Monday, October 12, 2009

Followership or Citizenship?

Since it entered our repertoire, I have distrusted the term followership. It has percolated through writings in business for a number of years. It is weighted down, in my opinion, by the sense the term carries that followers are herd animals: subservient, uncritical. Here and there - following the Enron scandal for example - there has been an effort to blame followers for the failures of their leaders. These authors argue: if employees can do only a little more to let leadership know that their decisions might have bad consequences, then bad consequences can be avoided. This laughably turns responsibility on its head. It is the worst kind of revisionism to argue that Enron's executive leadership wouldn't have committed fraud if someone in a cubicle in accounting would have had the gumption to stand up and say: "Um, guys, what you're doing is deceptive and illegal." Leaders need to take responsibility for their choices and failures.

But part of the body of scholarship on followership has been concerned with constructing categories or taxonomies of followers. One of the researchers who takes this path, Barbara Kellerman from Harvard, makes a breakthrough by pointing the entire conversation in a new direction. A Political Scientist by training, and a Lecturer at the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard's Kennedy School, what Kellerman talks about in her work feels more to me like citizenship, rather than followership. In fact, most of her writings on her Washington Post-hosted blog don't deal with the workplace, but with politics.

Consider for a second what Kellerman says about "good followers:"

Good followers will actively support a leader who is good (effective and ethical) and will actively oppose a leader who is bad (ineffective and unethical). Good followers invest time and energy in making informed judgments about who their leaders are and what they espouse. Then they take the appropriate action.

Doesn't that sound a lot like what we expect (but too infrequently get) from an informed citizenry? This suggests that followers have responsibilities as well as rights (just as citizens do).

Here's what she says about "bad followers:"

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Bad followers will do nothing whatsoever to contribute to the group or organization. Or they will actively oppose a leader who is good. Or they will actively support a leader who is bad.

But why do bad followers behave the way they do? And how can you help facilitate the engineering of good followers? One part of the answer for Kellerman and others who write on this topic: workplaces are populated with "isolates" and "bystanders," who are willing (perhaps even happy) to collect their paychecks without being more involved in a company's affairs than is absolutely necessary. They are bad followers in the sense that they do nothing, or very little, to contribute to the organization's success. But the other type of bad follower - those that oppose good leaders and support poor ones - are, in my mind, equivalent to "low information voters" in a democracy. Low information voters got an unusual degree of attention in the last presidential election. Different writers have linked low information voters with different problems. For example, in a tight election - as the last several presidential elections have been - it is important to reach voters who don't have the resources or the interest to learn more about issues and candidates. So the race becomes a beauty pageant or gets bogged down in discussions about relatively meaningless public policy concerns, like the preoccupation with a gas-tax holiday that dominated part of the spring of 2008. Low information voters, like bad followers in the workplace, don't make informed decisions, they follow their gut, or stick with party labels, or embrace symbolism over substance, or do what's easy.

We know a little bit about what is necessary to improve voting behavior - crudely, to turn low information voters into responsible voters. The first is obvious, but hard to implement: we need to make information cheaper and easier to obtain. Studies show that most low information voters are low-income and less-educated. They don't have the time or money to invest in accessing more information about issues, or they lack the training in critical thinking that college education helps to provide. Making the implications of candidates' policies more accessible and comprehensible - through the media or other resources - can help these voters, and all voters, make better choices. But as a society, we haven't assembled the commitment or the right set of approaches to make information cheaper and more intelligible.

In the workplace, the solution seems easier: workers should be able to access on an ongoing basis basic information about how a company is doing, across a number of appropriate indicators. And that information should be factual and transparent. Where a firm has concerns about competitors putting their hands on this information, employee access can be limited to what is necessary for informed reflection. But in general, better informed employees can become better followers.

The other solution in the political sphere is restoring a sense of civic engagement among a population that has lost its sense of commitment to the wider public, the nation, and the state. Part of the problem is that low information voters don't feel motivated to seek out and make use of information that is available. We have a good sense of how to engineer greater engagement, but it takes a commitment of resources and a span of time to produce results.

Doing this in the workplace is considerably easier. It begins with recruitment and hiring: selecting employees who express a commitment to engagement, rather than docility, is the first step. HR shouldn't target candidates who appear to be easy to manage, they should seek out what Kellerman calls "activists," those who are "eager, energetic and engaged," and have an appetite for building relationships, rationalizing and improving processes, and are impatient with poor leadership.

So if we are talking about something that resembles citizenship, why not call it that, and dispose of the awful term followership?