Unconscious bias is a hot topic in the workplace, with a growing awareness that assumptions made about ourselves and others are not always what they seem.
For example, when people hear the word followership, they often feel a gut-level sense of inferiority, perhaps imagining a sheep or an obedient servant. This reflexive cringe reaction to followership can aptly be described as an unconscious hierarchy bias — seeing those higher up in a formal hierarchy as smarter, better, more skilled and more valuable. This bias suggests that leading is inherently good, following inherently bad and, as a consequence, all positive qualities and abilities are mentally dropped into the leadership bucket. This flawed thinking leaves out a crucial piece of the puzzle for understanding and improving workplace dynamics.
Professional coaches are trained to notice flawed logic and to gently challenge their clients to go deeper in exploring their assumptions. Leadership and followership depend on one another, as a matching set of skills. The two roles work together or not at all, like two blades on a pair of scissors. As podcaster Dan Istrate explains, it is not the actor playing King Lear who makes the scene, it is the moment when everyone else bows as he walks on stage that causes the audience to see Lear as King. In reality, power does not come from leadership alone, but rather from what happens when leaders and followers synchronize their actions.
If you are feeling that familiar cringe right now, take a deep breath and exhale slowly. Give yourself permission to explore followership as if it were an overlooked treasure trove hidden in plain sight. I assure you it is. Moreover, followership is a trainable set of tools and skills that not only complements but also improves leadership. As learning experts know, what may be a little uncomfortable at first can quickly become an unexpected strength. You are activating your followership skills right now by reading this article!
Let’s look at some new ways of thinking about followership:
Followership as a Strength
To overcome unconscious hierarchy bias and get your whole self on board with this followership business, remember that hierarchies of function are not hierarchies of human value. Following someone else doesn’t make a person less important than any other person. Instead, it can turn employees into fierce allies, unexpected collaborators, savvy mentors or trusted partners.
After all, does anyone really lead all day, every day? Nearly everyone reports to someone else, and in the best of those relationships, conversations alternate naturally between speaking and listening, leading and following. Functional hierarchies are indeed useful — even necessary — but within them the role of leading others tends to be overemphasized. What if the role of following others was articulated with equal emphasis?
Followership as a Skill
Think of the engineer who responds defensively to constructive feedback, or the remote manager who disregards the concerns of her divisional boss. Negative human interactions ripple through organizations and quickly erode trust and productivity. The tendency is to make official leaders responsible for all of this, but that’s just not practical given the complexity of how teams work today. What if organizational communication could be vastly improved with a wider acknowledgement, training, practice, and celebration of followership skills?
Dr. Marc and Samantha Hurwitz are learning consultants who do just this. In their book “Leadership is Half the Story,” they describe five sets of matching skill pairs, one of which is communication. They sum up the different-but-complementary nature of leadership and followership communication in this way: “The purpose of leadership communication is to unleash initiative. The purpose of followership communication is to stimulate the right leadership action.”
Here are a few practical tips to elevate your followership communication skills:
- Tune in: Communication includes listening as well as speaking. Prepare yourself to be a rock star listener by adjusting your antennae first. Take note of the other person’s posture, expression and energy level. Do they seem tired, excited, hurried, tentative, happy, or worried? Observing the leader’s nonverbal signals does a couple of very useful things: First, like a mindfulness practice, it brings you into the present moment, making it less likely that you’ll get distracted by your own thoughts. And second, it gives you valuable information about the leader you can use to phrase your thoughts and questions in a way that optimizes your positive influence.
- Visually focus on the speaker: Wherever you look, that’s what you will be thinking about. Eye contact, at least in most Western contexts, signals to the other person that you respect them and that you are listening. A lack of eye contact often signals the opposite: disconnection, distraction or disinterest. If you are working remotely, turn your video on and do your best to look toward the camera.
- Backup a coworker: If someone else shares an idea you resonate with, add your support verbally. If appropriate, add a little bit of additional data or rationale. For example: “I agree with Maria’s point,” or, “I agree with Maria’s point, and last quarter’s budget report suggests the same conclusion.” Genuine solidarity is helpful to the leader and fosters a healthy team dynamic that supports everyone.
Followership as Development
A growing body of research today suggests that it is time to flip what has been assumed to be a passive role, followership, into an active one. The next evolution in learning and development (L&D) is the adoption of leadership and followership as distinct yet equally valuable skills for both organizational effectiveness and career development.