What followers want their leaders to know (but will never tell them)

In leadership training we seldom hear what followers have to say.

With The Economist Intelligence Unit, an organization that helps businesses and governments understand how the world is changing, I carried out a survey of 500 senior level followers in middle management. I’ll describe what these followers feel about how they are led, and suggest three things that leaders can do to address these feelings.

Micro-managing fails everyone

It is more important to followers that you are there to support, coach and take control when they fall, than if you are always acting to pre-empt the fall. Counter-intuitive I know, but the data shows that leaders are rated highest when they help followers out of a problem, and are rated at their lowest when they are seen to be micro-managing.

Perhaps it is time, as leaders, to put a nail in the coffin of ‘micro-managing to avoid failure’? You might feel that you are doing the right thing by your followers if you prevent failure, but your primary responsibility should be their empowerment.

Collaborate, or slap me in the face

Followers consider themselves to be good at their jobs. When you make key decisions for them rather than with them, they believe their expertise doesn’t count. That’s the office equivalent of a slap in the face. It demotivates your followers, makes them over-cautious as they believe they cannot do anything right, and they think you are small-minded for not finding a way to include their expertise. The next time you make a unilateral decision ‘for the good of the team’, ask yourself, if it is worth slapping your colleagues in the face for?

Continuously review, or don’t bother to review at all

Performance reviews are hard for everyone, and according to followers even the very best leaders fail at this, but not for reasons you might assume. Leaders fail if:

• It appears that you, as the leader, have been biased unduly by outside influence,

• The person are reviewing feels that they are not being valued as an individual, but as a small cog in a much bigger machine they have no control over,

• And if they believe you have moved the goal posts without giving them a chance to score.

To prevent yourself from failing at performance reviews, be clear with your followers about what is expected of them, especially if those expectations change. You also need to work to gain their permission and respect throughout the year, earning the unwritten authority to assess them correctly. Reviewing people openly and continually is the only way to perform at a performance review as a leader.

In summary: Don’t micro-manage, you don’t always know best. Do collaborate, don’t mandate. Treat a performance review as a continuous exercise, not an isolated annual event. These behaviors will make you better leaders in the eyes of those you lead.

Melanie Cook
Melanie Cook is SapientNitro’s Head of Strategy for SE Asia. “As a Systems Scientist I see the world as an ecosystem of individuals, communities and businesses, where leaders can create better experiences in and out of work, for everyone.” Melanie has a 20-year career in communications that included Saatchi & Saatchi, Proximity London, and owning a chain of boutique lodges in the French Alps. Learn more at www.melaniecook.me  and follow @constant_garden
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