Abstract / Summary

This article will focus on followership within an engineering-based company or project team. Followership is the ability in individual employees to follow direction from their manager with the purpose of completing the team’s goal. This also means working with the entire team and knowing when to take charge of a smaller group in the name of the manager. One must also know when it is appropriate to take risks or go in a new direction, independent of instruction from higher up. This balance of teamwork and innovation is what makes an employee a good follower, allowing the entire project to succeed under its leader’s direction.

Followership and Leadership in the Team

Who is a Follower?

Interpersonal dynamics exist among all team members within any project team. There may not always be a defined leader, and one or more members may or may not step up to fill that role at times. While guidance and an inspirational leader are often necessary for success, a team will fail if its members cannot act as followers. Followers are the team members that respect the appropriate authority figures, do their work to the best of their ability, and are focused on successfully completing the current project. They are able to take instruction, but not necessarily take on a leadership role if presented with the opportunity. A common synonym for “follower” in literature is often “subordinate”; they are a necessary part of the team, but may not transcend their position as a listener and a worker (Crossman & Crossman, 2011).

What is Followership?

Interpersonal dynamics exist among all team members within any project team. There may not always be a defined leader, and one or more members may or may not step up to fill that role at times. While guidance and an inspirational leader are often necessary for success, a team will fail if its members cannot act as followers. Followers are the team members that respect the appropriate authority figures, do their work to the best of their ability, and are focused on successfully completing the current project. They are able to take instruction, but not necessarily take on a leadership role if presented with the opportunity. A common synonym for “follower” in literature is often “subordinate”; they are a necessary part of the team, but may not transcend their position as a listener and a worker (Crossman & Crossman, 2011).

Positive Follower Negative Follower
Independent Tacit
Loyal Egotistical
Coordinated Undisciplined
Active Passive
Partner Observer
Entrepreneurial Reluctant
Promotional Critical

Table 1

Typology of positive and negative follower behaviors (adapted from Crossman & Crossman, 2011)

Here, we see that good followers work with their team and leader, ready to adapt and deal with any so-called “toxic” person or event. Additionally, a follower should express the following competencies: display loyalty, function well in changing environments, function well on teams, think independently and critically, and consider integrity to be of highest importance (Latour & Rast, 2005). In short, good followers become much more than just a cog in the machine, and – extending the analogy – transform into a machine of their own, functioning seamlessly as individuals and parts of the larger picture – the team.

Followership vs. Leadership

Naturally, we could not define a follower without leaders. The leader of a project team may be the person with authority – a project manager, senior executive, etc. – or it may be an ad hoc position that becomes filled when direction is needed. While an in-depth definition of a good leader is not the focus of this article, many texts exist on this subject. A good starting point is Hunt’s 1991 classic work on leadership. For the purposes of illustrating followership, we must know: good leadership involves achieving the goals of the project while also caring for the individual team members; bad leadership can often evoke the above negative follower behaviors in even an otherwise fantastic follower.

he relationship between leaders and their followers has a certain give-and-take quality to it. As discussed earlier, a good follower possesses several characteristic traits. Successful leaders nurture these traits to help strengthen the team and transform their subordinates into followers. In other words, an effective leader both manages the team and sustains good followership. As quoted in Leadership: A New Synthesis: “Rather than encouraging leaders to mentor followers to ‘follow me’ as an imitation learning imperative, leaders may mentor to specific and objective abilities/traits to create dynamic subordinates” (Akindele et al, 2012). By looking at the traits taken from Latour & Rast, we can measure the strength of a leader. Loyalty requires trust between two parties – a poor leader will seed distrust and diminish loyalty while a good leader will nurture openness among team members to build up trust. Leaders must be adept at navigating through a changing environment if they expect their followers to thrive during change and hardship. Naturally, for a follower to work well on teams, a good leader must be present within the team. An absent or neutral follower will distance himself from the team and cause followers to become isolated. A follower will display independent and critical thinking only if the leader shows these traits as well – what could be called “setting a good example.” Finally, a leader most heavily influences the integrity of the team. It is the leader’s job to emphasize integrity to followers and display it in their own work. A poor leader will allow subordinates to become lazy or worse –dishonest.

The Leader as a Follower

All leaders have at some point been followers, either before achieving their current status or perhaps as current followers to someone higher up. But where do leaders come to possess their skills at leading others? The transition from follower to leader leaves the employee with the competencies necessary to be an effective leader to new followers. Indeed, research shows that “followers learn most effectively by observing the actions…of an organization’s leaders” (Latour & Rast, 2005). Many texts use the term “transcendent” or “dynamic” followership to describe the complex dynamics of leaders and their teams. Specifically, the team leader must display exemplary skills and leadership to followers. To do this effectively, leaders must think like a follower and remember that the team is only as strong as they can make it.

The Follower as a Leader

An effective follower must be more than just a “yes-man.” If it is for the greater good of the team and the company, good followers must speak out and challenge the current plan or motivations of the group. In doing so, they assume a small leadership role: the dissenter. Normally a negative term, here it describes a group member that is worried about the future of the team and takes on the burden of being the only one to ask the tough questions to steer the team in the right direction. It should be noted, however, that there is a delicate balance between questioning authority for the good of the group and merely being contrarian. Followers should only step up to this role if they deem it absolutely necessary for the success of the team. This is important, as overstepping one’s authority can cause a rift between follower and leader, possibly growing into distrust later on. Other team members may also be affected negatively if they see the dissenter as power hungry or disruptive. Again, distrust may appear, and this may cause the team as a whole to lose direction if the challenging statement shakes the group’s faith in the team leader.

In addition to this, situations arise when the team needs a temporary leader, or at the very least, someone to guide the group for a specific task. The good follower can sense when these times present themselves and know when it is time to step in and take a leading role. Or, instead defer to another team member’s direction. This is a more nuanced skill, one that requires knowing oneself well enough to tell true leading skill in a given situation from one’s ego or general leading skill. Being a good all-around leader is not necessarily what matters the most when the team needs guidance. Instead, the person that knows the way to get past the problem is preferable, as the success of the team matters in the utmost. Additionally, attempting to take control of the situation without the proper knowledge can come off as arrogant. Good followers acknowledge their teammates’ skills and allow the proper person to guide the group.

Implementation and Example

How can you become a better follower? The simple answer is to incorporate the behaviors previously described into your professional life. To go more in depth: pick a starting point and gradually add competencies. An area of improvement for many subordinates is taking initiative. As discussed, subordinates often imply team members that merely do what they are told without question. A good starting point is to start critically thinking about what you are doing in your team and why it benefits everyone. This will cause you to start recognizing the actions or ideas that most benefit the team. Later, this can lead to pursuing these actions without being asked, or even to becoming a well-informed dissenter (mentioned above). Taking initiative is a necessary component of leadership, and can lead to the skills required to take on temporary leadership roles and guide the team. By nurturing this skill, you can add on more behaviors such as communication, selflessness, and adaptability to changing environments. There are many negative aspects of a poor follower as well. Starting with initiative, you can overcome the traits listed in table 1 by critically evaluating yourself or by asking a peer or manager for an honest review.

A common pitfall for engineers that appears as early as college is the illusion of infallibility. Since most engineers are bright people, they are quick to assume they can solve any problem and incredibly resistant to admitting their faults. By acting this way, they do a great disservice to their team. To become better followers, engineers need to recognize their weaknesses and learn to either let the material experts handle relevant problems or spend time to improve their lacking skill set. A personal example of this comes from my experience in a college digital circuitry class. For the final project, engineers in teams of four worked to build a simple game using digital chips and LEDs. I was the youngest member of my team and thought that I could do everything and prove to my teammates I was worth my weight. After several sleepless nights of working on my own with minimal interaction between teammates, all I had to show was a flawed product that did not work correctly once constructed. I did not have the experience my colleagues possessed, nor had I developed a higher sense of humility. I did not display good followership; I let my ego get in the way and the team suffered for it. To be a better follower, I needed to recognize my weakness at the time in digital circuitry and either allow other team members to take charge or take the time to learn these skills from them. In addition to my lapse of judgment, we can also see that my team members were not the best followers either. A good follower should recognize when members of the team look like they may be out of their depth. Like knowing when to challenge the leader, this is a nuanced skill. However, it is not likely that tactfully offering help will offend a struggling teammate. In that case, having them question my motives and skills would have caused me to reevaluate my position on the team and asked for help understanding the circuits.

Case Study

Not all good followers function only on project teams. Sometimes, good followers show their worth as an essential part of an organization or even a larger multi-corporation undertaking. Jordan presents the case of a civil engineer named Don in his 2009 dissertation: In August 2008, construction finished on a multi-level freeway expanse near Milwaukee, Wisconsin name the Marquette Interchange. The old portion of the highway was in a state of disrepair, with maintenance costs becoming untenable. Four separate construction firms and 4000 workers took part in completing the 21-mile long stretch of highway. To complete this massive undertaking, the state of Wisconsin appointed Don (at the time a state-employed engineer) as project manager. Initially, Don turned down the offer, stating that he “was getting ready to retire.” However, instead of backing away, he recognized the importance of this project to not only the people that relied on the interchange to get in and out of Milwaukee, but to the entire state of Wisconsin.

Once involved, Don set out to create a team of his most trusted followers. He recognized that “engineers always like to build a better mouse trap” – implying that on his own, he might become distracted from the scope of the project. By including a team of trusted peers, he deferred his total authority to become a team player for the good of the project. Throughout the project, Don showed leadership and followership skills by managing everyone involved while simultaneously hiring consultants, supervisors, and committees to help keep him on track and work as his equals.

We see from Don that even the leader of a massive project must be a good follower. Trying to tackle everything alone would almost certainly have been disastrous, but Don realized that teamwork and followership is necessary for a leader and for any project. We also see that part of being a good follower is sometimes putting the good of the team, company, or even state before one’s ego or personal goals. The project was completed early and is considered one of Wisconsin’s greatest public works successes, all because a team member was willing to put the project first and step up to be a temporary leader.

Application to Senior Project

For our Senior Design Project, my team designed a threat detection system using a UAV platform for emergency first responders. A custom radiation sensor detects and tags radiation hot-spots with GPS (along with standard UAV sensors including telemetry and video data), allowing first responders to survey a potential life-threatening disaster site before sending in a human team. Every task within the project required a member of the team to act as leader while the rest act as followers. In my team of two, this became relatively simple over time: tasks could easily be negotiated based on each member’s skill set and knowledge base. I was more comfortable with hardware, and my teammate knew more about software. While it would have been easy to designate the role of leader to the stronger performer in that field, the team as a whole would not have learned as much or improve on individual weaknesses.

Scan of the schematic described below.

Figure 1

The Troublesome Schematic

When quickly building a prototype circuit to meet a deadline, I had taken charge in pushing us forward and building up the hardware. After building much of the circuit, it became apparent that my present follower did not realize where every part on the schematic matched up to the components on the breadboard. Upon realizing this, I knew it was time to step back and allow my teammate to lead, since I had not been vocal enough to my team member. Without that necessary input, it was impossible for him be a good follower and carry our project further. By becoming the leader, he was able to see for himself where every component belonged as he went through the circuit. I, on the other hand, was able to be a good follower by offering my knowledge and learn to better place the team’s success before my own achievements and proficiencies. Each and every task caused us to decide better and faster who should be the leader and who should become the successful follower.

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