requirement for employees in some high-risk occupations. Airplane crew members are trained to speak up assertively if they see a pilot making a dangerous mistake, for example. The requirement was instated in the U.S. years ago, after a pilot, preoccupied with trying to fix a landing-gear problem, ignored crew members’ observations that the plane was low on fuel and kept circling the airport until they crashed.
And the Joint Commission, the leading hospital-accreditation organization, has guidelines requiring surgeons, who are often dominant personalities, to take a “time out” before starting an operation and ask subordinates on the team to verify that they have the right patient and are planning the correct surgery on the right part of the body. The guidelines aim to foster “a culture in which everyone is empowered to speak up,” says a spokeswoman for the commission.
David Donaldson of Toronto says he realized ‘sometimes I need to back off and let other people lead,’ he says.
Delivering criticism to higher-ups isn’t easy. “The risk is that they’ll kill the messenger,” says Robert Kelley, professor of organizational behavior at Carnegie Mellon University and author of “The Power of Followership.” He includes follower skills in corporate-training programs he conducts on “how to be a star at work.” His research shows that most good leaders also excelled as No. 2s in the past.
When Dr. Kelley asked teams of high-potential employees at Consol Energy Inc., a Canonsburg, Pa., energy producer, to deliver candid criticisms to a panel of senior executives, many were nervous and “a bit gun-shy,” says Michelle Buczkowski, a human-resources manager at Consol at the time. Executives listened to the feedback, however, including a suggestion that too much time was wasted perfecting internal reports to top executives. The exercise sparked some positive changes.
“A key component of being a good follower is providing honest, candid feedback up the food chain, being willing to go to your boss and say, ‘I think we might be doing this wrong,’ or, ‘There might be a better way,’ ” Ms. Buczkowski says.
Using diplomatic language can help. If the boss strikes out in the wrong direction, an employee might say, “Help me understand your thinking on this,” tactfully inviting the boss to reconsider, says Brent Uken, a principal in Atlanta with the accounting firm Ernst & Young, who teaches follower principles in internal training sessions.
About 70% to 90% of all work is done by people in follower roles, Dr. Kelley says, citing several studies of public agencies, sports teams and companies. But followers aren’t rock stars in corporate America yet. Only 362 books listed on Amazon.com focus on followers, while nearly 154,000 examine leadership.
Interest in the topic has risen, however. Growth in work at home and other remote locations makes follower skills more important, Dr. Kelley says. “If people don’t have strong follower skills, that doesn’t work.”
Also, Ms. Hurwitz says, the growing use of social media, where people frequently take on the role of follower to join a discussion or obtain information, has led people to understand that “following is a critical part of any healthy, reciprocal relationship.”
For employees who are content to be good soldiers, that’s good news. Employees at Sandia National Laboratories gained confidence after Dr. Kelley trained them in follower skills, says Charlie Hanley, a senior manager at Sandia’s Albuquerque, N.M., research lab. One was glad to learn, he wrote in a survey later, that “it’s OK to strive to be an excellent follower, that we don’t all have to be leaders.”