When Followers Don’t Follow

Even the most progressive leaders will find themselves on particularly hard days asking themselves, “Why doesn’t my team do what I need them to do?”

Maybe your team keeps working late, even though you’ve told them to go home on time. Maybe they’re hoarding knowledge, even though you’ve stressed how important working in the open is. Maybe they’re reluctant to work across silos, even though you’ve made it clear that collaboration is crucial.

There comes a time in every leader’s tenure where what you need and want from your team just isn’t being followed. A time when your followers just don’t follow.

When that happens:

  • Understand what motivates your team. News flash, your motivations may not be quite the same as your team’s. Determine what motivates them, not just what you need.
  • Get to the root of the problem. Look and listen to see if you really understand the source of resistance. Ask questions like “What’s really at stake for others?” and “How do our ways of working conflict with what I’m asking for?”
  • Clear roadblocks. Maybe your team is properly motivated, but something (or someone) is preventing them from achieving their goals. Work with them to remove obstacles so they can focus on their work.
  • Admit you don’t have all the answers. It might seem counterintuitive, but sharing what you don’t know or are unsure of can be a good thing—that way, people know they have some agency in building towards the vision. Turn their questions around on them and ask the team to collaborate on potential solutions. Ask them what advice they would give others who were failing to meet your standards.
  • Make sure incentives are properly aligned. If achieving the long-term vision means sacrificing quarterly bonuses, or performance reviews reward individual achievement while you’re trying to encourage collaboration, your team won’t budge. New ways of working must be in their self-interest, so adjust as needed.
  • Remember you’re always modeling behavior. What you do is more important than what you say. If you’ve already established a reasonable level of psychological safety on the team, check in with others: ask how well the team practices what they preach, and whether you, the leader, need to adjust your behavior.
  • Reconsider your hiring criteria. If you just want people to do what you tell them, is that what you hired for? Remember, your job is to organize and support the people doing the work—not do the work yourself.  Are you frustrated because you have independent, autonomous, and therefore, “difficult,” employees?
  • Pick your battles. Last but not least, decide if this battle is worth spending political capital on. There may come a time when things must be done a certain way, but insisting on it will have a price. Is this issue mission-critical, or is it just personal preference?
Published March 19, 2019

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