Video transcript: Kevin Lowe on developing "responsible followers"

21 February 2017

Kevin Lowe is a Professor of Management in the University of Auckland Business School's Graduate School of Management. He holds the Fletcher Building Education Trust Chair in Leadership.

The notion of responsible followership is actually quite a new idea, and it is really derived out of the responsible leadership literature, which is pretty new in and of itself. The responsible leadership literature is really the first leadership theory to focus on the multiple stakeholders of the firm. Most leadership theories have focused on just managing your group, your team, or maybe even one-on-one interaction. And responsible leadership is looking at how do I consider a multi-stakeholder view – communities, Government, the environment, all sorts of constituents? And, so, extending that notion of responsible leadership is: what does responsible followership look like? How might the follower conceive what they need to do as a follower, and what might the leader expect the follower to bring to the workplace in an organisation where we as a collective are taking a truly multi-stakeholder, multi-constituent view?

The responsible follower is going to have to bring more of themselves to work. We hear a lot about more rapid change. Organisations report that they are engaging in more rapid change than ever. If you look at the statistics, more change initiatives, on average, are being brought to the workplace every year. And the burden on thinking that the leader can direct and have all the mana, have all the knowledge, is increasingly a false dichotomy. And so, when we look at employee engagement, about 15% of employees report being highly engaged, about 15% report being actively disengaged, and that great middle – about 65 or 70% – haven't made their minds up yet whether they are going to be engaged or not.  

Responsible followership is an opportunity to ask people to bring more of their whole selves to work. And, so, when we get down to what are the qualities that one needs to be a responsible follower, it is things like having an active moral compass – saying that I have an ethical perspective on these particular issues; I know things because I am now going to be outward looking. So, one of the things we would ask for in responsible followership is thinking about multiple stakeholders, bringing that perspective to the leader – whether you consider it challenging, or coaching, or consulting with the leader.

So, when we think about what an organisational system would look like that developed responsible followers, one of the things we have to look at is do we spend any money or time asking people to develop the followership role. If you Google "leadership development" right now, you will find for example in the US alone there is US$20 billion a year spent on leader development. If you Google "follower development", do you know what you will find? You will find nothing.

Part of what we have to think about with developing responsible followers is what is the spend on followership? And then drilling down to those qualities of what a responsible follower looks like, encouraging them to bring more of themselves to the workplace – their own moral compass, encouraging them to have foresight, to be thinking toward the future (something that we have typically delegated to the leader as the knowing individual). When we think about the leadership system as the leader, the follower, and the context, and we are co-constructing change, we are dealing with what [Ronald] Heifetz would call really wicked problems – adaptive challenges that there is no easy solution for. Then a responsible organisation is going to say we have got to develop responsible leaders and responsible followers in equal parts, and then challenge leaders to let the followers do what responsible followership looks like, and encourage the followers to do those things that look like responsible followership.

When we think about whether responsible followership puts more burden on employees, we really have to think about what they consider a burden. It could well be that it is a tremendous burden to show up to work and be told what to do, and not feel like you have much autonomy. There is a guy named Studs Turkel – he is an author, philosopher, he wears many hats – who writes that work is the search for meaning while in search of your daily bread. And when you think about what we are asking from employees with respect to responsible followership, we are asking them to bring more of themselves to work. To have more opinions, to share more openly and more freely. And so, if you think about what most people do in terms of getting meaning, it is from being impactful, from getting better. The golfer wants to get their score down; the tennis player wants to get more balls in play. An employee comes to work in search of meaning, not just in search of their daily bread. And so, when we talk about what responsible followership looks like, we are challenging employees to reconceive the follower role. But that is why we have to do that in tandem with leadership development. We have to coach leaders to solicit these sorts of behaviours from followers so that they create a safe place to be a responsible follower. But what you should get, collectively, is a responsible organisation that is more agile, that is more adaptive, that takes on challenges more rapidly, is more willing to admit "I got it wrong, let's do something different". In short, to be the sort of agile firm we need in the 21st century.

I think the practical steps an organisation can take to encourage responsible followership is to sit down and develop, as we do with most things, a set of values around responsible followership, organisational systems that would encourage responsible followership, reward systems that would encourage it. Can you imagine a performance appraisal form that says: "How many times did you challenge your leader in a constructive way" this quarter, or this month, or whatever the performance appraisal window might be, and that both the leader and the follower would recognise and agree that constructive challenges are a positive thing. We tend to not reward those types of behaviours. Again, we largely have organisational systems that are still built on the industrial model coming out of the 1960s where you could by rote tell employees who weren't especially educated what to do. We have evolved some, I don't mean to say we are stuck in the '60s. But if you look at what we reward and how we measure performance when it comes to the follower role, it is still largely focused on compliance rather than constructive challenge and teamwork. If we think about it from a systematic standpoint, we will say: "How do we refocus the HR spend on at the same time developing notions of responsible followers in followers, and responsible followers in leaders?" And if we can get to some sort of collective set of values, if we can reward and reinforce those types of behaviours, then we are much more likely to get responsible followership.

Watch video of Kevin Lowe on developing "responsible followers" (7:23)