Leadership

Mental Models of Followership

Do you have a mental model of a good follower? Of a bad follower? In my last post I wrote about Implicit Leadership Theories, and in this post, I’m going to talk about Implicit Followership Theories.

Recent research from Thomas Sy shows that we have two mental models of followers – the prototype and the anti-prototype.

The prototype follower demonstrates three categories of behaviour. First, they are industrious, hardworking, productive and go “above and beyond”. They are enthusiastic, excited, outgoing and happy. And finally they are good citizens, loyal reliable, team-players.

The anti-prototype follower also has three aspects to their behaviour.  They show conformity, are easily influenced, follow trends and are soft-spoken. They are incompetent, uneducated, slow and inexperienced. Finally, they are insubordinate, arrogant, rude and bad tempered.

We use these mental models to categorize people into “good follower” and “bad follower”.  As leaders, this simplifies the effort needed in managing our followers. An interesting aspect of the process of categorization is that we often use one single feature about a person in order to categorize them. This is referred to as the “halo effect“.  We allow one single aspect of a person to influence our evaluation of their personality and characteristics.  Thus if someone is soft-spoken, they may be categorized as a weaker follower, merely due to soft-spokenness.

Implicit Followership Theories often influence our assessment of those we work with. What you assume is a good follower might be quite different than my assumptions. As a manager/leader, it is important to explicitly share your assumptions and expectations of your followers.  And followers need to share their assumptions about what makes a good follower. In this discussion, it is possible to identify possible areas of disagreement, and potential areas of misunderstanding.

Good leaders and good followers examine their own underlying assumptions about good and bad behaviour and traits.  When working with others, they share their assumptions in order to be more effective when “playing with others”. What are your assumptions about what makes a good follower? How are they shaped by your experience and culture? How might they be different than your colleagues?

Source: Sy, Thomas. “What do you think of followers? Examining the content, structure, and consequences of implicit followership theories”. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes 113 (2010) 73–84 83

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7 replies »

  1. I love this post Colleen. The big ego of leaders does not always allow us to consider followers – which ny definition as such sounds weak – but the idea of leaders (even leaders bosses) defining what they like in folllowers is interesting. We just need to remember the rules could change !

  2. Hi Colleen – interesting concept of ‘followers’. I like this so much I am going to share with my team during an offsite with my leadership group this week. It will challenge not only our concept of leadership but is very relevant with our current need to create greater consistency in the Business Coaches (followers) who report to my leaders across multiple sites, cultures and sub-cultures.

  3. Thanks CoachStation for the feedback. I’m glad you’ll be using this info with your team. That is the purpose of this entire blog, to provide practitioners with useful knowledge from academic sources.

    Colleen

  4. I don’t agree with the identification of follower “traits” for either positive or negative models.

    The prototype follower demonstrates three categories of behaviour. First, they are industrious, hardworking, productive and go “above and beyond”. They are enthusiastic, excited, outgoing and happy. And finally they are good citizens, loyal reliable, team-players.
    Industrious, enthusiastic and loyal, can also be described as blind followers, hero worshippers, or just incapable of independent judgement, i.e. lacking initiative. Remember that a good follower today is a potential leader tomorrow.

    The anti-prototype follower also has three aspects to their behaviour. They show conformity, are easily influenced, follow trends and are soft-spoken. They are incompetent, uneducated, slow and inexperienced. Finally, they are insubordinate, arrogant, rude and bad tempered.
    I have met more than a few softly-spoken leaders, who had conformed to received wisdom where innovation was outside the scope of their goal.
    Bill Gates was inexperienced, uneducated and incompetent at OS design, so he bought one from someone else. More than a few leaders probably fit the mould of “amateur”, and though they are perhaps slow to get going where professionals are concerned, they often get further because they are oblivious to the “impossible”. Don’t throw the “baby” out with the “bath water”. Arrogance is most definitely a leadership quality where appropriately applied. Emergent leaders sometimes have to be insubordinate where they lack mentors and are witness to leadership stagnation. Of course rudeness and bad temperament are not acceptable, but it seems to me that this is covered by “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it any more” statement. Everyone has a breaking point. Its usually just past the acceptable level of frustration. A good leader will recognise this as a warning from her/his followers, perhaps a final “wake up call” warning.

    It seems to me good followers are: listeners, accept a vision rather than a promise, work with what they have rather than what they want to have, prepared to challenge and be challenged, and aspire to leadership themselves.

    • While I agree with your observations, I need to point out something. The prototype and anti-prototype are not an individual researcher’s opinion of good and bad followers. The research is based on a survey of individuals to understand their beliefs about what consists of a good or bad follower. So these prototypes represent the collective beliefs of people in the work place about followers in general. So, whether or not you agree doesn’t really matter, because these prototypes are what most people believe. Your prototype is different, which is okay, but may cause problems if you don’t explicitly share your beliefs with colleagues, bosses and followers.

      PS. I’m not sure that good followers always aspire to leadership themselves. But that is for another post!

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