Followership Theory Explained

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Followership Theory Explained

On social media sites today, many of us have a group of followers that subscribe to our various updates. They might not always be called followers (Facebook has “friends”), but that is what they are doing.

In the modern workplace, there are also followers. People who find themselves in a subordinate role. There are followers in the world of education. There are followers in organizations like the Boy Scouts of America. If there is a leader present, then the leader must have followers – otherwise they are not truly a leader.

Followership theory describes the actions of those that find themselves in these subordinate roles. Those actions, which are a specific set of skills, help to complement what those in leadership roles are able to accomplish, whether that is in a for-profit business or a volunteer-based organization.

By understanding these actions, it becomes easier to predict outcomes. Leaders might be credited with the creation of a vision or inspiring others to succeed, but it is the followers that actually put in the work to make that success happen.

What Are the 5 Different Dimensions of Followership?

Although there are several different authors that have addressed followership theory and incorporated their own concepts and ideas into its structure, every author provides 5 different models of followership that are employed in different dimensions. These dimensions are used to describe the “quality” of the follower that is available to the leadership group.

Each author assigns a different name or label to these dimensions, but each dimension is essentially the same.

  • Sheepish Followers. These are followers that are often passive and have low levels of independence. They require a heavy amount of external motivation and must be frequently supervised to ensure their assigned tasks are completed.
  • Conformist Followers. These are the people who say, “Yes,” to everything. Their goal is to please those in the leadership whenever possible. They have low levels of independence because they’re always deferring decisions to the leader, especially when they are faced with opposition. At the same time, they never question the instructions from those in leadership.
  • Pragmatic Followers. These are the followers that remain neutral until they see a majority beginning to form. Then they will join with that majority in the hopes of always being on the right side of things. Followers like this are not risk-takers. They seek to avoid controversy whenever possible and usually stay in the background.
  • Alienated Followers. These folks are the people that always seem to have a negative point of view to share. They have high levels of independence and use it to procrastinate. They often put more work into bringing down the morale of a group and will almost always question the decisions or actions from the leadership group.
  • Exemplary Followers. These are the independent thinkers. They are the positive role models. They are always active and always wanting to contribute in some way. They don’t blindly follow orders, but can be trusted to get work done if given the chance to evaluate the situation.

Followers tend to stay within their comfort zones. If someone feels comfortable being alienated, then they will continue being a negative influence.

What Can We Learn from Followership Theory?

With followership theory, it becomes possible to identify what type of followers a leader has on their team. Instead of focusing on one generic approach that is intended to work with all 5 groups of followers, leaders can begin to embrace the benefits that each follower type brings to the team.

For example: exemplary followers may not immediately go to work when instructed. With enough information provided to them, leaders can trust that the job will eventually be completed in a way that meets or exceeds their expectations.

Or take the pragmatic follower. Leaders who see these followers know that if they can form a majority that supports their vision, the follower will come along as well.

Even alienated followers can be advantageous to the team. They may offer a negative perspective, but they are also hyper-aware of problems that develop within a team. If the negative components can be filtered out of this feedback, leaders can avoid many of the issues that would normally tear a team apart.

Through followership theory, it becomes possible to provide context to everyone regarding the leadership process. It creates a flow that can travel in all directions, providing support up and down the chain of command. It allows leaders to understand what their followers require and allows followers to contribute in a way that best suits them.