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Recognising effective followers in a business

Effective leadership may set the tone of a business culture but recognising effective followers can be as vital to its success, says the Sam Rees-Adams, professional standards director, Institute of Financial Planning (IFP)

Leadership is much talked about, but at a recent IFP Workshop, Tim McEwan from Henderson Global Investors got people thinking from a different perspective – that of followership. We all have a responsibility to make a positive contribution to the working environment, whether we are a leader, a follower, or indeed both.

Whilst it is undoubtedly true that the tone is set from the top, followers have an enormous impact on the culture of an organisation and have just as many responsibilities as a leader.

The followership model explored at the workshop has five categories, each with distinct characteristics.

Effective followers (and we all like to see ourselves in this category) are engaged, think for themselves and make the most positive contribution.  Sheep do not necessarily have a negative impact on the working environment – they get on and do what they are supposed to, after all – but their inability to think for themselves and do any more than they are specifically told to means they don’t make much of a positive contribution.  Yes people are fairly self-explanatory but, despite what they might think, are low on the scale of positive contribution as they tell leaders what they think they want to hear rather than what they actually need to hear.

Alienated followers have the greatest negative impact on those around them.  They think for themselves, which is a good thing, but their disengagement makes them disruptive.  One or two of these around you can have a disproportionately large impact.  Lastly, survivors are the hardest to spot, as they keep their heads down and do what they need to do in order to survive. If they are the hardest to spot, they are the hardest to deal with and change into effective followers.

Easy to blame the leader

Unsurprisingly, there is a correlation between your category and your relationship with your leader.  If you think back over your career, it’s unlikely that you will have stayed in the same category throughout.  In fact, people can belong to more than one category within the space of the same day depending on what they are doing and who they are working with.  If the leader-follower relationship isn’t working particularly well, it’s easy to fall into the trap of blaming the leader and ignoring the responsibilities of the follower.

Leaders need to know their followers well (and know which category they are actually in, not just the one they think they are in) and how to get the most out of them.  Some people respond well to a ‘kick up the backside’ approach as it spurs them on to achieve more.  Others respond badly to this and need a more nurturing approach.  As leaders, we will have a natural style, but we need to acknowledge that style isn’t going to work for all followers, recognise when it doesn’t work and be able to adapt.  Failing to do so risks turning an effective follower into a survivor, or worse, an alienated follower.  However, we have a responsibility as followers to help leaders understand what is going to work best for us.  It’s no good moaning about something if you haven’t at least tried to do something about it.

Think about a time when you felt most firmly in the effective follower category.  You were engaged, involved and made an active, positive contribution.  What was it about your leader at the time that encouraged it?  And if it isn’t your current leader, what’s different and what would need to happen to get you back there?  Effective leadership is vital for a successful business, but effective followership is too.  Are you playing your part?

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