About Me

Education, the knowledge society, the global market all connected through technology and cross-cultural communication skills are I am all about. I hope through this blog to both guide others and travel myself across disciplines, borders, theories, languages, and cultures in order to create connections to knowledge around the world. I teach at the University level in the areas of Business, Language, Communication, and Technology.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Let's hear it for the worker bees!

My daughter graduated from eighth grade last week. Like her brother, she was the president of the student council, had the lead in the school play, was on the honor roll all 3 years of junior high school, and was active in all of the sports teams from the school. Like her brother, she worked very hard to improve on her weaker skills, both academically and socially. However, unlike her brother, she did not receive one single note of recognition. In fact, many did not know she was president of the student council, although she worked harder than her brother ever did at organizing fund raising events, student volunteering, and community building between the classes. Many in the lower grades knew her by name, coming up to her to hug her whenever they had the chance.

The difference? My son is a "Queen Bee". He often sat by and directed others to do things, but basked in the limelight. He is a person with a gregarious personality. He has a commanding, confident personality that gets people to do things. On the other hand, my daughter is a worker bee. She quietly works hard, behind the scenes, worrying about the details (my son lets others worry about them). She takes up the slack when others fall down, working hard and consistently, going out, coming back, and working/communicating with everyone involved.

Too many leaders, not enough followers

In management training, there is a focus on the "leader": the person that tells people what to do and how to do it. These people are not always in positions of power. For example, the best run offices often have a strong leader in the secretary or receptionist. They are command central. However, we don't look at the impact that a strong follower has on the office: someone who can take direction, read the social environment, and get things done by consistent, hard work.

This translates into teaching our students how to be leaders, but not how to be followers. As schools and businesses use the team approach more and more, it is important that we begin to train workers how to be both leaders and followers, depending on the situation. Interestingly enough, my daughter does very well in group work. She is willing to take on the leadership role when it is needed. However, when working with strong personalities, she also is able to take on the follower role.

How many of us have worked in groups where there is a power struggle between two strong "leader" personalities? This creates mixed messages and work can't get done. Many leaders leave the details to their "worker bees", assuming it will get done. But if there are no worker bees to do the work, the work does not get done.

What makes a good follower

According to Stewart Tubbs (2007), there are three types of followers. Dependent followers are those that will do as ordered without asking questions. This type of follower is important for vital jobs where the execution of a task as ordered is important (such as the military, nuclear power plant, or professional sports team). Often this type of group will have individual group members with vital information or expertise which must be coordinated for the team to work as a whole. Deviating from orders might weaken the team as a whole as each member may not have all the information they need as a team. Not everyone is a good dependent follower. There must be a high level of trust between the leader and follower and the follower must be able to understand and execute orders or be able to ask for clarification to ensure they are on the same page as other group members. "Taking initiative" might put other group members into peril.

The second type of follower is the counterdependent follower. This person is resistant to authority. For the most part, management will look at this type of follower as a negative role. However, the counterdependent follower can make a team stronger by ensuring all alternatives have been investigated. This also helps the team to avoid group think. My daughter often got herself in trouble by being this type of follower as she was very creative. I believe that this was one of the reasons she did not receive any awards as she was perceived as a trouble maker when she would bring up alternatives or questioned the way things were done, proposing alternatives that were fairer or more efficient. This is especially taboo in a Catholic School where there is a strong authoritative leadership style!

The third type of follower is the independent. This is the more traditional "worker bee" who takes the goals and accomplishes them with little direction. Of course, most management would prefer this type of follower as they need to interact with them less often, yet they can trust that the work will get done.

A good follower, like a good leader, needs to be flexible and be able to adapt to the circumstance, environment, and social dynamics of a group. A good follower also needs to know when they should be a follower and when they need to step up to the plate and give direction.

Who recognizes the worker bees?

Unfortunately, few awards and recognition are given to the worker bees. For every famous leader, there is a team of worker bees supporting them (Watch the report Brian Williams did on Obama's staff). We need to start recognizing the followers/worker bees in our country and schools. What about the kid that has consistently been attaining the 50% mark on standardized tests, never going down, but chugging away and learning quietly every year in school? I once read that this country was run by "B" students: those that did not "excel" at anything, but were consistent workers getting things accomplished without any fanfare. Where would the quarterbacks be without the guards (many of which we don't know their names) to protect them? How many of us know the names of the relief pitchers that come in when the starting pitcher begins to fail? How many of us know the names of the middle managers (plant managers, marketing and sales managers, customer service reps) who keep a company going, through break downs, complaints, and other daily problems that come up?

How about schools beginning to recognize the worker bees?

Tubbs, S. (2007) A Systems Approach to Small Group Interaction, 9th Edition. Boston, MA: McGraw Hill.


Blogger In Middle-earth said...

Kia ora Virginia!

You have outlined this complex subject very well. I agree with what you say of the need to embrace 'followship' as well as leadership. Followship is not taught principally because it's not clearly understood. It is as difficult to learn to be a good follower as it is to learn to be a good leader.

But much of leadership that is taught is not correctly understood either. Leadership skills are often mistaken for managerial skills. A consequence of this error is that true leadership skills may not be acquired.

Catchya later

V Yonkers said...

One of the debates in Management Research is whether a leader is born or can be formed. I think the majority believe that while some may have an innate ability to lead, there needs to be some training to use it effectively.

On the other hand, in the US as any rate, being a follower is looked down upon. Is a follower looked at more favorably in any of the non-anglo cultures that you have been exposed to?

Blogger In Middle-earth said...

Kia ora Virginia!

The term 'loyal subject' has an honourable ring to it. One could stretch the role of a 'subject' to being similar to that of a follower.

'Following like sheep', on the other hand, has a different connotation associated with mindless mimicking of following. The derogatory description of being 'one of her followers' has a similar tone to it.

Fetish, fashion and follow has been a trend in societal crazes for centuries. Though 'ya gotta be into win' is the maxim, it doesn't always pay for the individual to follow the craze.

But in military contexts it also has a subservient timbre, implying that the value of the minion is less so than the troupe. This is unwittingly suggested in 'the whole is greater than the sum of its parts' where the 'part' seemingly has a minor contribution to the synergy. Yet without the parts there is no synergy.

Every team has a leader. Being 'one of the team' has an honour associated with it - certainly more so than 'you're not one of us anymore'.

Followers tend to have the 'alsoran' association. Alsorans don't win any awards. But like the sum-of-the-parts, without the alsorans there is no winner.

In schools in New Zealand there tends to be the supportive culture of 'it's not the winning, it's the participating'. This was fine until not so many years ago when 'competitiveness' was introduced to the curriculum - would you believe! That's been removed now, or at least watered down so that a more participatory aspect to contribution is fostered.

Catchya later

V Yonkers said...

Great point, Ken. I think, though, that some cultures value the "loyal subject" more than others. I know colleagues from Japan find it hard to understand when someone is not giving to the group and showing reverence to the leader. In Costa Rica, the leaders (including teachers) are rarely questioned, which was very difficult for me to get used to. It is up to the leader to encourage questions from the "followers" if they want feedback. Otherwise, a follower keeps mum.

Blogger In Middle-earth said...

Kia ora Virginia

The situation you describe is not unlike the cultural climate that often exists in a school class of (mainly) Māori learners who know one another. I believe it is a reflection of the tribal nature of the Māori culture.

I find that there is always a pecking order. There will be a No 1, a leader, decided upon by the rest of the class. How this is done is a bit obscure to me but I suspect it is the social engine of that culture. There is also a No 2 and 3 etc.

If the teacher puts a question to the class and the leader does not answer, no one else will proffer a suggestion.

Unless a (new) teacher recognises this situation, it can be very confusing and exasperating. The way in, of course, is to ask questions of specific members of the class.

Only when the teacher wishes to address the leader is there any use in putting a question to the whole class.

Catchya later

paul c said...

This post illustrates well the notion that teachers are too often preoccupied with the smartest and the most challenged students and fail to recognize the integral contributions of the average, conscientious student. Hail to the majority of students who show up, do their work, and are pleasant about the whole experience.

V Yonkers said...

Paul, you have nicely summerized the point of this posting. And shouldn't we be celebrating those consistant students? I hope one day our media recognizes these worker bee students!

Blogger In Middle-earth said...

Kia ora Paul

Unfortunately the squeaky wheel (by squeaky wheel I mean an unwarranted plea for attention over anyone else) often gets most of the oil. This can be a very (dare I say stressful) tiring situation for a teacher to mediate in the classroom.

Strangely enough, the squeaky wheels tend to be less of a nuisance in elearning and in distance learning, but they are there - often with the parent as their advocate.

But there is the distinction between the leaders and the smartest in any school of kids. Some leaders are also squeaky wheels.

Catchya later

V Yonkers said...

Ken, good point. In fact, I have found that the annoyingly squeaky wheel can be ignored in an elearning environment (and often are) whereas they are distracting in the face to face. Elearning has a way of muting noise in the the "classroom."