Tell someone you aspire to be a good follower and you’ll likely get a confused look. But as two experts explain, followership within organisations is a vital – if misunderstood – role.
If you’re unfamiliar with the term, followership probably conjures up visions of ‘yes’ people – unambitious worker bees lacking original thought and blindly following whoever’s in charge.
This couldn’t be further from the truth, says Ruth Sims, a PhD candidate at the University of South Australia who is researching followership for her thesis.
Practicing followership is an active choice that involves making space for leaders to lead, she says.
“At its most fundamental, followership is when you’re supporting someone to achieve common goals,” says Sims, who is also a former AHRI South Australian State Councillor.
“You can still raise issues, influence others and behave proactively … But you’re doing that in order to support leaders to achieve organisational outcomes. Followership is when you’re making a conscious decision to play that supportive role.”
Dr Rachael Thompson, senior lecturer at Northumbria University’s Newcastle Business School, whose PhD thesis was on followership in the public sector, agrees.
“For me, followership is about being an active member of a group or team, being open and able to buy into other people’s ideas and visions, and to support others in the achievement of those shared visions,” she says.
“It’s also having an assertiveness and confidence in your own thoughts and opinions to be able to offer those openly and see them as ways to improve upon what’s being suggested.”
What makes for good followership?
We have always needed followers. After all, where would leaders be without a team to, well, lead? But while there are countless courses offering to teach leadership, we tend to assume people know how to follow.
But with some organisations flattening and the days of the omniscient ‘hero’ leader soon to be behind us, followership – and the need to do it well – feels more important than ever.
“Organisations spend so much time and effort developing leadership skills and hardly any developing followership skills when the two go hand in glove,” says Sims.
“There’s a sense that followership is less important in an organisation than leadership. But if you’ve got people who are effectively leading, you also need people who are effectively following.”
“Followership is about being an active member of a group or team, being open and able to buy into other people’s ideas and visions, and to support others in the achievement of those shared visions.” – Dr Rachael Thompson, senior lecturer, Northumbria University’s Newcastle Business School
So what makes for good followership? It’s many of the attributes we often associate with good leadership, such as solid judgement, intelligence, confidence and enthusiasm.
Thompson says it’s important to create an environment where employees feel they can display these attributes even when they’re not in traditional leadership roles.
“Obviously it depends upon the context and the culture, but in an ideal world, effective followership … involves working collaboratively with people, [but not] seeing yourself as just doing as you’re told and just saying ‘yes’ to things,” she says.
Implications for HR
Followership also has important implications for HR practice, says Sims, in terms of the skills and abilities they need to recruit for.
During the recruitment process, she recommends asking for examples of times when people have demonstrated good judgement, at a level appropriate to the position they’re applying for.
“This isn’t limited to mid or senior level roles,” she says. “It could apply to someone doing data entry – has there been a moment when they’ve looked at a spreadsheet and said, ‘That doesn’t look right?’”
Seeking out a combination of confidence and humility is also important, as followership requires an understanding that you can’t always be the headline act.
“So exploring with people when they were prepared to be supportive, what that looked like and what they did, and when they were prepared to speak up,” says Sims. “And at what point did they defer to a decision that had been made that they may not personally have agreed with, and how did they manage that?”
“Organisations spend so much time and effort developing leadership skills and hardly any developing followership skills when the two go hand in glove.” – Ruth Sims, UniSA
HR practitioners can also help foster a sense of pride in followership by rethinking how we recognise employees, says Thompson.
“There’s a lot of emphasis within organisations on leadership development … and getting those positions ticked off on your CV, but I think there’s not enough recognition of what you’re doing well and effectively and how you’re contributing to things when you’re not specifically in a [leadership] role,” she says.
From follower to leader (and back again)
It’s probably obvious by now that followership and leadership aren’t set roles. Followers will act as leaders and vice versa, often switching between the two multiple times a day. Just look at middle managers, who both lead their teams and follow senior managers. And even those at the very top know when to step back and allow other people’s expertise to shine.
“It’s important to see ourselves as not being a leader or a follower, but as individuals who are leading and following,” says Thompson.
“We move fluidly between two different processes depending upon the situation, depending on who it is that we’re interacting with and depending on the nature of the task or project.”
Sims agrees, stating that it’s “not connected to a position or a hierarchy; it’s not a job title.”
“It’s a set of skills you call on. Just as you have leadership skills and you draw on those, you have followership skills and you draw on those. And I think if you’re effective in either role, you know which role it’s appropriate to play at a given time.”
Ultimately, putting even half as much emphasis on followership within organisations as leadership can only be a positive thing.
“When we focus so heavily on leaders and leadership, as we’ve traditionally done, we’re missing a whole lot of what’s happening in organisations,” says Sims.
“Opening up the other half of the box is really interesting.”
Followership is a vital skill for leaders to cultivate. AHRI’s short course on Leadership and Management Essentials can be customised for your workplace needs. Book in for an in-house workshop.