Research Brief: Followers Live Down to their Name

Why being labelled a “follower" can be a self-fulfilling prophecy of uninspired performance

WHAT DID THE STUDY LOOK AT?

If you judge by pop culture, social norms, or academic research, “followers” seem to exist simply for the glory of “leaders.” After all, the follower label carries a host of negative connotations: passive, weak, lacking in motivation, quick to agree with anything. This study explored how individuals react to being labelled a follower, either by others or themselves. Ultimately, the researchers wanted to determine whether or not the follower label, with all the negative traits it suggests, shapes behaviour.

HOW WAS THE STUDY DESIGNED?

In Study 1, 154 undergraduate students were randomly assigned to leader, follower, or control groups. The study looked at followers’ subjective reactions to being labelled a follower, as well as their behavioural intentions to go “beyond the call of duty” in a group task. In Study 2, 348 students who were also in the workforce were asked about the degree to which they self-identified as followers at work, and the extent to which they performed duties outside of their work responsibilities for the benefit of their organizations.

WHAT DID THE STUDY FIND?

  • As expected, in Study 1 the follower group reported significantly less “positive affect” (level of enthusiasm or confidence) than the leader and control groups.

  • Similarly, in Study 2 the degree to which one self-identified as a follower was related to depressed levels of enthusiasm and confidence. 

  • In both studies, followers were less willing to show initiative and take on additional discretionary roles or tasks.

WHAT DO I NEED TO KNOW?

As the researchers note, labels play a large role in helping us make sense of our world. They carry positive and negative connotations and have been shown to shape behaviour; individuals labelled as a ‘‘convicted felon,’’ for example, are more likely to return to their criminal behaviour than those who are not similarly labelled. This phenomenon seems to be at work with those labelled as a follower. 

The researchers note that the negative qualities associated with the follower label should be of concern to organizations because they may be internalized by employees and limit them from performing at their full potential. Ironically, “[w]ithdrawing or withholding extra-role behaviors only perpetuates the stereotype that followers lack initiative and need direction,” they write.

In response, organizational leaders can possibly mitigate these effects by talking up the positive aspects of followership. They can communicate the importance of followership in one’s career and the fact that being a follower is not an in-bred personality trait but, rather, a “necessary behaviour that one enacts to facilitate leadership.” Organizations can also foster shared leadership, the researchers suggest, to blur the distinction between leaders and followers.

Eventually, studies of “active and effective followership” could document ways for employees to overcome the stereotypes attached to the label. As the researchers note, “We see a need to elevate the follower label in both research and practice so as to defeat the predominant negative perceptions of followership that, we suspect, underlie our pattern of results.”

 

Title: Submitting to the Follower Label: Followership, Positive Affect, and Extra-Role Behaviors

Authors: Colette Hoption (Albers School of Business and Economics), Amy Christie (Wilfrid Laurier University), and Julian Barling (Queen’s School of Business)

Published: Zeitschrift fur Psychologie, 2012 Vol. 220(4):221–230

Alan Morantz

Smith School of Business
Goodes Hall, Queen's University
Kingston, Ontario
Canada K7L 3N6

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