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…on the lost art of followership

Frances wasn’t a confident or demanding person on the face of it; she seemed to be a bit shy and awkward in some situations. The last thing she would do is become a manager, she would tell you. “People who take on jobs like that always change — and they change for the worse!” An able and well–educated worker, she kept up to date with developments in her field and could usually speak critically and well about the latest new ideas and developments in the profession.

And she would speak very critically about the boss, too: he was too distant and detached; he was being influenced by a member of staff whom she disliked; he was under pressure from the Directors; he was liable to react with panic rather than considered judgment… And so it went on. In this ongoing and varied criticism of the manager, I noticed one unchanging fact: if the boss listened to Frances or had been nice to her, the criticism changed almost instantly to faint praise.

Frances’ problem, I discovered, was that she was a terrible follower. Some analysts speak about the need for leadership in politics, business and community life, but I have seen a different lack: a need for people who are willing to follow the lead. Leaders can do nothing without it.

Of course, leaders require the skills which urge, enable and reward followership. They need to be people who inspire confidence and motivate others. But some people define themselves by a stubborn refusal to follow, as if this bloody–mindedness was somehow a virtue, or an expression of independence. “I’m no fool,” they seem to be saying. “Only weak people or creeps do what the boss wants.

People like Frances rarely go anywhere career–wise and to some extent their behaviour loses them influence in most working situations. But what they do is poison the culture of the workplace so that those who buy into the team’s agenda and goals are somehow second-class. At their worst, they represent the phenomenon of Tall Poppy Syndrome (TPS) — the tendency to resent successful and able people for no other reason than that they thereby stand out from the rest. In the Netherlands they call it maaiveldcultuur [2].

Interestingly, it has its history way back in ancient Greek history — in Livy, Herodotus [1] and Aristotle. A man called Thrasybulus was reported to have removed the heads of the highest wheat plants in a field as an example of what his questioner should do to resolve his problem, that is, do away with the most powerful and able people.

Jealousy and resentment of this kind may have their origin in a perceived unjust event — someone being passed over for promotion or a more junior colleague favoured with a prestigious task, for instance — but in my experience they are more often without real cause.

The good news is that I think TPS in an individual can and ought to be dealt with. And the way to do it is not by trying to win their affection or support by hard work, kindness or attention: that just signals to them that you want them to be on-side. No, a tactic may be to publicly offer the culprit responsibility for an important task, so that he/she is drawn closer to the managerial role by taking on responsibility. A refusal to accept the challenge usually under-mines their fan–base because others see how much easier it is to offer criticism than to take action. And a lot of work is needed with others in the team, gradually getting them out of the Tall Poppy Syndrome mindset, so that one by one they are set free into a more fulfilling and productive work culture.

[1]Herodotus, The Histories, Book 5, 92f

[2] Max Weber suggested that since status was relative, competing colleagues may criticise others in order to take their place in the hierarchy

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