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Lucy Gregory

The Association of Accountancy Technicians

HR Manager

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AAT’s Lucy Gregory on the power of followership


As long as there have been leaders, there have been followers, and leaders cannot accomplish what they do without followers. Kelley, 1992.

Most, if not all, HR professionals understand and implement leadership management techniques within their organisation.
But in 1992, RE Kelley put a new slant on the situation with his book, ‘The Power of Followership’. While most methods had formerly focused on leadership, for the first time he provided a means of evaluating different types of followers by making their vital importance clear.
As a result, we understand the nature of followers much better now. Firstly, we know that all employees over the course of their working life are or have been followers at some point in time.
Secondly, we recognise that followers contribute 90% to an organisation’s success. Finally, we are aware that successful leaders generally emerge from the ranks of able and happy followers.
But many people don’t understand the amount of power that followers actually have. It is they who judge leaders on their management style, their ability to attain business objectives and goals and how successful they are in engaging with them.
To be effective and create a productive and happy workforce, especially in this economic climate, leaders simply have to be genuinely interested in their followers, understanding them as individuals rather than just as members of a wider team.
Most employees who are disconnected at work, for instance, will say that their boss has little understanding of who they are or what they do. The idea is that leaders and followers are very much intertwined and the relationship between the two can have a massive impact on an organisation’s bottom line.
Therefore, by understanding ‘followership’ styles, we as HR professionals are better positioned to introduce organisational change that could affect this dynamic.
Here are some of the most common followership styles that employees fall into during their working lives as well as some of the issues that leaders need to be aware of when interacting with them:
Sheep – These followers are ‘easily herded’, which some bosses tolerate. Wise leaders, however, seek to encourage behaviour that is more intelligent, challenging and adds value among their staff – or to replace them with people who display these characteristics. In some sectors, such followers just end up being replaced by automated/re-engineered processes though.
Yes people – They may lack initiative and require a ‘leader’ to provide them with direction, purpose and clarity, but they are often livelier than sheep. Managers with poor self-confidence and judgement tend to like them, but they can be dangerous as they tell leaders what they want to hear rather than what they need to know.
Survivors – These people are adequate/capable performers who, over time, give up their independence in favour of political expediency.
Alienated followers – They are often very bright but come across as cynical and negative. For example, they are good at pointing out problems but seldom offer solutions, defaulting into “You’re the manager, that’s your job!” They also frequently attribute blame to others or to the situation. But these followers may well be insecure about their own abilities and lack the confidence to lead, or even leave. Getting to the bottom of what has put them off is important.
Effective followers – These people are energetic and enthusiastic, take the initiative, point out problems and offer solutions. They want to lead and seek out coaches to help them develop their leadership capabilities – and they aren’t afraid to leave if they don’t get what they want.
It is common knowledge that everyone responds differently to different management tactics. As a result, followership training is about encouraging leaders to think about common followership styles, with the aim of helping each individual to become as effective as possible.
But it is also worth bearing in mind that company culture has an impact on followership styles too. For instance, if the organisation takes a ‘bottom-down’ approach, in which all of the ideas come from the top echelons, people may feel unable to speak up or share ideas, even though it would make them a more effective follower.
In a more ‘bottom-up culture’, on the other hand, managers tend to encourage followers to collaborate and share information, which helps to boost the productivity of everyone, regardless of their seniority.
Putting the theory into practice
At AAT, we have benefited hugely from working with external training providers that taught us followership techniques through ‘forum theatre’. This approach consists of exploring a range of followership styles and common workplace scenarios using role-play with actors.
Because the scenarios are often awkward or uncomfortable, they enable leaders to identify new ways of dealing with situations before they happen. As managers are called upon to think, act and adapt, the method is effective both for those that are new to the role and those with more experience.
For example, ‘sheep’ can be very passive, lack ambition and tend not to challenge authority. Some leaders tolerate this behaviour, while others simply ignore it. But neither approach benefits anyone and can actually have a negative effect on the wider team.
‘Sheep’ tend to perform poorly and may feel resentful towards leaders who make little attempt to encourage them to do better. If no action is taken, they will add little or no value to the team, or to the overall business.
By being able to identify a ‘sheep’s’ characteristics, however, leaders are given the tools to take responsibility and effect change – and if change doesn’t happen, they have more scope to find out why.
But some HR directors may find this type of training difficult to manage, especially if the company is going through a process of change or making redundancies that could lead to a good number of effective followers feeling alienated.
Therefore, the best way to approach the situation is to teach ‘followership’ techniques to both leaders and followers as an on-going process.
We also found that introducing a booklet outlining our behavioural competency framework, which is based on the followership concept, has helped both followers and leaders to become more self-aware and to communicate more effectively – especially as teams grow, shrink or people move off elsewhere.
The framework provides individuals with a means of measuring themselves against what is expected of them based on their level or grade. It has also proved useful when looking at characteristic traits and the relationship between leaders and followers.
It’s certainly worked for us anyway. By implementing followership training and providing our leaders with an effective way to help understand their followers, the organisation has seen a positive impact on both growth and staff retention rates.

Lucy Gregory is HR manager at qualification and professional body, the Association of Accountancy Technicians.

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Lucy Gregory

HR Manager

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