“I am reminded how hollow the label of leadership sometimes is and how heroic followership can be.”
Warren Bennis

People follow leaders for two reasons–the first is because they believe that the leader has a vision of a better tomorrow (more accurate knowledge and ability to translate it into results) and the second is that they are often seeking the leaders approval.

People get information about how to behave by looking to the behavior of others, particularly those in the same social group that they belong toor affiliate with. This is particularly true in uncertain situations—notably in crisis situations.

For example, those who might have to evacuate their homes due to a fire nearby tend to look at what their neighbors are doing and depending on what actions they take, they typically follow.  Wanting to fit in and follow what others do (the “everybody’s doing it affect”) seems to be hardwired.

In fact, there might actually be a neurobiology of followership that can help explain “blind obedience to authority” such as the classic Milgram studies, purchasing of specific products and services (gosh, if everyone in our company is car pooling and buying hybrid automobiles maybe I should too), and compliance.  Individuals who don’t comply are often seen as a bit odd, deviant or “not fitting in” whether it is within organizational cultures or one’s own family.  In the “bible” of psychiatric continuums of abnormality there are even labels for those who seem odd and eccentric (e.g., schizotypal  personality disorders).

Some fairly recent brain imaging studies suggest that followership may actually be a path that is natural (after all, we are pretty herd like creatures) and not conforming may activate pain centers in our brain.  Arizona State Univversity professor Dr. Robert Cialdini and his colleagues has conducted research that suggests that when we don’t think we are doing what others in a group are doing, our brain centers associated with pain and discomfort seem to react1.

Professor Gregory Berns from Emory University School of Medicine has also shown that when individual judgment conflicts with a group, that individuals will often conform his/her judgments to the group2.  With his use of FMRI tools, his research group has shown that nonconformity on specific agreement tasks with others induced amygdala activation of the brain and this area has been show to be associated with negative emotional states (e.g., fear, anger, discomfort, anxiety).

This area of the brain (our emotional “brake”) has been shown in previous research to be associated with moderating social behavior and is also activated by human faces particularly when our expressions indicate fear, terror, fright or anger. Taken together, these studies strongly point to a neurobiology basis for followership.

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The choice of acting independently, following our own path in the face of opposition, and standing our ground when others in a team (or family) are against us might actually be associated with the same physical pain centers to become activated in our brain as if we actually stubbed our toe.

As General George Patton said, “Lead me, follow me, or get out of my way”….Be well….

  1. Cialdini, R. B., & Goldstein, N. J. (2004). Social influence: Compliance and conformity. Annual Review of Psychology, 55, 591-621 []
  2. Berns, G., Chappelow, J., Zink, C., Pagnoni, G., Martin-Skurski, M., & Richards, J. (2005).  Neurobiological Correlates of Social Conformity and Independence During Mental Rotation.  Biological Psychiatry, 58, 245-253 []

Kenneth Nowack, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist (PSY13758) and President & Chief Research Officer/Co-Founder of Envisia Learning, is a member of the Consortium for Research on Emotional Intelligence in Organizations. Ken also serves as the Associate Editor of Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research. His recent book Clueless: Coaching People Who Just Don’t Get It is available for free for a limited time by signing up for free blog updates (Learn more at our website)

Posted in Leadership Development, Talent Management

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