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The F-word you need more of at work – or get fired

Everybody can’t be leading all of the time. And, when you aren’t leading, you need to take on an active, engaged, thoughtful followership role: Photo Samantha and Marc Hurwitz

Waterloo - Leadership has boomed into it’s own industry. The US alone spends over $14 billion a year on it; you can get a PhD in it; and we promote it to kids as the way to get ahead in life. But new research from a University of Waterloo lecturer and his wife reveals there might be something most employees are overlooking and, if you don’t do it well, will probably get you fired.

“Followership is the F-word most of us never even think about at work but our research reveals it could be the key to unlocking career success and to realizing the potential of organizations,” said Marc Hurwitz from Waterloo and co-author of the new book Leadership Is Half the Story.

“Followership is the other side of the leadership equation. Everybody can’t be leading all of the time. And, when you aren’t leading, you need to take on an active, engaged, thoughtful followership role.”

Hurwitz and his wife Samantha have studied followership for more than a decade and have uncovered some startling facts. Companies and divisions with good followership improve revenue, quality, and customer satisfaction by up to 43 per cent compared to divisions that have poor followership.

Their research, revealed Leadership is Half the Story, shows that improving followership can also have a huge impact on careers. “We were surprised that our studies showed that in any performance evaluation, about half is likely based on followership,” said Hurwitz.

But most startling is the impact of followership on firing. Professor Hurwitz’s studies reveal that poor followership comes up as one of the top three reasons for getting fired, and often it is the main reason. For example, women executives cite it as the number one cause of involuntary dismissals, although it is rarely discussed publicly.

“Followership is essential and integral to collaboration. It becomes more, not less, important as we move up the organizational ladder,” said Hurwitz. “Think about how critical is it for a senior leader to ‘get on the bus’ with a new CEO? Or a CEO to nurture a strong relationship with the board of directors? Or an entrepreneur to “follow” potential investors?”

The Hurwitz’s book is a reference for designing the people practises for teams or start-ups. It provides the fundamentals of contemporary leadership and followership using five guiding principles and heaps of detailed tips on how to apply them – from giving feedback to performance reviews to building relationships.

“Our book differs from previous thinking in that everything is two-way, everything is built on the idea that businesses have to be dynamic and agile, not hierarchical and resilient,” said Samantha Hurwitz.

The Hurwitz’s say that individuals can develop followership skills and, and help bullet-proof your career. They offer seven surprising things that could get you fired, and what to do about them, as a way to boost followership skills.

1. Seven surprising things that could get you fired, and what to do about them
Thinking outside the boss

When leaders ask their team members to think outside the box, what they really mean is think outside your box but inside mine.

Leaders don’t always articulate what they are looking for, but they know it when they see it and they know it when they don’t. Go ahead and let your creative juices flow! But first clarify expectations. What sort of creativity is sought after - disruptive, incremental or a shift in thinking? What resources are available to do new things? What constraints are there? How much risk is OK? How about failure?

Thinking outside the box does not mean thinking outside the boss.

2. A lack of offensive communicating

On average leaders spend 20% of their time seeking information. This is terribly inefficient. Rather than wait for your leader to ask, great followers take the offensive. They provide a ‘dashboard’ of key information to efficiently keep their leader informed. After all, your leader isn’t a telepath, able to read your mind, and they don't have a secret crystal ball that lets them know what you are doing at all times.

Good communications both raises your personal profile and makes the leader’s job that much easier.

3. Communicating like a leader to your leader

Followership communicating is an equally important but different skill from leadership communicating.

The purpose of leadership communication is to unleash initiative. But the purpose of followership communication is different: to stimulate the right leadership action. What does your leader need to do with the information you are providing? Make a decision? Get involved? Change expectations? Panic less? Next, the communication style needs to suit. If the leader likes drive-by meetings, be prepared to deliver take-out. If the leader likes summaries, summarize but don’t sanitize.

4. A declaration of independence

One of the top skills employers seek from job-seekers is self-motivation, independent thinking and the ability to work with little or no supervision. We all know this. But what we know can also be misleading.

Leaders aren’t looking for people to manage themselves, they are looking for people who are easy to manage. If you have an absentee leader or one who continually cancels update meetings, you have to fight the urge to ‘go it alone’. Persist! Without interaction, you can’t possibly be on their wavelength and in the best position to support them.

5. Suffering from CDC (Collaboration Deficit Disorder)

Gone are the days when being a team player meant just getting along, cooperating and not causing conflict. Today’s expectations are higher, different. Today you need to collaborate: to think well with the team and leverage its strengths. Ask yourself, what are all the ways I can add even more value to my team and organization? What disruptions am I causing for everyone else and how can I minimize them?

6. Being a devil’s advocate

Contrary to popular opinion, devil’s advocate behavior is a slippery slope to the job netherworld.

If you want to have influence and be a true thinking partner, be a decision advocate instead. This does not mean being a ‘yes-man’, it does mean ‘saying yes and …’. Build on ideas. Build up ideas. Figure out how they could work, rather than why they won’t work. Keep your approach and tone positive. Studies show that you need to give at least five times as much positive decision support as critique to be considered effective. And then, when you do critique, use positive language.

7. Being a “Boss-strich”

People get new bosses all the time. No big deal, right?

Wrong! Big deal! Don’t put your head in the sand like an ostrich and assume not much will change. Instead, approach the situation as a completely new situation. EVERYTHING needs to be reassessed. EVERYTHING might change. Set about methodically learning your new leader’s priorities, preferences, strengths and pet peeves. What do you need to adapt to be the best partner you can be in this new partnership? What can you do to build the relationship? What have you been doing that he loves? Hates? Doesn’t see the value in?

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