Have We Neglected the Other Side of Leadership?

Lately, it seems like I’m hearing more about leadership techniques to keep employees, from now on we will be calling them followers, engaged and productive during the pandemic.  As we know, classic leadership training espouses useful techniques for leading.  So it comes as no real surprise that much of what I have been reading is based on the classic leadership techniques to which we are accustomed. 

The main concerns companies have in regards to their followers are keeping them motivated and inspired to work as well as making sure that work is productive. The classic leadership solutions to these concerns may include things like ensuring the followers have the right tools, that they have an understanding of their work load, or asking questions about their time management. These solutions may also include a more touchy feely approach like checking in on them frequently to see how they are holding up, connecting with them on their project, letting them know they should break for lunch, or my all-time favorite, letting them know how important their work is to the company.

But is that really enough?

What if our understanding about leading and engaging employees is outdated due to the impact of the pandemic? How do we effectively lead remote followers and keep them engaged during stressful times?

Some people, myself included, believe that leadership isn’t a constant set of concepts. Rather, they see leadership as a dynamic entity that changes with the natural shifts in the global economy, societal fluctuation, and the impact of events like a pandemic. In a very short timespan the global economy experienced a significant contraction that created a global fear, regardless of industry. It also shifted the daily norm for millions of office based workers to a home-based work environment. 

If your organization’s leadership discourse, that is, the overall leadership style, relies on inspiring and motivating followers in an eyeball to eyeball approach, your leaders will have to adapt. Yet, they haven’t and I see so many managers struggle with how best to manage and lead when the workforce is remote. After all, Zoom-tinis and virtual pizza can only go so far. 

It becomes essential (or prudent) to ask, given this environment, are we potentially causing more harm than good by staying with the old standard leadership style?

Those with long term experience in leadership often recognize themselves as students of leadership rather than experts. I have been pondering research demonstrating the impact of leadership training for both leaders AND followers on the level of employee engagement and productivity. (Daria & Hannes 2018) This got me thinking about my experiences with the leaders I have worked for or who have had influence over my career as well as the employees for which I have been responsible. Well, I rarely worked in the same office as my supervisor, and every team that I was responsible for was remote and in my thinking several important factors became clear:

1) The leader recognized that there was an individual relationship with each follower.

2) Trust was established early in the leader-follower relationship, also known as a “dyad”.

3) Followers were treated with respect and authentic caring.

4) Followers that played a significant role in the leader-follower dyad were more engaged and productive as they more likely to remain stable in stressful situations. In fact, the followers that made a contribution to the relationship were far more likely to be invested in the organization’s success.

That last point, however, is one that I rarely see in leadership literature. Through my own experience and education, I posit our bias about improving only the leaders skills causing those successful results may be missing one of the most important aspects in improving engagement and performance: the followers.  This may be why some remarkable research is starting regarding the concept of “followership” based on concepts similar to those that define leadership. 

All of this leads to one thought provoking question: should we spend time and dollars to ensure that followers in an organization have the skills necessary to fully participate in the Leader-Follower dyad? How do we get followers to contribute? My own experience has shown me that even a portion of the followers of an organization having the skills to follow within a partnership approach, results in an increased level of engagement and productivity.

So how do we get there? That is what I will be investigating through this blog.

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