Warren Bennis says the most important characteristics of followers are telling the truth and voicing dissent. Professor Bennis recognises that in speaking up a follower often puts her job on the line, it’s not a good place to start. While I would like to be a courageous follower and tell the Emperor when he has no clothes, I can’t afford that action to be at the expense of my own well-being and comfortable employment.
I notice when I transpose the theory about leaders and followers into the everyday of managers and employees, the theory gets exponentially more difficult to enact. In the office it takes so little to trigger boss-induced anxiety – a sigh, a tone of voice, a dismissive shrug – when confronted by the person you report to.
According to Wikipedia “A ranking is a relationship between a set of items such that, for any two items, the first is either ‘ranked higher than’, ‘ranked lower than’ or ‘ranked equal to’ the second.” It is rank and power that makes a boss/employee relationship difficult to navigate, it is not an even playing field. The boss is endowed with a structural rank that elevates their role and opinions as superior to those who to report them. ‘Subordinates’, while a distasteful term, is typically an accurate description of the ranked-lower-than-followers. Support is typically more welcome than challenge, particularly upwards. By virtue of their position and the experience that earned that position, managers feel entitled to have the last word, to make a ‘call’. My way or the highway is an all too familiar modus operandi. Down the chain of command challenge is routine and expected, the manager outranks those who work for her. Her view has more credence.
Our rank and power in the workplace is too often administered unconsciously. We too often play along following the behaviours modelled in an environment, slipping in to the expectations of various organisational roles. Thinking on followership encourages more vigilance around around the roles of leaders and followers, their relationships and how we deal with each other at work. I know, anecdotally at least, that the higher up an organisation leaders climb the more isolated they become. The better informed we are by those around us the more robust our decisions will be. Leaders need followers, whole followers with their support and their ideas and their dissent. The roles of, and expectations upon, leaders and followers need some fluidity in that followers will lead leaders and leaders will follow followers at times.
“Perhaps the ultimate irony is that the follower willing to speak out shows precisely the kind of initiative that leadership is made of.” says Warren Bennis