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Unlocking the power of followership: strategies for identifying the types of followers you lead

Eliza Deitch
Eliza Deitch
Written on the 20 March 2023

The modern leadership industry focuses heavily on understanding how great leaders operate, often highlighting topics such as power, popularity, and showmanship. However, leadership cannot exist without followers, and this is where followership comes into play.

Followership describes how individuals respond to and interact with their leader and others, and cultivating followership is an essential aspect of effective leadership. Successful leaders recognise this and tap into their followers’ motivations to further organisational goals.

In this blog we explain why understanding what type of followers you have as a leader is important and outline the five main types of followers.

 

Why should you identify what types of followers you have?

It’s important for a leader to realise that leadership is not a one-way process, and that followers aren’t necessarily passive. Followers can be seen as recipients of leader influence, moderators of leader impact, and constructors of leadership. Gaining a better understanding of those you lead can help you become a more effective leader.

An effective leader will be able to identify that organisational success is linked to the achievements of followers rather than one “heroic” leader and will cultivate a followership that works towards organisational success.

 

Types of followers and follower characteristics

Research shows that followers can assume one of five roles based on levels of active engagement, independent critical thinking, passiveness, and dependency. A follower’s effectiveness is theorised to be impacted depending on what type of follower they become within an organisation.

Here are the five types of followers and their characteristics:

1. Alienated

Alienated followers think independently and critically but are not actively engaged in carrying out the role of a follower. These followers often find themselves disengaging from the group as they think for themselves but usually in a negative and sceptical way. They may see themselves as a victim who has been treated unfairly or a maverick willing to oppose leadership.

Characteristics:

  • Troublesome, cynical, negative
  • Having a chip on their shoulder, a rebel without a cause
  • Headstrong and lacking judgment
  • Not a team player
  • Adversarial to the point of seeming hostile

2. Exemplary

Exemplary or effective followers can be considered the gold star of followers as they operate highly in both active engagement and independent critical thinking. These followers are willing to challenge leaders by thinking for themselves and providing alternative solutions to what they disagree with. Effective followers work well with others, take on more responsibility than required and work hard to support and accomplish organisational goals and leadership decisions.

Characteristics:

  • Focused and committed
  • Competent in critical path activities
  • Invested in increasing value to the organisation
  • Leaders among other followers

3. Survivors

Survivor or pragmatic followers stay in the middle of the road as they have moderate levels of engagement and critical thinking. These followers wait to see how things will play out before they act as they are uncommitted. They rarely do more than is required of them and usually maintain the status quo.

Characteristics:

  • Bargain to maximise own self-interest
  • Being averse to risk and prone to cover their tracks
  • Carrying out their assignments with half-hearted enthusiasm and in a mediocre way
  • Being a bureaucrat who follows the letter, rather than the spirit of the rule

4. Sheep

Sheep or passive followers are the opposite of exemplary followers. They are low in active engagement and critical thinking, relying on their leader to do the thinking for them. These followers will unquestioningly follow the leader but need constant direction as they lack a sense of responsibility and initiative.

Characteristics:

  • Let others make decisions
  • Acting only when given instructions
  • Not doing their share
  • Follows the crowd without questioning anything

5. Yes-People

Yes-people or conformist followers are eager to please others, they are high in active engagement but similarly to sheep followers, will unquestioningly follow their leader. They are referred to as “yes people” as they will say yes even when they want to or should say no. These followers are very active doers, find comfort in structure and do not question the social order of an organisation. They believe that a leader’s position earns them compliance.

Characteristics:

  • Lack their own ideas
  • Compliant and unconfident
  • Unwilling to express unpopular opinions
  • Adverse to conflict, even at the risk of failing with the group
  • Compromise their needs and ideas to please the group

Leadership is an important aspect of organisational success, but research shows 80% of the success is considered a direct result of follower contributions. Followership may often take a backseat to leadership but as the research shows it is an extremely important feature to help you become a more effective leader.

For more information on how our People Experience team can support your organisation’s leadership development and transformation, book in for a chat or contact us here.

Eliza Deitch

Eliza Deitch

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Questions to ask to help you understand a candidate:

1. Describe your ideal working environment.

2. What do you enjoy about your current workplace?

3. How does a manager get the best out of you?

4. Describe the best team that you’ve ever worked in.

The reasons why I ask these questions:

1. Reason

2. Reason

3. Reason

4. Reason

Insights by Eliza Deitch