Leadership Lessons from Ajax the Seeing Eye Dog #6: The Neurobiology of Followership

July 12, 2009 by Ken Nowack

“If all of your friends jumped  off a cliff  would you do the same thing?”

Beverly Nowack


We sure are rooting for the guide dog puppy we are raising named Ajax to go on to become a leader for someone who is blind.  Those who have guide dogs or any type of service dog need to totally trust and follow the lead of the dog.  Followership is key in their relationship. So, knowing something about whom we follow, why we follow leaders and when we should not follow others seems pretty important to understand better.

People basically 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 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 or 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 continuum of abnormality there are even labels for those who seem odd and eccentric (e.g., schizotypal and schizoid 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 University professor Dr. Rober 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 particular area has been show to be associated with negative emotional states (e.g., fear, anger, discomfort, anxiety).  This specific 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.

These studies strongly suggest a biological basis for followership.  The choice of being independent, 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 cause the same physical pain centers to become activated as if we stubbed our toe.  It helps explain why we read stories about crowds, groups and organizations and wonder why “whistle blowing” has to be rewarded or why people don’t speak up more to confront poor or dishonest decisions of those in power.

If we are to believe these researchers, it is far less painless path to just follow the leader.  Even if they seem to be taking us in the wrong direction.

Now, if I could only figure out how to get Ajax, our 4 month old guide dog puppy in training,  to follow my lead….Be well….

[tags] personality, leadership, conformity, compliance, independence, followership, group leadership, Envisia Learning, kenneth nowack, ken nowack, Nowack [/tags]

  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)

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  1. ALSO— they have finally figured out that economic decisions may not be rational. (ha! took ’em long enough)

    There is a biological basis for decisions — decision making releases oxytoxin (only not for conservative opinion makers)

    Thank you for the constant food for thought.

  2. I co-administrate “The Followership Exchange” with Ira Chaleff, author of The Courageous Follower: Standing Up To and For Our Leaders, now going into its third edition. The Followership Exchange (http://followership2.pbworks.com) is hosted by the International leadership Association as part of a learning community of academics and practitioners with an interest in followership and leader/follower relations.

    We have linked to this fascinating entry and hope that you and readers with an interest in followership will check us out. Those who become writers (free) may actively post and link to a variety of items of interest to the group.

  3. Wally Bock says:

    I love this series, Ken. You’ve managed to mine a rich vein of wisdom by wrapping your lessons around the story of Ajax.

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