26 September 2023

Acts to follow: Why good followers are as important as good leaders

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Stephanie Vozza* says it doesn’t feel like something you would want to put on your résumé, but being a good follower is a valuable skill and is not about being passive.

Photo: Ben Pattinson

A lot is written about being a good leader.

But what about being a good follower?

If there are leaders, there must be followers, right?

“None of us like that F word,” says Mary Abbajay, author of Managing Up: How to Move Up, Win at Work, and Succeed With Any Type of Boss.

“We talk incessantly about leadership.”

“In the real world, we need to know how to follow, too.”

Part of the reason following makes us defensive is that it’s misunderstood.

“It’s not about being a passive patsy, sitting back into victimhood,” says Abbajay.

“It’s about partnering with those who are leaders that can make great things happen for you and your organisation.”

“If everybody’s the leader, nothing gets done.”

Being a follower is about being strategic and choice-driven, taking control of your career and empowering yourself at work.

It’s “managing up,” by embracing subtle changes that increase your ability to thrive with the boss you have, and not the boss you wish you had.

Realise your boss matters

Your boss has a lot of influence over your career trajectory, and you need to understand that first and foremost, says Abbajay.

“How you choose to interact with your boss and the kind of relationship you build sets your brand and persona, and that’s what people notice,” she explains.

Abbajay says managing up is something everybody has to do.

“Get over your own ego and get past your own perspective,” she says.

“A lot of times we get caught up in what we think is right.”

“Take a good look at yourself and decide where you’re willing to adapt and where you’re not.”

“If we wait for the boss to adapt to us, some of us will be waiting a long time.”

Change your perspective

It’s natural to look at the world from your own perspective, and your boss may see the world from a different angle.

Being a good follower means opening your mind and understanding that the world may look different to them.

“Pay attention to your boss’s style,” says Abbajay.

“What kind of person are they?”

What is their communication preference?”

Identify their style and adapt to it.

If your boss is an introvert, for example, Abbajay says it’s not wise to go into their office for chitchat.

Or if the boss is an extrovert and you’re an introvert, be willing to talk a little more.

“Understand their work style and communication preferences,” she says.

“If you don’t know, ask.”

“Find out their priorities, goals, and motivation.”

“What’s really important to them?”

“Ask or pay attention to the world in which the boss is operating.”

Be proactive

Being a follower doesn’t mean waiting until you’re told to do something.

You should always be looking towards the horizon, says Abbajay.

“Knowing what the boss’s priorities are allows you to do things before being asked,” she says.

“Being proactive is a huge part of being a good follower.”

Use the golden rule

Be the kind of follower you would want to have if you were the leader.

“If you are wrapped around the axle because you think your boss is incompetent, I’d be willing to bet your boss hates you, too,” says Abbajay.

“All we need is a shift in perspective.”

“Pull apart what’s true and what the stories are you’re making up.”

“Flipping your perspective means getting out of your own way.”

Think collaboration

Managing up is creating robust relationships with the people who are above you in order to create more collaborative relationships.

“See it as a partnership, but don’t have expectations of being an equal partner,” says Abbajay.

“You’re more of a junior partner or managing director partner.”

“Understand that the power levels are not equal, and may never be equal.”

If you’re just starting out, building a partnership will take time.

“Your boss needs to develop a level of trust and comfort with you,” she says.

The benefits of being a good follower

If you learn the adaptive skills of “followership”, you’ll have the exact same skills you need to use when you’re the leader, says Abbajay.

“At the end of the day, we all would love it if our bosses were adaptive to us,” she says.

“We want people to respect and value what we bring.”

“If you can do that with your boss, you’ll have the habit and mind-set when you’re the boss.”

Another benefit is that you gain control of your own career, says Abbajay.

“If you practice adaptive strategies, you get a better sense when something doesn’t work,” she says.

“You can’t manage up to every boss, especially when they are narcissistic or truly terrible.”

“But you’ll have an understanding of what you can and can’t do.”

Finally, when you learn how to adapt to a difficult boss, you often become the go-to person at work, says Abbajay.

“I had a boss who was a horrible micromanager, so I started to flood her with information and long emails with all of the projects I was working on every single morning,” she recalls.

“She needed that, so why not give it to her?”

“She ended up giving me more responsibilities and projects as a result.”

Being a follower is about feeling empowered.

“Work should be some of the best hours of your life, not the worst,” says Abbajay.

“When you help people, you also create opportunity for yourself.”

* Stephanie Vozza writes about productivity and leadership for Fast Company. She tweets at @StephanieVozza and her website is stephanievozza.com.

This article first appeared at www.fastcompany.com.

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