The Leader, the Followers, and Conflict

Followers don’t always agree with their leader’s direction and decisions. In such cases, they need the leader to allow them to express their perspective on the situation and to seriously consider their viewpoints. After their followers have been heard, leaders need them to avoid being discouraged, accept the final decision, and support the outcome. Disagreements need to be kept confidential so as to not give the appearance of disunity, which is a de-motivator. Followers lose confidence in the organization when they are exposed to strife. Conflicts can be misinterpreted and the source of uncertainty and rumors, but unity reassures followers that the organization is headed toward success. Unity builds momentum through motivation and creates positive feelings that lead to positive outcomes.

Leaders need followers who are willing to be strong critics of their plans and decisions (Collins, 2013). Leaders need these “devil’s advocates” to point out their blind spots. These healthy conflicts lead to better decisions and approaches to solutions. Leaders need the ground truth. They need followers who are courageous enough to deliver bad news to their leaders when these leaders are considering options for the way forward. In order to obtain the feedback they need, leaders should cultivate an environment in which followers feel safe enough to provide negative feedback. Followers don’t want to be considered complainers, and they don’t want their negative feedback to lead to missed promotions and reduced raises.

If the leader does his or her part, and the followers do theirs, the team will be strong and capable.

Followers typically support good leadership and resist bad leadership. Followers who do not support their leaders or their vision may circumvent them and join with other followers, causing conflicts (Kellerman, 2008). I have seen this happen. Red flags go up on programs when committed team members request to be moved to another team. When this happens, I look for the tacit back story, the illusive ground truth about what is really happening on the team. As a leader, I often don’t hear this story until it is too late make changes, to introduce a new narrative. I listen for it, but I don’t always hear it.

Leaders and followers should never compete. This unnecessary competition is another source of conflict. Followers should not compete with their leaders, but should instead support them, accomplishing the tasks required to achieve the leader’s vision. Good leaders reward followers who embrace their leadership, recognizing that followers who commit themselves to contributing to the realization of the vision do so voluntarily. Good leaders don’t take such voluntary commitment for granted.

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