5 Overcoming Common Challenges with Followers

Ross Hemmingsen

In 1930, Charles H. Mayo wrote, “The only thing that is permanent is change.” Almost ninety years later, this statement still holds true. Change brings unexpected challenges, and many of these can have a negative impact unless managed with proper leadership.  Some of the most common challenges a leader can expect are developing the commitment of followers to buy into change, follower emotions, and instilling a culture of innovation within followers.

Developing commitment is the first step in any change process. Many people believe being a follower is doing what a leader says. For successful implementation of any change, a follower must feel empowered and have the tools to perform independently without being told how to do their job.  In many instances, a follower may expect too much from their leader and may lead to less accountability for themselves.  In this situation, the leader must build complex relationships with these followers not only for the leader’s knowledge, but the follower as well.  A committed follower knows what their leader’s strengths and weakness are and focuses on filling any gaps of weakness between them (Jacobson, Setterholm, & Vollum, 2000).  A leader must also provide future value for the follower.  The follower will need to understand in what way their livelihood will improve after buying into the change.  This creates trust and motivation, which ultimately leads to commitment.

Multiple skills could be used to contribute to obtaining commitment with followers, but one stands out above all- vision.  A leader must show the capabilities to see a clear and better future for the organization, team, or follower.  Not only is the vision itself imperative, but the communication of this vision is equally imperative.  A follower must be able to understand, for themselves, exactly what the future will look like and how it favors them.

Emotions run high in the workplace, and controlling these emotions is arguably one of the more challenging aspects of leadership whether an organization is experiencing substantial change or not. Many factors contribute to negative emotions within today’s organization(s), and change is near the top.  Three of most common negative emotions that impact followers consist of fear, isolation, and stress.  Fear is not necessarily associated with the actual change, but with the unclear future associated with the change. Isolation may occur if a follower feels less involved in the change or is not asked for input.  Stress may be a combination of physical, psychological, or mental reactions from the change.  The effects of these negative emotions ultimately lead to one result- resistance.  Ineffective change leadership will not only lead to resistance, but may also invoke followers to completely block or avoid all change.

Controlling or using these emotions to positively progress the change takes a significant amount of emotional intelligence.  Emotional Intelligence can be defined many ways, but Mayer & Salovey (1997) define it best as the ability to perceive and express emotions, to use emotions to facilitate thinking, to understand and reason with emotions, and to effectively manage emotions within oneself and in relationships with others. Common and effective traits of emotional intelligence include self-awareness, self-regulation, and empathy.  Self-awareness allows the leader to understand exactly how he or she affects the follower. Self-regulation is the ability of the leader to verbalize or act in a manner that is only positive for the follower. Empathy is the ability to feel the emotions in which the followers feel, or more commonly, the ability to put the leader in the follower’s shoes.  A leader that knows exactly how to control follower emotions will be able to avoid much of the pain and resistance that originates with change.

As an organization must change, so does the way its members think and work. Instilling a culture of innovation is critical to keep up with change, during and after.  Innovation contains two different facets: thinking of new ideas and implementing them (Adair, 2007).  It should not be used in large steps, but small gradual ones.  If a follower does not have the desire to innovate or think creatively, they become increasingly inflexible and adverse to anything original.  A leader must keep the communication channel open between all followers and remove some of the hierarchy to push decision outwards to other people, teams, and departments.  A leader should also encourage creative thinking within their team and include everyone on new ideas. Keeping followers informed and giving them the responsibility to bring ideas forward will keep them dynamic and give each person a sense of purpose or an in-group feeling.

This challenge may also be relieved by multiple leadership skills, though one stands out above others- leadership making.  Leadership making focuses on creating high-quality exchanges between a leader and all followers, not just on a specific few.  Leadership making creates an in-group feeling in all followers from more reciprocal interactions. This creates higher motives and more openness for creative thinking (Northouse, 2016).

The result of great leadership is apparent, but because change is a constant, leadership is the most challenging aspect of the change process.  To help future leaders thrive during change, they should be prepared to keep the followers’ needs in mind at all times.  The leader should expect common challenges such as gaining commitment, controlling follower emotions, and instilling a culture of innovation. To help overcome these challenges, important skills of vision, emotional intelligence, and leadership making need to be emphasized by leaders.


Adair, J. E. (2007). Leadership for innovation: how to organise team creativity and harvest ideas. London: Kogan Page.

Jacobson, R., Setterholm, K., & Vollum, J. (2000). Leading for a change. Boston, MA: Routledge.

Mayer, J. D., & Salovey, P. (1997). Emotional development and emotional intelligence: implication for educators. New York: Basic Books.

Northouse, P. G. (2016). Leadership: theory and practice (7th ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, Inc.


Change: A Leader's Perspective Copyright © 2017 by Ross Hemmingsen. All Rights Reserved.

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