Article by J. Norman Baldwin
The most common – yet underrated and overlooked – role that we play in life is that of the follower. Although we are all followers in many capacities in our lives, little research or writing is dedicated to what it means to be a follower.
When the boss is pleased with our followership, we position ourselves for pay raises, promotions, and job assignments that enhance our standards of living and the quality of our careers. When the boss is disappointed, we jeopardize our job security, fail to earn pay raises, and relegate ourselves to the least appealing assignments in our work environments. You would think that more attention would be devoted to the subject of followership, but instead, we academic types are almost obsessively focused on leadership.
An important question we should be asking is, “How can followers win when leaders get all the glory?”
Followership is underrated. Unlike leaders, followers are protected from the hell of disgruntled and malcontent employees who complain about everything – their colleagues, their assignments, their pay, their performance evaluations, and so on. Followers are free from being the referees between battling factions or rendering judgments that create winners and losers. Followers are liberated from having to fire employees; they can dodge conflicts and problems that leaders are forced to address.
Ultimately, organizations have fewer reasons to terminate followers, and companies have fewer opportunities and reasons to sue followers. Although the average length of stay in a management occupation is quite high (almost seven years), a survey of approximately 5,000 executives, search consultants, and corporate human resource professionals indicates that the average tenure in office of a business executive is only 2.3 years. Although I assert that abusive bosses and dehumanizing work are not to be tolerated, a follower’s role in an enjoyable job with a fair and reasonable boss is typically a substantially less stressful work experience than serving in a leadership role.
The leadership literature might be King Kong and the followership literature a mere mouse, but enough has been written on followership to give you direction on what you should be striving for in order to become a more ideal follower. I looked at 27 studies that identified 278 qualities of exemplary followers. Many of those qualities overlapped, and I was able to boil them down to a more manageable set of nine traits:
9 Traits of Ideal Followers
Their communications are understandable, accurate, complete, and timely. Although you might instinctually think that speaking up is not what a good follower does, research reveals that speaking up, being open, offering opinions, and persuading are characteristics of followers who communicate effectively.
Sitting back and keeping your head down is a no-no. Followers should be energetic; they should take initiative, participate, be proactive, and just do it.
They are highly interactive network builders who are friendly, diplomatic, and socially intelligent.
This one should be painfully obvious. Ideal followers are strong team players who value collaboration, cooperation, and interdependence.
Being a follower is less stressful than being a leader, but followers still need to be strongly responsible. This includes being accountable, knowing and doing one’s job, following through, accepting delegation, and taking ownership.
In a fast-changing economic context, adaptability is important. Followers need to be flexible and adaptable, capable of managing change and being players for all seasons.
Another trait that I would hope would apply to both leaders and followers is integrity, as reflected in honesty and credibility both ethically and morally.
Of course, it’s possible to do a job and not be committed to the organization behind the work. However, research reveals that organizations value committed members, which makes sense. Without commitment, how can a follower be an honest team player watching out for the best interests of the organization and their colleagues?
A follower who possesses all of the aforementioned virtues is ultimately useless unless they are also competent or proficient in performing their jobs. Moreover, having the capacity to avert crises is an especially attractive competency in the eyes of superiors.
While I may be singing the praises of followership, I won’t mince words. Followership has a serious downside when employees are placed in growth-depressing jobs or subordinated to abusive or incompetent leaders. The power that superiors have over their subordinates is especially problematic when bosses exercise autocratic control and punitive approaches to management. Followership can be unbearable when one is denied self-determination and self-expression, or when a climate of fear casts its ominous shadow over a workplace.
That being said, there are advantages to being a follower that should put a smug smile on all of our faces. For one, if you are a person who does not enjoy the diversity of responsibilities of leadership positions, then a follower role is likely to reduce your stress and enhance your job satisfaction. If you are currently placed in a more narrowly defined job that allows you to focus on what you really enjoy doing, you would be foolish to hop on the elevator to a leadership role. Not only would doing so open the door to jobs that you hate, but poor performance in leadership roles can put you on the downward escalator leading to the exit door.
Being the ideal follower from the perspective of management is only part of winning at following. You win at following through working in jobs that bring you satisfaction in organizations that are compatible with your natural followership style.
Put simply: To win at following, become an invaluable subordinate working in jobs that you love in organizations that love you back.
A version of this article originally appeared on SUCCESS.com.
J. Norman Baldwin is a professor of political science at the University of Alabama, where he has served as director of graduate programs, director of undergraduate programs, and the master of the public administration program.