A Google search on the word “leadership” produces 464,000,000 results, but a search on “followership” results in 1,780,000 results, over 260 times fewer. Yet, both leadership and followership are required for organizations and projects to succeed. We expect followers to naturally know how to follow, but I don’t believe this is the case. Effective leaders set expectations of behavior and performance for their followers. Let’s begin our examination of followership by defining what a follower is and exploring the follower mindset.
What Is a Follower?
You have probably seen different definitions of the word “follower.” The simple definition of a follower is someone who has chosen a leader. This means the follower has accepted and supports the leader’s vision and direction and will execute the plans that the leader creates. Leaders and followers have a symbiotic relationship. A leader cannot be effective without followers, and followers cannot succeed on their projects without effective leadership.
Ira Chaleff writes in The Courageous Follower, “Follower is not synonymous with subordinate. A subordinate reports to an individual of higher rank and may in practice be a supporter, an antagonist, or indifferent. A follower shares a common purpose with the leader, believes in what the organization is trying to accomplish, wants both the leader and the organization to succeed, and works energetically to this end” (Chaleff, 2009).
Have you ever worked with someone who is antagonistic or indifferent toward project goals, someone who only does the minimum amount of work to get by? Workers seek to perform tasks as documented in their position descriptions, objectives, or contracts. Followers are not limited to these written instructions. Not only do they accomplish the written instructions, but they also go beyond expectations to implement a project’s vision. Their individual goals intersect with project goals. They seek to satisfy not only the written requirements but also the intent of the leader. They use their initiative to satisfy the spirit of project requirements.
In the IT industry, you can expect your team members to challenge your leadership. IT workers are generally not conscientious about dotting every i and crossing every t, as discussed in Chapter 2. Researchers have concluded that failure on IT projects is generally the result of neglect of the behavioral and social factors—influenced by management, the organization, and the culture—rather than the technology itself (Th ite, 1999). Effective leaders influence behavioral and social factors through activities such as rewards, reprimands, training, and conflict resolution. Effective leaders connect with team members, motivating them by providing feedback and encouragement. Both IT geek project leaders and team members are responsible for paying attention to behavioral and social factors, for becoming more conscientious and building solid team member relationships, and for practicing effective followership rather than acting as mere workers—all in order to achieve success on IT projects.
Unfortunately, you will encounter some people on your team with the worker mindset instead of the follower mindset. They should be followers, but their mentality is that of a worker who shows up for work, does enough to meet minimum requirements, and then goes home. They do not respond to the effective leader’s high performance and ethical standards. They do not take initiative for tasks or take ownership of outcomes. They negatively impact team morale and productivity. They are not loyal, either to the project leader or to the team. I have had to address IT workers who are antagonistic or indifferent through reprimands, coaching, and external motivation, but my inner circle—those who I relied on to get the job done—were the followers. Followers are internally motivated—they are believers in the project vision; the others are not.
It is a leader’s responsibility to make sure followers understand the vision of a project. It is a leader’s responsibility to inspire followers to have the self-confidence needed to take initiative when it is required, making sure followers understand project requirements and goals to ensure that any initiative a follower takes is in line with these requirements and goals. But most importantly, it is a leader’s responsibility to make sure every team member is a follower and not just a worker. Your role is to challenge team members to set and maintain high standards of performance, empowering and encouraging them to achieve these levels. Through your dialogue with your team, through your actions and demeanor, your team members need to understand that you expect them to be followers rather than mere workers.
It is in your best interest to recruit team members who have a follower’s mindset rather than team members who have a worker’s mindset. In some organizations, it is very difficult to replace employees if it turns out they are not a good fit for the team. This means you need to develop skills for identifying, attracting, and cultivating talent. As a leader, you also need the courage to make the difficult decision to “release the worker to industry” if he or she is not willing and able to help you achieve the project vision.
This chapter will help you distinguish followers from workers. We will first take a look at the “Everything is Spinning” use case. Then, we will take a closer look at Effective Followership. Next, we will discuss the relationship between The Leader and the Effective Follower. On every project, there will be conflict, and we will next explore The Leader, the Followers, and Conflict. From here, we will explore Great Groups, then take a quick look at a technique I call Reverse Micromanagement, followed by concluding thoughts. At the end of this chapter, you will find a Followership Assessment that will help you examine your team and that can spark ideas on how to improve your team’s followership ability.