NEW RELATIONSHIPS FOR LEARNING AND PERFORMANCE – Ideas for Leaders
by IRA CHALEFF
How many times have you worked in an organization in which bright, mid-level managers were frustrated by the difficulty of influencing senior executives whose leadership style was impeding organizational growth, productivity or morale?
‘Young Turks’, as they are sometimes called, are often brimming with energy to innovate and test new ways of meeting organizational challenges. The senior executives, who cultural myth holds to be the change agents, are often mired in old ways of doing things with which they are comfortable. They are the roadblock, not the road, to innovation.
Alternatively, these bright, mid-level people, may be dismayed to watch a new senior executive who does not fully appreciate how the company works, start reorganizing, downsizing, outsourcing or merging in ways that will not be viable. Anyone daring to question the new broom is quickly earmarked as someone who needs to go. Silence reigns. A year or two later, the board and the investors are left to clean up the mess resulting from the leader’s high-handed style.
It is the quality of the relationship of leaders and followers, all the way up and down the organization chart, that makes or breaks organizations. Those lower down in the organization have more direct experience with its people, processes and customers and need to be able to influence the leaders’ thinking on which way the organization should go. They cannot be intimidated by the power and trappings of office of the leaders to whom they report. Yet, as we know, they often are intimidated.
Traditional leadership theory puts the responsibility for the leader-follower relationship with the leader. In my observation, it often works the other way around. Those who work most closely with the leader, the senior ‘followers’ if you will, need to assume responsibility for keeping their relationship with the leader honest, authentic and courageous. ‘Yes men’ need not apply.
There are two distinct roles that executives and managers are called upon to play. One is the role of leader in their own right. The other is the role of courageous follower. Endless attention is paid to leadership qualities, selection, training, development and evaluation. Who ever pays attention to how well these same individuals perform their role as courageous followers? Virtually no one. Why is this?
We are a society in love with leadership and uncomfortable with followership, though the subjects are inseparable. We don’t honor followership. We talk pejoratively of followers being weak individuals. And we certainly don’t train staff how to be strong followers who are not only capable of brilliantly supporting their leaders, but can also effectively stand up to them when their actions or policies are detrimental and need rethinking.
As a result, the orientation of those around the leader often becomes personal survival instead of group optimization. Optimum group performance requires that both leaders and followers place the organization’s welfare at least on par with protecting their personal interests. As Chris Argyris of Harvard observes, in most groups the individuals are so concerned with avoiding embarrassment or personal threat, they shy away from the conversations that need to occur to fundamentally improve performance. This is the antithesis of the vaunted ‘Learning Organization’. Important issues become undiscussable.
Where thinly disguised authoritarian relationships still prevail (leader dictates, follower complies or else) team members are driven down Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of motivation. Their needs for physical security and social acceptance outweigh pride in organizational achievement. Instead of risking the conversations that are needed to address leadership’s own contributions to mediocre performance, they “play the game” and conform, regardless of the cost to the organization.
If leaders are exceptionally smart, they create environments in which such honest communication is the norm and rewarded. But, human nature seems to conspire against this and, most of the time, few speak truth to power. If they do so, and they get rebuffed, they don’t do it again. Instead, they complain to each other and to their spouses, but no longer to the person who needs to hear the message and do something about it.
How many times have you found yourself in this position in an organization? How much do you think this type of behavior costs organizations? But if you find yourself in a follower role with a leader who is not using his or her power well, why should you risk your job by seeking to change the status quo? The simplest answer is because it is a better way to live. Win or lose, you’ve carried yourself with integrity and self-respect.
The more complex answer is that, if you aspire to senior leadership positions yourself, you’d better learn to take risks. Leaders who can’t risk, can’t lead. Here’s a chance to get in practice.
How do you go about this? I believe that there is a two part answer to transforming leader-follower relations and creating the conditions in which a learning organization can emerge. The first part has to do with ourselves, the second with “the other.”
At the heart of all transformation of relationships lies transformation of ourselves. This is both where we have the most power to create change and the most reluctance to confront the need for it. In this instance, the process starts with an honest examination of how we have learned to cope with authority relationships. Do we tend to be subservient? Cynical? Prickly and rebellious? Functional, but always playing it safe?
These and other patterns exert a price on the relationship. Ideally we would have mature relationships between self-confident, mutually respectful, emotionally and intellectually honest peers, each operating from a prescribed role for the common good. Often this is no more easily achieved between managers and subordinates than it is between forty year old adults and their overbearing parents. Focusing on our own end of the relationship, rather than on what is being done to us, is usually the best place to start.
Some of the key points to examine and reflect on include:
- Am I energetically pursuing the group’s purpose and aligning my self- interests with it? Or, am I holding back my full contribution, including my willingness to take risks?
- Do I need to take more initiative to ensure that the group is effectively pursuing its mission? Will the way I am behaving in this relationship, or in authority relationships generally, permit me to do that, or do I need to try new behaviors?
- What is my power based on in this situation that would enable me to take greater initiative? What combination of knowledge, skills, reputation, positional authority, networks and communication channels can I bring to bear? Who do I need to align myself with to effectively create the needed change?
- Why am I hesitant to act? Have I given up hope? Become cynical? Do I think that someone else will take the first step? Have I let myself off the hook because I raised my concern once and it wasn’t acted on? Doesn’t mature, responsible behavior require persistence?
- Do the perceived risks of taking the initiative require courage in order to act? If so, what are my personal sources of courage on which I can draw? If I don’t know, how can I find out? Living effectively requires courage.
- Have I earned the leader’s trust so that I have a platform from which to speak? If not, why not? Is my own performance not up to what it needs to be? If so, how will I remedy that?
- Do I have the skills to effectively confront the leader without making him or her defensive? Can I convey that what I am saying is in his or her interest to hear? If not, how will I develop those skills?
The clearer we become about our end of the relationship with a leader, the more effectively we can approach “the other” end. This is the second part of the answer. We can make several mistakes in this regard to which we must be alert.
One error is to rationalize away the leader’s behavior. We can genuinely like the leader as an individual and admire many of his or her character traits. Because, overall, we like the leader, we tolerate the counterproductive or dysfunctional behavior. But in doing so, we let the organization go on paying a steep price for this behavior. Moreover, we are placing this leader, whom we like, at risk because sooner or later, the behavior will catch up with him and the consequences are often regrettable.
An opposite, and even greater error we can make is to lose our respect for the leader. In a leader-follower relationship that has deteriorated, much like in a deteriorated marriage, we are so painfully aware of the other’s shortcomings that we lose sight of the other’s strengths, struggles and value.
To be an effective change agent or partner, we need to reconnect with what is right about the leader’s behavior. It is only from a platform of respect for the other that we can initiate transformation efforts without being perceived and treated as a threat. In this case, it is helpful to reflect on such questions as:
- What skills and attributes enabled the leader to attain the current leadership position? How were these adaptive in the environment in which the leader developed?
- Are there ways, with a little modification, that these skills and attributes can be better utilized to help accomplish the organization’s mission? What specifically would make a difference and how can I effectively communicate that?
- What pressures and challenges is the leader under now? Are those challenges pushing the leader to rely on old ‘proven’ habits rather than risk new, potentially more productive behaviors?
- If the group gave the leader greater support, or a different type of support in dealing with those challenges, might there be less reliance on the dysfunctional behaviors? How can we do this?
- What in the leader’s self-interest can I appeal to that would make the leader more receptive to making changes?
Answering these questions in relation to ourselves and our leaders begins a process of transformation. Barriers to organizational performance can then get discussed. Learning and growth can occur.
We can apply the same strategy towards peers whose style or performance is holding back the team. When we are receptive to both receiving and initiating honest and respectful feedback, to having difficult but necessary conversations, we can help our team break unproductive patterns and learn new, healthy ways of communicating and working together.
We spend so much of our lives with the people with whom we work. We may as well do so with elan, with a forthright style that meets the world head on. If we are willing to risk having our efforts rejected, we may be surprised at how well they work. There is great satisfaction in positively influencing a leader or an organization so that its performance and morale improves.
It is also the best training for becoming a leader who knows how to create such organizations. When will you start?
To help white collar professionals develop the routines and systems needed to stay on top of their daunting workloads. To help them achieve a degree of personal organization that is required to process their work efficiently and permit them to maintain a healthy degree of work-life balance.
- identify and practice information age best work practices
- eliminate backlogs and clutter that impede productivity and increase stress
- minimize reliance on paper based information and maximize the efficient storage and retrieval of high-value information
- optimize the organization of electronic based information to make it readily accessible when needed
- maximize the use of electronic productivity tools for managing large volumes of e-mail, tasks and meetings
- utilize the power of streamlined planning tools to improve the implementation of complex or time sensitive initiatives.
- facilitate team based agreements for minimizing interruptions and maximizing collaboration across work groups
- put in place systems for routinely maintaining a high degree or lean and efficient personal organization.
These unique programs combine seminars and individual coaching with group facilitation as needed. All programs are conducted at the client’s worksite to enable immediate application to their personal offices and electronic working environments. They typically are conducted over three days spaced several weeks apart to allow participants to fully integrate new systems and routines into their work practices. This ensures a high degree of sustainable success.
- individual executive coaching
- small intact work teams
- open enrollment within a company
- cascading and train-the-trainer
- self-study supplemental modules
PEP Programs can be linked to other initiatives such as corporate moves, alternative work environments, leaning organizational processes, work-life balance initiatives, etc.
Ira Chaleff and Emily Barnes are fully certified PEP trainers and coaches. In addition, they have access to other certified trainers and coaches around the globe and can help design large national and international roll-outs.
Variable. Typically two to four days spread over several months.
This workshop is designed to examine the relationship of leaders and followers through the other end of the telescope. Increasingly, it is becoming clear that leaders need to surround themselves not with “yes men” but with professionals who will be genuine partners for organizational success. These partners, or “courageous followers”, will provide both support and honest feedback about the leadership’s decisions and actions so these can be continually improved just as a leader expects continual improvement from those below. In an era of increased competitiveness, board scrutiny and regulatory watchfulness, robust honesty and effective interaction with senior levels of the organization are crucial for success.
This workshop is designed to:
- raise awareness of the equal importance of exemplary followership behavior to leadership behavior
- identify styles of followership and directions for growth
- increase understanding of how hierarchical structures do not need to produce less-than-candid hierarchical relationships
- examine the sources of courage that enable followers to give leaders important information they may not want to hear
- identify the numerous ways in which followers can give better support to their leaders
- develop an awareness of the elements of effectively providing leaders with sensitive feedback
- in longer workshop formats, develop the skills for doing so
- providing leaders with the awareness and tools for creating cultures in which followers will more readily act as partners
Participants will assess their own followership styles. Using hypothetical situations they will examine the ramifications of the different styles and identify their personal growth needs. They will explore their own values structure that will enable them to act when necessary with courage. They will also examine the tools they have as a leader to foster courageous follower behavior. In full day workshops we will use high-quality video scenarios to examine the key followership behaviors. In longer workshops participants will use role plays to cement the skills needed to successfully provide feedback in difficult situations.
Ira Chaleff is the author of the book, The Courageous Follower: Standing Up To and For Our Leaders. He has designed and conducted workshops for a wide range of private sector, government and educational organizations. His ECCA colleagues, David Lassiter and Emily Barnes are also certified to conduct workshops on this theme.
Designs are available from two-hours to two days. Half day and Full Day are most common.
Organizations are successful or not partly on the basis of how well their leaders lead, but also in great part on the basis of how well their followers follow. Surely improving the performance of followers should be worthwhile. What is the role of the follower and how does it affect leadership behavior and effectiveness? How can members of the executive team participate more effectively to create a truly dynamic partnership relationship with their leader? The relationship between leader and follower is truly symbiotic – you can’t have one without the other.
When there is a crisis, when a company fails or commits some malfeasance, everyone cries out: How could that have happened here? How come nobody said anything? Followers have a responsibility to speak up. And the organization, if it wishes to be sustainably successful, has an equal obligation to create the environment for them to safely do so.
No matter how much partnership and empowerment there is, the CEO has ultimate authority and responsibility. But what about the responsibilities of the CEO’s followers? The most capable team members fail when they gripe about their leader but do not say or do anything to help him or her improve or get back on track. To do this requires both courage and skill.
The movement away from command and control leadership has brought new leadership styles that are more democratic and coach-like. The terms “shared leadership,” and “servant leader” are used to describe some of these new ways of interacting. There are also new ways of interacting in the follower role. Setting aside possible aversion to the term, the new flatter business organization requires more responsible followers and more follower-friendly leaders.
Managing the Boss
It is difficult to appreciate the pressures on the leader unless you have had that position. While ego-strength is a quality to be desired in a leader, it can be overly reinforced and transformed into ego-driven. The pressures at the top need to be managed. Courageous followers help leaders stay on track and manage their decision-making processes in the right direction. Responsible and effective followers have a critical role in maintaining the desired partnering dynamics.
Many executive team members do some of these things quite naturally. But often they are hesitant to speak up when the leader makes mistakes, whether they are made from the best of intentions or the worst. After all, “She’s (or he’s) the boss.” Although we’ve grown beyond an authoritarian leadership model where followers have no accountability, we haven’t yet developed a model for responsible participation at the follower level for the new leadership styles.
In his book (The Courageous Follower, 2003) Ira Chaleff points out that the old paradigm of the leader/follower is based on power. The leader has traditionally had the “power” to award perks, benefits, bonuses, choice assignments, promotions and the like. He/she often holds the keys to attaining these. This has led to a relationship in which the follower avoids jeopardizing their chances of obtaining these rewards. Hence, the follower tends to do what the leader wants and, just as important, not offend or create a negative impression of themselves. A relationship based on this kind of power does not serve the organization, the leader or the follower because it shuts down the open flow of communication and candor a leader needs in order to optimize their effectiveness. After all, who will tell the emperor he has no clothes?
Chaleff sees a very different kind of relationship between leader and follower. He suggests a relationship where the leader and follower have equal power but different roles that orbit around support and fulfillment of the organizations’ purpose. When both the leader and follower are focused on the common purpose a new relationship between them arises. This new relationship is candid, respectful, supportive and challenging. It is a relationship that honors open communication, honesty and trust from both parties.
Many in leadership positions bemoan the fact that they’re not getting full and candid information from their staffs. Being aware of all the facts or data is crucial for effective decision making. And yet, in too many situations, followers are reluctant to present negative information for fear of repercussions. Case in point: How many organizations have recently had to “restate” or correct their earnings statements after the fact due to oversights, errors or even malfeasance? And why, in those situations, did people not step up and state their misgivings? In an environment where the focus of both leaders and followers is on serving the purpose of the organization these problems are far less likely to occur. In such an environment, followers would be giving full voice to their concerns and instincts and leaders would welcome, value and pay attention to them.
The Job of Effective Followers
The sooner we recognize and accept our powerful position as followers, the sooner we can fully develop responsible, synergistic relationships in our organizations. According to Chaleff, there are three things we need to understand in order to fully assume responsibility as followers.
- Understand our power and how to use it. As followers, we have far more power than we usually acknowledge. We must understand the sources of our power, whom we serve and the tools we have to achieve the group’s mission. We have a unique vantage point as follower or team member, but we have to know that and use it.
- Appreciate the value of the leader and the contributions he or she makes to forward the organization’s mission. We need to understand the pressures upon the leader that can wear down creativity, good humor and resolve. We can learn how to minimize these forces and contribute to bringing out the leader’s strengths for the good of the group and the common purpose.
- Work toward minimizing the pitfalls of power by helping the leader to remain on track for the long-term common good. We are all witness to how power can corrupt, and it takes courage and skill to speak up. We can learn how to counteract the dark tendency of power. Feedback to the leader is necessary for the new leadership styles to be effective.
The Five Dimensions of Courageous Followership
Chaleff identifies and defines what is required of followers to become an equal partner with the leader in fulfilling the purpose of the organization.
The Courage to Assume Responsibility – Courageous followers assume responsibility for themselves and the organization. They do not hold a paternalistic image of the leader or organization, nor do they expect either to provide for their security and growth or give them permission to act. They initiate values based action. Their “authority” comes from their understanding and ownership of the common purpose.
The Courage to Serve – Courageous followers are not afraid of hard work and they assume additional responsibilities to unburden the leader and serve the organization. They stand up for the leader and the tough decisions he/she must make. They are as passionate as the leader in pursuit of the common purpose.
The Courage to Challenge – Courageous followers give voice to the discomfort they feel when the behaviors or policies of the leader or group conflict with their sense of what is right. They are willing to stand up, stand out, to risk rejection and to initiate conflict in order to examine the actions of the leader or group when appropriate.
The Courage to Participate in Transformation – Courageous followers champion the need for change and stay with the leader and group while they mutually struggle with the difficulty of real change. They examine their own need for transformation and become full participants in the change process as appropriate.
The Courage to Take Moral Action – Courageous followers know when it is time to take a stand that is different from the leaders. The stand may involve refusing to obey a direct order, appealing the order to the next level of authority, or tendering one’s resignation. This may involve personal risk but service to the common purpose justifies and sometimes demands such action.
Robert E. Kelley in his landmark article in Harvard Business Review “In Praise of Followers” (1988), states, “In an organization of effective followers, a leader tends to be more an overseer of change and progress than a hero. As organizational structures flatten, the quality of those who follow will become more and more important.” He sees four essential qualities of effective followers.
- They manage themselves well: The key to being effective as a follower is paradoxically the ability to think for oneself. Followers also see themselves as equals to the leader they follow.
- They are committed to a higher purpose: They work towards the purpose of the organization, and to certain principles and values outside of themselves. If they see a misalignment with personal values, they may withdraw their support either by changing jobs or by changing leaders.
- They build their strengths: They have high standards of performance and are continually learning and updating their skills and abilities. They seek out extra work and responsibilities gladly in order to stretch themselves.
- They take risks: They are credible, honest and have the courage to speak up. They give credit where due, but also admit mistakes. They are insightful and candid and they are willing to take risks. They can keep leaders and colleagues honest and informed.
In information-age organizations, hundreds of decentralized units process and rapidly act on varied input within the design and purpose of the organization. This requires an entirely different relationship between leaders and followers.
Speaking up to the Boss
Part of the problem in following responsibly and courageously lies in the tendency for people to relate to authority figures as they would in a parent-child relationship. Early childhood memories are deeply embedded in the subconscious and trigger old patterns of behavior and emotion in a split second. These memories are often outside of our awareness, and it doesn’t take much – a look, a tone of voice – to trigger anger or anxiety when confronted by the boss. Developing one’s emotional intelligence (Daniel Goleman, Primal Leadership, 2002), can help regulate these split second reactions and allow more productive and satisfying interactions.
The danger in the leader-follower relationship is the assumption that the leader’s interpretation must dominate. If this assumption exists on the part of either the leader or the follower, both are at risk. The leader’s openness will diminish. Followers will easily lose their unique perspective and abandon healthy disagreement. Creativity and problem-solving processes become stifled.
It is a primary duty of highly effective leaders to create an environment where support and challenge flourish in a balanced manner. Though it may not be an easy task to speak up and challenge the leader, without the courage and skill to do so, corporate scandals will continue to occur. Creating an environment of partnership as well as learning to provide candid feedback to the boss are skills not often given high priority. Working with a neutral party such as an executive coach can help both leaders and followers develop these abilities and become more courageous and effective.
Chaleff, I. (2002). The Courageous Follower, Standing up to & for Our Leaders. (2nd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.
Goleman, D., Boyatzis, R., & McKee, A. (2002). Primal Leadership, Realizing the Power of Emotional Intelligence. Boston: Harvard Business School Press.
Greenleaf, R. K. (1998). The Power of Servant Leadership. San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.
Kelley, R. E. (1988, Nov.-Dec.). In Praise of Followers. Harvard Business Review. Reprint 88606.