Followers who are forced to perform tasks they do not really want to do—things they do not agree with—may harbor negative emotions such as resentment and guilt. When asked if they will perform the task they disagree with, they may reluctantly say “yes” because they fear the consequences of saying “no.” Good leaders don’t put followers in such positions. The resentment caused by such demands builds up within organizations over time and is poisonous. Nelson Mandela said, “Resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies.” Just as negative self-talk is poisonous to a person’s self-image, resentment, guilt, and other negative feelings lead to grumbling and murmuring— poisonous self-talk that can debilitate an organization’s morale and culture.

It is in the follower’s best interest to make an effort to discover any resentment the leader has toward him or her and take action to assuage it. This is done through honest dialogue and through building trust verified by performance. Followers who get the job done within expected timeframes and at expected levels of quality earn their leader’s trust.

Task Performance

Followers have the most at stake in the leader-follower relationship. It is easier for a leader to dismiss a follower, negatively impacting his or her career and livelihood, than for a follower to negatively impact the leader’s career. The leader simply has more power and access. At the same time, leaders will not succeed unless their followers perform. The trust relationship between leaders and followers is critical, as both parties have much to gain and to lose.

Followers want to choose the problems that they commit themselves to solving. They are motivated by the challenge of understanding the project situation, identifying problems that impede achievement of the desired state, and developing solutions for those problems (Collins, 2013).

While it is important for team members to feel committed to identifying problems, performing tasks, and developing solutions that lead to achieving the desired state, leaders need to help followers avoid territorialism. I have encountered situations in which followers felt like they needed to protect their turf. For example, on one occasion, a systems backup administrator that was very good at his job refused to document the backup procedures he developed. He felt that anyone who came after him should have to figure out the procedures just as he had had to do. His attitude made the team weak. If he were to win the lottery, or leave the project for whatever reason, the team would be challenged to continue backup operations. As the leader, I had to motivate him to complete the documentation and then have another administrator validate his documentation in order to mitigate the risk.

Encourage your team members to solve their boss’s problems first instead of exclusively performing the tasks they like. Solving your boss’s problems first requires proactive communication on the part of the follower. The follower needs to clearly understand the critical success factors for the job—the expected quality level, the schedule, the do’s and the don’ts. The follower should initiate conversations to determine these details, not wait for the busy leader to provide them. The leader may not know exactly what the follower needs to know, so the follower needs to ask questions until he or she sees the picture of what needs to be accomplished in the leader’s mind. Then the follower can develop a win- win approach that allows him or her to perform at a high level, including accomplishing tasks that interest the follower as well as meet the leader’s project requirements.

Leaders need followers to challenge ideas and approaches to problems. Leaders need “devil’s advocates” in order to vet ideas and to facilitate critical thinking. Leaders need to consider all sides of issues and to analyze multiple alternatives to solving problems. Without engaged followers, the leader’s ability to make critical decisions is diminished.

Followers have the responsibility to address conflict in order to improve situations for the sake of themselves, the team, and the team leader. Leaders should encourage and facilitate their followers’ internal motivation and self-leadership, enabling and empowering them to enhance their working life experience, giving them the freedom to influence the morale and feeling of goodwill within the team.

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