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Are they following you? Here are the real reasons why your team just aren’t into your leadership.

New research from Cambridge Judge Business School suggests successful leaders need to connect with their teams in one of three key ways.

A group of 3 origami birds with the focus on the beak of the yellow bird.

To be an effective leader, you need to get the best out of your followers, right? But what if those followers are just not that into you? New research suggests even the most heralded theories on successful leadership break down if you don’t understand that all your team members have their own motivations – and that it’s your job not only to work out what they are, but also to meet those needs.

Tim Astandu, PhD Student, Cambridge Judge Business School

Tim Astandu

“Followers are the key to successful leadership,” says Cambridge Judge PhD student Tim Astandu. “And when it comes to transformational leadership, different team members will want different things from their leader. Follower preferences, and how these preferences are met or not met, will determine how a follower will respond and work with a leader.”

A recent paper by Astandu – entitled “Cognitive-motivational work orientations and transformational leadership” – confirmed that followers generally strive for one of three things: accomplishment (status or a sense of achievement); being recognised as important; and communion (a desire to be liked). “These motivations exist in almost every culture,” he says. “Because people strive for different goals, each follower will have different preferences and schemas for what they consider to be the ‘ideal’ leader.”

But he was surprised how closely the motivations matched the four behaviours of transformational leadership theory – individualised consideration, intellectual stimulation, idealised influence and inspirational motivation.

“The communion-oriented follower will respond best to a leader if they share an interest in genuinely building personal relationships by, say, offering emotional support or comfort – showing individualised consideration,” he says. “Accomplishment strivers want leaders who show intellectual stimulation because they both consider successful work outcomes as a priority. Those motivated by status prefer leaders who are admired and considered outstanding role models – idealised influence. And both those striving for accomplishment and status also prefer inspirational motivation from their leaders.”

Therefore it is understanding these different motivations in your individual team members that will enable you to get the best out of them, he argues. “These motivations determine – even at a subconscious level – the particular behaviours followers expect their leaders to display. One size does not fit all.”

But the role of followers was always intended to be at the heart of the transformational approach, says business author Barbara Kellerman, who suggests the original essence of this leadership style has been lost.

“No term has been more bastardised over the years than ‘transformational leadership’,” says Kellerman, whose provocative and best-selling book The end of leadership rocked the US business world by challenging many “faulty assumptions” about how to lead.

“The original concept set out by James McGregor Burns 40 years ago – still one of the best treatises on leadership – defined leaders and followers in an equal relationship ‘making each other advance to a higher level of morality and motivation’,” she says. “But over the years, people who latched onto this approach dropped the ‘followers’ and the ‘others’ aspects and became fixated on the leader – mainly because they were following the money. In a leader/follower relationship, it takes two people to tango.”

The relationship is so important that Astandu concludes that the prescriptive nature of transformational leadership theory could even backfire on a leader if he or she fails to take their followers’ individuality into account. “The same leader behaviours may trigger different responses from different followers,” he says. “Our research found followers respond best to leaders who are similar to them and fulfill their needs and demands.”

Astandu gave his 101 study participants a questionnaire to determine their work motivations, then a series of vignettes, and asked them to rate the leader in each case. He says his research has implications for how transformational leadership skills are learned.

“In many instances leaders are taught to engage in all four transformational dimensions irrespective of the context,” he says. “But such a one-size-fits-all approach towards leadership needs to be reviewed. Successful leadership is built on the individual relationship between a leader and follower. If you have a good match, you have better physical and mental outcomes.”

Kellerman agrees. “I myself never talk of leadership,” she says, “but of a leadership system – leaders, followers and context, and all have absolutely equal importance. Mr Astandu’s research puts the emphasis very clearly back on leaders’ partnership with their followers, understanding them and applying leadership styles according to the person they are leading and the context. Many leadership initiatives convey the notion that you can learn how to do this quickly, or easily. It takes time and it takes emotional intelligence to be a successful leader and get the most out of the people you are working with.”