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Leadership: The Relationship between leaders and followers

Article review: “On the Psychological Exchange Between Leaders and Followers,” by David Messick, Northwestern University.1

Messick focuses on leadership as the relationship between leaders and their followers. This is quite similar to the leader-follower exchange. The heart of his idea is that people follow because they gain something by following. The following is a summary with my thoughts in italics.

What do followers gain?

  1. Vision and direction. Vision can provide direction, but it can also provide meaning and inspiration.

    This seems obvious, I know. Yet, I often hear from employees that they feel like they lack direction from their manager. They don’t know where the company is really trying to go. The result that I commonly see is that the employee steps back and waits for detailed instructions. The manager, in turn, becomes frustrated at the lack of initiative of the employee. People need to have some level of direction. Of course, how much direction depends on the learning style of the employee.
  2. Protection and security. Good leaders and managers create safety for their followers.

    This, in turn, allows the followers to perform and develop. Employees simply do not perform or learn at their best without safety. In adult learning there is a basic rule that the facilitator must provide a balance of support and challenge. Leadership is similar. If there is too much challenge, people shut down. They become overwhelmed and disengaged. If, however, there is too much support (safety), they may become complacent.
  3. Achievement and effectiveness.

    The achievement often comes through working together as a team. Achievement fuels self-efficacy, confidence, competence and desire. Effectiveness is a frequently overlooked driver of human motives. One of the most powerful developmental actions a manager can take is to help an employee plan out small wins towards a big accomplishment or objective. By creating small wins, we build momentum. Daniel Pink in “Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us,” writes that people are intrinsically motivated when they can see progress towards mastery (the other two drivers of intrinsic motivation are autonomy and purpose).
  4. Inclusion and belonging.

    Humans are social creatures. Belonging is a basic need. This created shared successes and a place to share – and get answers to – challenges. Adults like to learn from each other. Think of ways to tap into that. For example, two years ago, I was part of a major change effort at a company that had offices throughout the U.S. After the training was rolled out and coaching was in place, we helped the managers create team sessions where the team reinforced the lessons from training by first teaching the content back to each other and then collecting and sharing their successes and their challenges. The managers were delighted as these team sessions began to replace many of the questions and problems that previously had been directed to the managers. As one of the managers told me, “They’ve become coaches for each other. They are helping each other solve problems whereas in the past they would have been in my office without even trying to solve the problem.”
  5. Pride and self-respect.

    These benefits are largely derived from the above benefits. This is also about respecting the members of the group. Good leaders make their team members feel respected and trusted. There is a huge pay-off when we help someone experience pride in their contribution. Not only do they tend to repeat and expand their contribution, but they also build confidence and courage to take on future challenges.

By providing these things, followers gain a sense of direction, purpose, empowerment and pride. All of these add up to the fuel and motivation to act.

How well are your managers and leaders providing these essential items to their teams and employees? We know from previous research that employees do not leave companies; they leave their managers. The relationship between employee and their manager is one of the key drivers of employee engagement and loyalty. Are your managers doing all that they can to keep your best employees?

1 Messick, David M., Roderick M. Kramer (eds.). The psychology of leadership : new perspectives and research. Mahwah, N.J. : L. Erlbaum Associates, 2005.


© 2011 Bobbi Kahler. All rights reserved.  Developing Leaders, Creating Possibilities: Kahler Leadership Group 



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