The Leader and Effective Followers

Effective followers are not afraid to take responsibility, and you should not be afraid to give it to them. The more leaders empower their followers to act, take responsibility, and act as leaders in their own right, the greater the benefit to the organization. On one occasion, I recognized that a team lead had developed a system to recognize his top desktop support performers. He called it the “100 Plus Club,” which pointed out team members who had solved 100 problems in a month while at the same time remaining compliant with service level agreements. This was exactly the type of motivation and recognition system needed for all teams in his division. The team lead’s supervisor submitted him for our quarterly leadership award, and he won. He certainly got my vote!

I eventually promoted him to regional manager and challenged him to implement the 100 Plus Club concept for each team in his region. I made it known that I wanted the 100 Plus initiative implemented across the program. I was thrilled when I was notified that each team in his region had recognized 100 Plus Club members, but I was ecstatic when a regional manager from another region in the program did the same thing shortly afterwards!

By giving the inventor of the 100 Plus Club more responsibility and empowering him to act, we transformed the organization. We motivated the technicians, stimulating their internal motivation, resulting in better service to the end user customer and achievement of our program goals.

Motivating Followers

In this section, we discuss what motivates followers. Your team members need your encouragement. When requirements are not clear, they need you to provide clarity. Many followers want to be associated with good leaders—leaders with the courage to protect their team members and the heart to care for and support them and show appreciation. Team members who feel appreciated take initiatives that lead to project success. These effective team members create and adhere to their own high standards. Reward these followers with training and development opportunities and give them feedback on their efforts, and you will find that their morale will increase and your organization will be more successful.

A leader’s job includes encouraging team members, especially during discouraging situations. As a leader, your self-talk needs to include language that provides selfencouragement, such as “I am not easily discouraged.” If you are discouraged, you will find it difficult to encourage others (Collins, 2013). Many followers are in search of a role model, someone they can emulate so that they can enjoy a long, successful career. They want someone they can imitate until they can find their own way. Such team members need your support and encouragement, so you need to stay positive as best you can.

Leaders need to delegate to followers, and followers need to feel empowered. To empower a follower, the leader delegates authority, giving the follower the right to take action and make decisions on the leader’s behalf. Th is empowerment is a source of motivation for the follower, because the follower knows his or her actions directly contribute to the attainment of the vision of the organization or project. The follower needs to feel not only responsible, but also in control. The follower does not want to be responsible for any situation he or she cannot control, as this situation leads to failure.

However, IT leaders can only effectively empower experienced IT professionals. Researchers have found that IT leaders need to employ a leadership style that is contingent upon the professional maturity of their team members and the ambiguity of the task (Faraj and Sambamurthy, 2006). When the team has a high level of expertise and when there is a high level of task uncertainty, empowering leadership is more effective. Empowering leaders encourage active participation from team members, placing a premium on their involvement in the project. When the team has a low level of expertise and when there is low task uncertainty, directive leadership is more effective. Directive leaders are not looking for initiative from the team members. Instead, directive leaders provide the expertise, guidance, and control needed to meet project objectives. Your challenge as an IT leader is to recognize when to employ empowering leadership and when to employ directive leadership. Your team and your organization will be more successful when you find opportunities to grow your less experienced team members so that you can empower them instead of engaging in a directive leadership style.

Followers may have a desire to associate with leaders who increase their own personal credibility. If the leader is perceived to be great, if he or she has an excellent reputation in the IT industry, for example, then the followers’ perceived stock is higher because of their association with this leader. Some of the “halo effect” of the leader is transmitted to the follower. Followers want leaders they can learn from. They want to become better, more capable people because of their association with the leader. They want to be part of something great, and they want to follow a leader who is pursuing something great. No one wants a “dead-end” job or a “dead-end” career. It is the leader’s responsibility to provide meaning to the follower’s position.

Followers do not want to work for people they consider lesser than themselves. They generally don’t want to be involved in any unethical activities. They want leaders who will help them stay on the straight and narrow and avoid situations that can affect their reputation, bank account, career, or freedom (Collins, 2013). Instead of behaving like Mark, they need you, their leader, to uphold the highest ethical standards.

Followers need and appreciate leaders who motivate them, that push them to perform more and better than they think they can perform. I once had an impromptu meeting with our portal administrator. She was gathering requirements for a portal redesign, and she was having trouble reconciling the various requirements she gathered from different users. She was going down the path of creating meta-data requirements for users to follow when submitting documents so that others would quickly be able to find what the users posted.

I told her that my opinion was that her approach was academically correct, but in our environment, users posted documents on the portal to serve the needs of their own team. Users in our organization did not have a collaborative mindset, I told her, and getting them to follow meta-data rules would be very difficult. I recommended that she analyze portal search logs to find out what users were trying to find and incorporate that data into her solution. I also challenged her to define the benefits of collaboration and how the portal enables attainment of those benefits, then to work with our trainer to educate the staff on how our portal could help them realize those benefits in their everyday work. She appreciated the challenge and was motivated to improve the organization’s ability to collaborate, which would be a tremendous accomplishment for her and benefit for the agency. Leaders need followers to invest their time and creative energy in worthy tasks, and this portal administrator was willing to do just that.

Allowing followers to use their own initiative to make positive changes is critical to realizing innovative solutions to problems. Good leaders allow and encourage their followers to do more than expected, to take risks that will lead to novel, ground-breaking solutions. Good followers will test the limits of their authority, taking risks that will move the project or organization forward. Not all of their initiatives will lead to successful outcomes.

Team productivity and morale

Figure 5-3 Team productivity and morale.

As a leader, provide your team members enough space to try, fail, and try again until success is reached. This is not always possible in every environment because of budget, schedule, and political constraints. Your challenge is to obtain space within the project environment for team members to take creative risks without penalty, risks that enable growth, recognizing that these initiative and innovation risks are necessary for positive changes that exceed customer expectations.

Figure 5-3 depicts the relationship between team productivity and morale. Leaders should empower and encourage followers to develop their own high standards of performance. The higher the group standard, the greater the quantity and quality of the group’s work. Researchers have found that team members who reported high coworker standards also reported high levels of pride, cooperation, and teamwork (Maley and Varner, 1994). These team members felt recognized for their performance and were motivated to make their best contributions to their project and organization. Lower expectations of performance had the opposite effect. High leadership expectations were reduced significantly in the presence of “peer pressure” for lower standards.

Followers who establish and achieve high standards are preparing themselves to become leaders. Their leaders need to recognize and groom followers who show leadership potential and encourage them to take on more responsibility. In the IT industry, in which many team members are prone to introverted communication styles and rebellious behavior, team members who overcome these tendencies and demonstrate the ability to set a positive example for their peers should be encouraged to lead. They should be given the proper training and the opportunity to experiment as a leader, to build positive leadership schemas, and to make mistakes and learn from them.

Followers need leaders to invest in their training. This demonstrates that the leader is concerned about helping the follower reach his or her professional goals. Increasing knowledge increases self-esteem, resulting in increased follower commitment to the leader and to the organization. This training arms team members with the knowledge and skills needed to take initiatives and mitigate risks.

At the same time, followers have the responsibility to identify their own deficiencies, comparing the tasks that they are assigned to perform with their own skills and abilities, and then to find training solutions to bridge that gap. Th is directly impacts the follower’s short-term success on the project and long-term success for his or her career.

The best performers on any team are those who practice self-leadership in order to be the best followers they can be. They treat their leaders as if they were customers, taking the initiative to understand the leader’s needs and then taking actions to exceed those expectations. They are internally motivated to perform in this manner. They do not need to be enticed by external rewards or coerced by potential punishment in order to perform at a high level. They perform well by habit and instinct, not because they have to but because they want to.

Researchers have found that team member morale is directly related to feedback from their leaders (Maley and Varner, 1994). Committed team members want to hear from you on a frequent basis. This consistent feedback increases morale, and the more feedback, the higher the morale. Your team members want your leadership assistance when needed, and your praise and recognition when they feel they deserve it. They want constructive negative feedback, not a “chewing out,” in order to be held accountable. Feedback on performance is the greatest motivator for team members. Leaders who provide this type of feedback produce productive, satisfied, and motivated team members.

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