Steve Woodruff and I decided to focus on the topic of “the difficult follower” at this week’s #LeadershipChat on February 1st.  In preparation for the topic, and in thinking about my own personal experiences both leading and following, I of course had to look in the mirror and ask myself when I’d been a difficult follower.

I think there are two, distinctively different ways to look at the question:

  • Am I a difficult follower?
  • As a leader, am I difficult to follow?

Let’s take a closer look at the first question and consider what constitutes a difficult follower:

1. They don’t agree with the leader’s vision.

In this case, the difficult follower is resisting the impetus to be in the same boat with the leader, rowing in the same direction.  They simply don’t want to go where the leader is taking them.

In my experience I’ve seen people resist silently through their communications but loudly through their work.  In other cases I’ve seen team members fully support the vision through their work but build up layers of resentment, anger and other emotions in the process.  This leads to another indication of a difficult follower…

2. Emotional barriers prevent them from following the leader.

In some cases they have built up anger and resentment toward the leader as suggested above, or perhaps there is a rivalry of sorts with lingering jealousy or distrust.  Regardless of the cause or the particular emotional barrier, this leads to a toxic environment for the entire team if not addressed head-on.

3. They are frustrated by a lack of direction.

This is, in essence, a mixture of the first two barriers to followership.  In this case, it’s not that they disagree with the leader’s vision, they simply don’t see the leader as having a vision for them to follow, and this leads to emotional barriers of stress and frustration. 

This one is critical because without a lack of direction from above you have the added challenge of not fully understanding how your own performance will be judged.  So, even though you may be working incredibly hard for the company and want it to succeed, frustration can mount from even the most respectful intentions.  This leads to another driver of difficult followership…

4. Uncertainty plagues their role.

I remember early in my career at Baxter a voicemail going out from an executive in the Office of the CEO (who was expected to be the CEO’s successor) to every employee in a non-manufacturing role.  It was in regard to a restructuring effort that would affect every sales and marketing person along with the way we represented the larger company to our customers. It ended with a statement, “The train is leaving the station and everyone needs to be on board or you’re getting left behind.”

You can probably imagine the degree of uncertainty that this statement led to, especially within the sales ranks. 

Uncertainty left unchecked leads to fear.  The restructuring never worked – although if handled and communicated properly it might have had a chance – and the executive left the company.

5. They don’t trust the leader

Plain and simple.

Now, let’s move chairs and look at this question from a leadership perspective…are you difficult to follow?

1. Do you have a vision and have you clearly communicated it to your team?

If not, you’ll need to do so in order for them to be equipped to follow you.

And – let me state this as clearly as I can – A LIST OF ANNUAL OBJECTIVES GIVEN TO YOUR TEAM IN A POWERPOINT DECK IS NOT A VISION!  Ok, thank you, I feel better now…moving on…

As a leader, it’s “on you” to ensure a vision exists and to be its key steward. 

2. Have you explained to your team members the WIIFM of that vision?

Do they understand what’s in it for them in regard to moving toward that vision – not simply from a pay or bonus perspective but from the perspective of how working toward this vision will be valuable to them in their careers or for their teams? Are you positioning and resourcing them for success? If there is a disconnect, have you talked about it openly and take emotion out of the conversation?

3. Are there emotional barriers between you and your followers?

Ask yourself what role you’ve played in building these barriers and address them head-on.

4. Are you feeding uncertainty or fear?

Take a close look at your communications strategy and ask yourself:

  • Am I communicating frequently enough?
  • Am I communicating clearly enough?
  • Where I recognize uncertainty, am I doing everything possible to address it, to be open with my teams and to be fully transparent?

5. Are you trustworthy and a values-based leader?

What did I leave out, and do these indicators resonate with you?

Please share in the comments and join Steve Woodruff and me, along with the brilliant #LeadershipChat Community on Tuesday evening, February 1st at 8:00 pm Eastern Time as we debate this topic and share insights and experiences – you won’t want to miss it!

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Photo is Do Not Even Bring Sandals by fradaveccs.