How to Lead When Employees Don't Want to Follow

Being the boss isn’t easy. Sure, you may have a bigger office, higher salary, and more time off (if you’re lucky), but you work longer hours, have greater pressure, and more responsibilities (at least in theory). If you started somewhere near or at the bottom and worked your way up, you understand the business, the industry, and know from first-hand experience the work involved in each step on the ladder. And that can be invaluable.

No matter how you got there, leadership can be a beast. Sometimes it all goes smoothly, while other times you feel like you’re running full tilt into a brick wall on a daily basis. If it’s the former, congratulations! If it’s the latter, you may have employees that just don’t want to follow you. It could be any number of reasons. No matter which one it is, you need to find a way to lead and be followed in the workplace, or it will all eventually fall to pieces.  

Disliked vs Disrespected

Everyone has had a boss they didn’t like. And to be honest, you’ll probably have another one at some point. There is no rule written anywhere that says you have to like your boss. Sure, it makes it easier to work for them and do what they ask, but it’s not necessary. Some personalities just rub each other the wrong way.

But you do need to respect them, at least on some level (and if you don’t, you need to get out). As the boss, you need to earn the respect of your employees.

How do you do that? Respect is a two-way street. You need to respect your employees, and demonstrate that respect, if you want them to reciprocate. Ask for their input on things that either will affect them, or in areas where they have experience and know-how. Listen to their suggestions and’re under no obligation to take their advice - you are the decision-maker, after all - but a good boss always has time to listen. Really listen. Don’t just make it an empty gesture to give the illusion that you care, as your employees will see through that. The best leaders surround themselves with people that have ideas, express opinions, and are willing to put themselves out there. They habitually turn to them to assist in the decision making process.

Respect them enough to acknowledge their struggles. To understand the pressure that they, too, are under. Asking how you can help goes a long, long way. A boss who isn’t afraid to “get their hands dirty” is generally a respected one.

And finally, remember your Ps and Qs. Thanking an individual or department for a job well done is more than just good manners. It’s essential to employee satisfaction. It shows them that their effort matters and is appreciated.  

These are things you should be doing already as the boss. Employees will follow a boss they don’t “like” (you need to make the hard and potentially unpopular decisions), but they will rarely follow one they don’t respect. Don’t be that boss.

Clear Objectives and Goals

Employees are told what to do. Many resent that, but it’s a part of working for someone else. A simple way to make it easier is to have very clear and readily available goals and objectives. It’s important to explain WHY they must do something, and not just what or how. Goals are the road map. They let anyone see exactly what is happening, and why it matters. Your employees are much more likely to follow you when they see why it must be done and how it affects the company and them directly. Make goals, objectives, tactics, and strategies accessible to anyone that wants to see them (which you should be doing anyway).  

Consistency is King

Want your employees to follow you? You need to be consistent. Jumping around in terms of strategies, flip-flopping on decisions, and switching gears every two weeks is a sure-fire way to lose them. This does NOT include the admission that you were wrong whenever you make a mistake (everyone does) and need to correct it, but a boss that frequently changes ideology, objectives, tactics, and so on is viewed as making it up as they go along. There’s no plan. And employees are loathe to follow someone like that because their effort doesn’t seem to have a point and will likely be wiped out next week when the boss changes lanes again.

A good boss has a business plan. A marketing and product strategy. Changes do happen, of course, but only after careful consideration and having talked to the people it will affect. Be consistent in that.

Being liked is nice. And you can be a liked (just don’t be a’ll lose all respect. YOU are in charge). But it’s much more important to be respected and reciprocate that respect. Have clear and consistent goals and strategies. Do that, and your employees will happily follow you anywhere.

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