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What Sheep, Yes-People and Cynics have in Common

Followers can get a bad rap. We’re taught that it’s leaders – not followers – who make a difference and impact on the world. As managers, we take courses to learn how to be a better leader and countless books sell the promise of tapping into leadership potential. Headlines like, “How to Spot a Bad Leader, in 2009 and 2019” and “Individual Leadership Development Versus A Company’s Leadership Development” send a clear message: leaders are the only ones who count.

It doesn’t help when the very language used to describe followers has negative connotations – with synonyms like minion and cultist. Even in academia, followers are grouped into categories with unfavorable descriptions, such as sheep, yes-people and cynics. This deepens the association of followers as being meek or inconsequential. Conversely, being a leader symbolizes success and influence.

But can you lead without followers? Succinctly put: you can’t. Although followers may seem less glamorous (to some) than leaders, they are both critical to the success of organizations. Without people to lead who willingly collaborate towards shared goals, you’re not a leader. Every change in human history is enacted by joint efforts of leaders and followers. After all, real change isn’t accomplished alone.

Not everyone is a leader, but every single person is a follower. Everyone is accountable to someone else. Even as a manager or C-suite executive, you often still have bosses, whether it be the board or senior staff. Followers are a natural by-product of leadership and it’s long overdue for leaders to understand their followers better. Followers tend to fall into one of five categories:

  • Trend followers – practice the “wait-and-see" approach like Aaron Burr’s character portrays in the musical, Hamilton

  • Passive – require external guidance and motivation before acting on their own

  • Yes-people – agree with their leader and reinforce their thoughts and actions

  • Disengaged – think for themselves and are self-sufficient individualists

  • Star performers – take action and are thoughtful in their decision to support ideas; often considered as a go-to person or a leader’s right-hand

What kind of followers do leaders want?

Those you lead fall on a spectrum ranging from “feeling and doing absolutely nothing” to “being passionately committed and deeply involved.” Star followers, who fall on the committed and involved side of the spectrum, are the very people who help organizations perform more efficiently. They don’t need to constantly look towards their leaders for guidance or motivation, thereby easing some of the load off leaders, which can increase efficiency. Compared to another type of follower, those who are disengaged, star followers contribute to positive workplace culture in addition to efficiency. However, this doesn’t mean that any follower who isn’t a star performer doesn’t have the potential to be one.

So, let’s start encouraging followers to be stars and to encourage ourselves, as leaders, to be the same. Here are a couple of ways to cultivate star followers on your team:

  1. Give constant feedback. When a member of your team is supportive and helps generate an innovate idea or execute a large project, point it out! Encourage behaviors that are consistent with star-followers to cultivate more of these types of professionals on your team. In contrast, if you notice an employee starting to become more disengaged, bring it to their attention and offer insights to help them grow.

  2. Demonstrate different career paths. Not every employee aspires to be a manager or director in the company. They may want to produce and explore alternative options in their field, and that’s ok! Let them know their journey doesn’t have to be linear; they can grow in their roles by taking on different challenges, learning new skills, or even making a lateral move within the company.

If the message isn’t hitting home yet, consider that millennials, which make up a growing number of the workforce, are not happy with the growth potential at their jobs. In fact, 55% are ambivalent or not satisfied with their current career path options. And in terms of job satisfaction, career paths rank lowest. Even worse, the more experienced millennials get, the less likely they are going to be satisfied with their career growth opportunities, which makes for a somewhat bleak prognosis. However, here’s the silver lining: by cultivating and encouraging the behaviors of star followers, you are simultaneously building opportunities for development, growth, and learning for those you lead.

Looking for more ways to enhance your team or company culture? Click here to learn about our culture consulting practice.