ORGANISATIONS around the world are at an impasse. After four decades of leadership development, levels of employee engagement remain stubbornly below 40 per cent.

Even though they are bending over backwards to develop their leaders and accommodate employee demands, organisations are still failing to tap the discretionary creative and innovative capacity of most employees.

The Centre for Active Followership, a Singapore-based organisation dedicated to promoting employee engagement, thinks the answer is in redefining the role of human resources/human capital and how leaders and followers relate to one another.

The challenge

Singaporeans work very long hours, but not, it seems, with very high levels of engagement. Business metrics reveal high employee turnover, high employee absenteeism and low employee satisfaction. This, together with signs of low productivity and initiative, are indicators of low employee engagement.

The Gallop Organisation polled employee engagement levels in 10 modern economies around the world. From the United States to Asia, and in Singapore, results show disappointing levels of employee engagement. (See Figure 1).

Figure 1

New perspective

Engaging employees will take more than just additional leadership development. Albert Einstein once said: “No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.”

It will take more than “just good leadership” to create a breakthrough in workplace engagement levels. New paradigms are needed — new ways of thinking about organisations, leaders and followers.

We need a “metatonia” or a shift of mind, as Peter Senge, an influential figure in organisational development, would say. We need a new mental model to guide how we think about relationships between people and their responsibilities at work. We must begin to think about the problem from a perspective beyond leadership.

Let us start with a look at how we think about relationships inside most organisations today.

Most of us see a linear, one-way relationship between the organisation, leaders and followers. When an organisation launches a new initiative, for example, the leaders are called upon by the organisation to implement the initiative through the ranks of followers.

Followers comply by doing their part. Initiative, control and information tend to flow one way, downward, suggesting a structure something like Figure 2.

Figure 2

If we think of relationships inside organisations in this way, is it surprising that organisational development initiatives of the last few decades have been focused on leadership?

Big burden

Organisations look to leadership solutions for all its problems and, as a result, leadership has become the choke point to success in creating engagement.

Furthermore, in the leadership-centric view of the workplace, the follower has become a “Tail-End-Charlie”. Followers are the most vulnerable, the least recognised, have the least control and are often not aware of the overall direction of the organisation. Is it any wonder that commitment and engagement levels are so poor?

Even the word “follower” has become imbued with connotations of “lesser than”. To be a follower, it might be inferred today, is to be “one who is not a leader”.

When was the last time you heard someone say: “I am proud to be a follower”? Though we often hear organisations proclaim, in various ways, “our strength is our people”, this is not reflected in the way they recognise, relate to and view followers.

The leadership-centric view also places most of the burden for success and performance on the leader — over-emphasising the leader’s accountability for success and under-emphasising the followers’ responsibility.

Here then, are four key elements, or paradigm shifts, that define the new mental model of organisations that make active followership possible (see Figure 3).

Figure 3

1. Recognise followers, leaders and the organisation as being in a three-way reciprocating, interdependent relationship.

2. Expect and equip active followers to share equal responsibility for success of leadership initiatives.

3. Human Resources departments become a “strategic business partner” by shifting from resource management to human capital development.

4. Being an active follower who supports the culture of engagement is an opportunity for and the responsibility of everyone.

In the second part of this article, the four paradigm shifts will be discussed in detail and we will explore how to implement active followership.