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Do Followers have a Duty to Follow?

Updated: Nov 29, 2022

By Kimberly Carlson

Tractus CEO

Open any newspaper in the past year and you’ll see the headlines scream – and many employers confirm - that recruitment and retention challenges continue to plague the post-COVID environment. Throughout the pandemic, organizational decisions, particularly in adjusting to changes in work conditions, deviated noticeably from previously stated norms. Many leaders who said their “people are their highest priority” were reluctant, resistant, or even hostile to adjusting operating processes in response to the pandemic. Nearly two years of failing to match action with words have convinced many that organizational leaders are unwilling or unable to uphold their end of the work relationship. That belief, ultimately, results in a breakdown of leader authority and legitimacy in workers’ eyes, who then separate from organizations in search of one willing to commit to their success.

What is going on here?

Are these employees “breaking an unwritten rule” of followership?

If leaders issue a directive, don’t followers have a duty to follow it?

To help leaders navigate this dynamic, we propose the following argument: When the relationship between leader and follower breaks down, it isn’t always the leader’s fault. The default stance is that it is the leader’s responsibility to recognize, diagnose, and fix the problems that led to the breakdown. The vast majority of leadership and management training approaches in the workplace emphasize is that it is up to the leader to solve the problem or accept the blame for it (“bad manager”). In our 25+ years of professional experience, we’ve seen some fantastic management… and some abysmal ones. But, even with the worst “failed leaders,” the follower aids and abets these failures to some degree. Both sides can fall victim to faulty assumptions about each other’s roles, even if they are not conscience of those assumptions. However, if, as we argue, the relationship is recognized as bi-directional, there is responsibility on both sides for addressing it. Framing this from the followers’ perspective – the first step is recognizing the inherent bi-directionality of this relationship and the followers'’ imperative to participate in it actively. After all, followership isn’t about just doing what one is told… it entails contributing effort and output toward a common goal. When an employee feels themselves pulling away from their work (i.e., not engaged / don’t like going to work, not sure this is the work I want to do, etc.), they may not understand what drives these feelings and default to blaming their manager. But, is it truly poor management (which, let’s face it, it certainly can be) or are other factors contributing to this disconnection? These are not new questions…though some may have forgotten that. Several classic theorists extolled this view of bi-directional authority:

  • Over 2,000 years ago, Aristotle described the duty to rule and be ruled in turn;

  • In the 1920s, Mary Parker Follett argued that this is a relationship with two sides, each with responsibility; and

  • In 1938, Chester Barnard stated that a worker will only voluntarily submit to the leader’s authority when that worker believes the leader’s directive is consistent with the purpose of the organization, or that it is legitimate.

This leader-follower dynamic is key, but the follower side is often un-addressed or un-emphasized. While many acknowledge that followers have power and authority in the relationship – to be partners, to co-produce, to choose – current, as well as classic, scholars tend to focus on leaders over followers. We think this is one-sided. What can followers do? The COVID-19 crisis fractured the view of leadership and broke the bond between leader and follower. The failure to recognize the power and authority of followers risks their leaving for an organization that does recognize their contribution. Bi-directionality is an old concept, but many have lost sight of it or may not have ever been aware of it. However, even the most recent research focuses on the leader's actions to repair relationships. Breakdowns in relationships between leader-followers is two-way. The responsibility to address it is also two-way. Scholars and practitioners alike need to explore follower action and responsibilities in response to relationship breakdowns. Some questions to get us started might be:

What can followers do?

What responsibilities do followers have in this two-way relationship?

What skills and abilities do followers need to develop to better participate in this

bi-directional relationship?

So, do followers have a duty to follow? No. In fact, many should intelligently disobey, as Ira Chalef argues. But followers do have a duty to participate actively and fully in the relationship between followers and leaders to achieve common goals.

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