Here’s a quick quiz about leadership. Answer each statement with whether you believe it is true or false:

  1. Leadership is a process whereby an individual influences a group of individuals to achieve a common goal. (True/False?)
  2. The higher up in an organization you go, the more value there is in providing leadership training. (True/False?)
  3. People generally get promoted for their leadership skills. (True/False?)
  4. Leadership is a more important determinant of team success than (True/False?)

How did you do? If you answered true to all four questions, your responses are the same as many leadership experts.

The thing is, every one of the statements is in fact false. And that’s a problem.

The “Johari window”  was developed by psychologists Joseph Luft and Harry Ingram in 1955 to help people understand how they view themselves and how others perceive them. Here is a small modification to the Johari window that is particularly useful for trainers:

What You Know What You Don’t Know
Known To Self Tacit Knowledge: What you know you know Learning Ready: What you know you don’t know
Not Known To Self Implicit Knowledge: What you don’t know you know Blind Spot: What you don’t know you don’t know

We all love it when learners are in the Learning Ready quadrant, but that isn’t always the case. In fact, each of the other three quadrants presents a different training challenge. Learners who are in the Blind Spot quadrant might need to be convinced of the importance of what you are about to teach them. Learners in the Implicit Knowledge quadrant are ready to learn but may resist if you don’t honor what they already know. Many adult learners are in this category, and that’s why, for this group, the Socratic method of asking questions to tease out their existing understanding is so powerful: It affirms the knowledge people already have within themselves.

It can be difficult for corporate trainers when learners have tacit knowledge. Students with tacit knowledge may dominate and disrupt the training if they care about being seen as “right” or become disengaged attendees if they don’t. Our worst workshops have happened when an expert whom we were relying on to model the way for other students instead skipped the session or attended and did something other than be an active contributor. For instance, the CEO who doesn’t attend training that everyone else is doing, or the human resources (HR) director who sits at the back of the classroom doing crosswords. (We’ve had both these things happen multiple times!)

Equally challenging is the learner who knows what they know, but their assumptions are incorrect. To train them, you must first convince them that what they already “know” is wrong. Speaking as a neuroscientist, our brains are wired to make this incredibly challenging. First the way we learn is by Bayesian inference (i.e., we naturally adopt thinking that is consistent with what we already know rather than supported by compelling evidence). Second, we are subject to all kinds of biases and errors, perhaps most notably confirmation bias where we seek and pay attention to data that supports what we already believe.

Consider the quiz at the beginning of this article. We mentioned that all the statements are false, but perhaps you think we are wrong, and that you are right about one of them. For example, perhaps you think that people get promoted for their leadership skills. What if we told you that there is peer-reviewed research that people actually get promoted for their followership skills, or that followership skills are a bigger factor in performance appraisals and organizational mentorship than leadership skills? What if we told you that research also shows the importance of followership skills increases as you go up the organizational chart? Are you convinced or feel compelled to send us a note with counterexamples you’ve seen of people promoted for leadership (i.e., confirmation bias)?

Almost 35 years ago, Robert Kelley wrote a seminal Harvard Business Review article on the importance of followership to organizations noting that about 80% of team success is attributable to the skill of followers. In 2009, Austin Agho (who is currently the Provost at Old Dominion) published a survey of 300 C-suite leaders where nearly 100% stated followership was important to organizational success but only 4% believed people knew how to follow. Another research paper, which is noted in our book, “Leadership is Half the Story: A Fresh Look at Followership, Leadership, and Collaboration,” identified that improved followership had a whopping 17% to 43% impact on every metric important to organizations — top line, bottom line, customer satisfaction, employee satisfaction, quality, etc. We know from research that about 30% of performance appraisals are related to followership behaviors. Put all these facts together and you can see just how important it is that we train people of followership.

So why aren’t we teaching more of it? With roughly $400 billion devoted to training worldwide each year, why aren’t we spending $1 million or $1 billon or even $200 billon a year on followership? After all, imagine training only the quarterback on a football team. They won’t have time to throw the ball, receivers won’t know where to go after the snap, and any well-trained defense will beat them.

The problem is tacit knowledge. We all “know” too much about leadership. Let’s turn that around and learn about followership, too, because leadership and followership are a mutual influence process. It’s an equally important role. And in our experience, when people do learn about how to follow well, and ethically, it empowers them to feel better about what they do.

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