How Good Followers Make Meetings More Productive

Original Post by Dennis Collins

American business culture is a bit obsessed with leadership. If confirmation of this passion is necessary, consider that, according to a recent Wall Street Journal article, lists 362 books focusing on followers while 154,000 examine leadership.

“Good leaders are seen as the heroes of the American workplace,” writes Sue Shellenbarger, who pens WSJ’s “Work & Family” column. But that sentiment is evolving, she notes, too, as the workforce evolves into a broader constellation of remote employees and contractors.

Business Meetings Need Good Followers as well as Leadersshutterstock_46846546

When business interactions can be conducted from anywhere at any time from any device, “strong follower skills,” as Professor Robert Kelley of Carnegie Mellon University says, grow increasingly critical to business success for workers, managers, executives and companies of all shapes and sizes.

Author of “The Power of Followership,” Kelley’s research into organizational behavior shows that as much as 90% of all work is done by people in follower roles. So, by logical progression, this same proportion should carry into meetings—in person, by phone, on the web or some combination of all three modes. This means nine of every 10 meeting participants are there to follow direction, go forth and be productive.

We’ve reasoned in past posts (“10 Ways Business Leaders Can Optimize Meeting Time”) that perhaps fewer business people would complain about meetings wasting their time if meeting organizers sharpened their leadership skills. But, based on Kelley’s statistics, pointing this advice in the other direction may be geometrically more powerful. Followers may have more influence over the productivity of meetings than leaders.

“Just as leaders are responsible for bringing out the best in their followers, followers are responsible for bringing out the best in their leaders,” Ira Chaleff, author of “The Courageous Follower,” told Shellenbarger.

What Makes an Effective Follower in the Business World?

One way to clarify who is a good follower is by defining who is not. Here are the “wrong ways to follow” excerpted from Shellenbarger’s piece:

  • Sheep-like employees are passive and obedient.
  • Yes-people are sycophantic.
  • Cynics voice criticism but only behind the boss’s back.

Shellenbarger explains that good following “goes beyond the self-serving behavior called ‘managing up,’ which involves manipulating bosses for one’s own benefit. Followers aren’t the same as team players, either—people who can work well in a group.”

Successful followers have certain traits, and they express those attributes in meetings in ways that help leaders move programs, projects and teams forward. Here are five traits of a good follower that can make any leader’s meeting even more effective:

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Good followers leave meetings with a clear understanding of their roles and responsibilities for the business at hand, as well as the motivation to make progress before the next session.

2. Independent Thinkers

Good followers prepare for meetings, reviewing agendas and background materials in order to contribute information and ideas when tapped.

3. Problem-Solvers

When preparing for meetings, good followers notice what has been going right and wrong with a program or project. They arrive for a discussion ready to suggest refinements to successful processes and solutions for vexing issues.

4. Straight Talkers

As an extension of their other behaviors, good followers share direct, honest, candid feedback at appropriate times during meetings.

5. Diplomats

Good followers respect individual feelings (“3 Ways Courtesy Helps You Lead More Productive Meetings”) and consider interpersonal dynamics (“How to Build Rapport Like a Superhero – without Seeming Like a Villain”) when articulating feedback in meetings. For example, if they believe a leader is advocating ineffectual action, they might say “Help me understand your thinking on this tactic,” rather than something akin to “You’re wrong here.”

Perhaps the greatest advantage of practicing productive followership is the fact it prepares us to be effective leaders when the time comes. Kelley’s research reveals that most good leaders also excelled as “No. 2s” at some time in their careers.

Are you a good follower? How have you used those characteristics to be more productive and successful in your position?  Do you think it’s possible to be both a good follower and a good leader at the same time? Make sure your followers have the latest in conferencing solutions to maintain effective meetings!

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