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Active followership: how to be a better follower at work

Published 12th April 2017 by Melissa Farrington
Leader asking follower to follow her

We’ve covered how you can be make your manager’s life easier but what about generally being a better follower to your leaders?

Contrary to belief being a good followership is not about following blindly - in fact it’s the opposite, so much so that Yung and Tsai (2013) say that when followers are doing their job properly, it is also a form of leadership [PDF].

The type of followership you want to aim for is active followership. This is what Yung and Tsai mean when they talk about followership being a form of leadership. But there are other types of followership which aren’t as effective, for you and your organisation.

We’ll look at the differences between the three types of followership and how you can strive for, and attain, active followership.

What is active followership?

Yung and Tsai (2013) specifically call active followership the “mirror image of leadership,” adding that “leaders would be non-existent without their followers.”

Active followership is, fundamentally, about proactively giving leaders feedback, honestly answering their questions, being positive and participatory and having an open mind to new ideas and paths.

It’s about your role in creating a two-way, mutually-beneficial environment between leaders and followers. It’s no surprise, therefore, that Maroosis (2008) says the most important part of active followership is providing feedback.

What is passive followership?

If you’re a passive follower, you tend to follow direction but to the letter - you won’t think outside the box and question whether a course of action is a good one. Passive followers are not disengaged, but do not challenge, reflect or question constructively.

They are often hard workers who support the leader but they don’t provide a questioning voice in the team and as such do not help to optimise the team’s activities or focus.

Townsend and Gebhardt (2003) say that the biggest difference between active and passive followers is the extent to which they are empowered to take part in decision-making.

What is alienated followership?

If you’re alienated you’re disengaged, cynical, unenthused and probably immediately negative about new ideas. You’ve probably got ideas, but don’t voice them for a variety of reasons: maybe you think it’s pointless, or can’t be bothered, or just don’t think anyone will listen to them.

Alienated followers often become alienated when they think their opinions won’t be listened to, or when they have change fatigue. Being an alienated follower is unhealthy and draining, both for you personally and for the organisation.

How can I be an active follower?

  1. Help improve decision-making: Martin (2008) says that good followers should help leaders make informed decisions. That means giving them constructive opinions and knowledge when needed.
  2. Be a critical thinker: make sure you question and critique constructively during everyday life at work. Critical thinking is key to a two-way relationship with leaders: if you don’t question, analyse and offer feedback, you are a passive follower.
  3. Seek out opportunities: active followership is called ‘active’ for a reason. You are another pair of eyes for the leaders, spotting opportunities that you personally and your team can benefit from, or that will help the organisation meet its goals. Bringing these opportunities to leaders builds trust and faith in your abilities.
  4. Work on your motivation: motivation is key if we want to be good workers and communicators. There’s lots of research around what motivates us (from money to benefits to internal motivators like autonomy and purpose). The more you understand yourself and can cultivate your own motivation, the more energy and usefulness you will bring your leader and your team.
  5. Develop communication skills: you should aim to be straight-talking and honest, using simple words to communicate your feelings. Uncertainty or mismatched expectations that arise from poor communication can destroy trust and it’s important leaders know they will get straight-talking honesty when asking your opinion or, for example, getting a steer from you on how long a project will take.