Qualitative Matrix Read the Leadership Quarterly document provided for week 6 (attached) and complete the attached matrix to identify the following:
Conclusion The Leadership Quarterly 21 (2010) 543–562
Contents lists available at ScienceDirect
The Leadership Quarterly
journal homepage: www.elsevier.com/locate/leaqua
Exploring social constructions of followership: A qualitative study
Melissa K. Carsten a,⁎, Mary Uhl-Bien b, Bradley J. West b, Jaime L. Patera b, Rob McGregor c
a Winthrop University, College of Business Administration, 518 Thurmond Building, Rock Hill, SC 29733, United States
b University of Nebraska, Department of Management, United States
c Spirit West Management, Canada
a r t i c l e i n f o
⁎ Corresponding author. Tel.: +1 803 323 4817; fax
E-mail address: email@example.com (M.K. Car
1048-9843/$ – see front matter © 2010 Elsevier Inc.
a b s t r a c t
This study adopts a qualitative approach to deconstruct the meaning of followership. Interviews
were conducted with employees in various industries to examine how individuals socially
construct their roles as followers and to explore followership schemas and contextual influences
that relate to these constructions. Results suggest that while some individuals socially construct
definitions around passivity, deference and obedience, others emphasize the importance of
constructively questioning and challenging their leaders. With regard to personal qualities that
are thought to make followers effective, major themes such as obedience, expressing opinions,
and taking initiative were found to be most disparate across different groups of followers.
Results also revealed that contextual factors may affect both followership constructions
and behavior in the follower role. These findings have important implications regarding a need
to examine the construct of followership in leadership research, as well as raise interesting
possibilities for advancing an “expanded” view of leadership in organizations.
© 2010 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
While the role of followers in the leadership equation has long been recognized (Hollander, 1992; Parker Follett, 1949) and
recent work has extended follower-centered approaches to leadership (Howell & Shamir, 2005; Meindl, 1995; Shamir, Pillai, Bligh,
& Uhl-Bien, 2007), an area that has not yet been explored in leadership research is that of followership (Baker, 2007). Followership
research, consistent with Graen and Uhl-Bien’s (1995) description of “follower-based” approaches (p. 223), adopts the follower as
the primary focus and explores how followership behaviors are related to organizational outcomes of interest (e.g., leadership,
performance). A followership approach differs from “follower-centric approaches to leadership” (Meindl, 1995) in that the issue of
interest is not follower perspectives of leadership but instead follower perspectives of followership. Rather than considering how
followers view their leaders and their leaders’ behaviors, a focus on followership would consider how followers view their own
behaviors and roles when engaging with leaders (Uhl-Bien & Pillai, 2007).
A focus on followership helps increase our understanding of the leadership process by adding to current typologies of leader
styles and behaviors (Pearce & Conger, 2003), a description of follower styles and followership behaviors. Such a perspective helps
“reverse the lens” (Shamir, 2007) in leadership research by addressing the role that followers play in creating and maintaining
effective followership and leadership outcomes. Moreover, it addresses calls by Collinson (2006) and others (Lord & Brown, 2004)
for a need to generate a deeper understanding of follower identities and the complex ways these identities affect leaders and the
Given that empirical research on followership has not yet been advanced, the present study reports the findings of an
exploratory investigation into the nature of followership. Specifically, we investigate socially constructed definitions of
followership, and examine the followership schema and contextual variables that are related to these constructions. Following
suggestions of Bresnen (1995) and others (e.g., Bryman, 1986) that “leadership can encapsulate a diverse range of meanings and
multiple frames of reference” (Bresnen, 1995, p. 496), we explore whether socially constructed definitions of followership might
: +1 803 323 3960.
All rights reserved.
544 M.K. Carsten et al. / The Leadership Quarterly 21 (2010) 543–562
also assume different meanings depending on an individual’s underlying assumptions of what it is to be a follower (e.g., see
Bresnen, 1995; Bryman, 1986; Collinson, 2006; Meindl, Ehrlich, & Dukerich, 1985; Smircich & Morgan, 1982). Thus, similar to
Bresnen’s (1995) method of investigating managers’ socially constructed definitions of leadership, we adopt a qualitative
methodology in an effort to achieve a more grounded understanding of what followership means to those acting in such roles.
We begin by positioning the study of followership in the context of follower-centered approaches to leadership and leadership
theories that privilege the role of followers (e.g., shared leadership and self-management). We show that while follower-centered
research examines the effects of follower characteristics on their interpretations of leaders, and shared leadership and self-
management expand leadership beyond the role of hierarchical leaders, these approaches remain leader-centric in that they do
not examine the cognitions or behaviors associated with “followership” (i.e., the behaviors of individuals acting in relation to
leaders). To address these cognitions and behaviors we follow the suggestion of Uhl-Bien and Pillai (2007) and consider the social
constructions individuals make of followership. We do this by theoretically exploring how followership schema and contextual
factors may be associated with followership constructions in organizational settings. We then use interview data gathered from
individuals acting in follower roles in various industries and across organizational levels to analyze reports of followership schema,
the types of constructions individuals hold of followership, and the personal qualities/behaviors and contextual variables related
to these constructions. We conclude by discussing the implications of our findings for future research and practice aimed at further
developing and investigating the construct of followership.
1. Focus on followership
Research on follower-centered perspectives of leadership has explored how followers construct leadership (Meindl, 1995),
how personal characteristics of followers influence perceptions of leadership (Schyns & Felfe, 2006), and how followers can
engage in self-leadership and shared leadership (Manz & Sims, 1980; Pearce & Conger, 2003). While this work has advanced
leadership research by exploring follower perceptions of leaders and leadership, it offers little in the way of understanding
followership. In particular, we still know very little about how followers enact their own roles as part of the leadership equation.
To address behaviors and issues related to followership we need to have a better understanding of what followership is and
how it differs from existing research on follower-centered perspectives. Therefore, in the sections below we review work on the
follower-centered approach to leadership and show how followership perspectives differ in their assumptions and focus. We also
explain why adopting this different perspective is important with respect to enhancing knowledge and advancing understanding
of a construct of followership.
1.1. Follower-centered perspectives
In the 1990s a stream of research in leadership began to emerge that constitutes a follower-centered approach to leadership
(Shamir et al., 2007). This work, initiated by Jim Meindl (1995) and extended by others (Howell & Shamir, 2005; Lord & Brown,
2004; Pillai, Kohles, & Bligh, 2007), offers a framework for generating propositions regarding the inputs, mechanisms and
outcomes of follower constructions of leadership. Meindl’s propositions have been explored by a number of researchers interested
in understanding how follower traits, emotions, and attitudes influence their perceptions of, or preferences for, certain types of
leaders (Ehrhart & Klein, 2001; Kark, Shamir, & Chen, 2003; also see Bligh & Schyns, 2007 for a review).
For example, several researchers have discovered that follower traits such as extraversion (Schyns & Felfe, 2006) as well as self-
efficacy and motivation (Dvir & Shamir, 2003) enhance perceptions of transformational leadership. Similar research by Phillips
and Bedeian (1994) shows that follower extraversion is positively related to the quality of relationship they develop with their
leader. With regard to charisma, Pastor, Mayo, and Shamir (2007) concluded that emotional arousal in followers increased
perceptions of charismatic leadership. These studies suggest that certain follower traits or emotions can bolster perceptions of
effective leadership (i.e., the halo effect). Recent findings by Bligh, Kohles, Pearce, Justin, and Stovall (2007) also suggest that
follower attitudes can have a negative effect on perceptions of leadership (i.e., the horns effect). In particular, Bligh et al. (2007)
found that follower job dissatisfaction and low self-efficacy were related to heightened perceptions of aversive leadership.
Despite the fact that this work and the follower-centric approach in general draws much needed attention to the role of
followers in the leadership process, it is still primarily leader-centric in its focus (Uhl-Bien & Pillai, 2007). This is clearly reflected in
Meindl’s (1995) descriptions of the follower-centric model. The follower-centric approach focuses on constructions followers
make with respect to (a) leadership as a way to understand and address organizational issues and (b) the criteria or “theory-in-
use” through which leaders are evaluated. In the follower-centric model, “variations in the constructions of leadership are the
immediate, dependent variables of interest” (p. 333, emphasis added). In other words, the focus in follower-centric work is still
constructions of leadership; as a result, research has yet to advance an understanding of follower-centered perspectives of
Other research streams that are follower-centric in nature and draw attention to the behaviors of individuals acting in non-
hierarchical (“non-leadership”) positions are theories of shared leadership (Pearce & Conger, 2003) and self-leadership/self-
management (Lovelace, Manz, & Alves, 2007; Manz, 1986; Manz & Sims, 1980). Both of these theories privilege the role of the
“follower” (i.e., subordinate) by recognizing that leadership behaviors can occur outside of formal managerial roles. As described
by Pearce and Manz (2005), traditional leadership models have been narrowly focused on individuals in formal leadership
positions but, given the new realities of organizational contexts, “followers should also be included in leadership development
efforts in order to prepare them to exercise responsible self-leadership and to effectively use shared leadership” (p. 130).
545M.K. Carsten et al. / The Leadership Quarterly 21 (2010) 543–562
The concept of self-leadership has emerged out of the self-management and “superleadership” work of the 1980s (Manz, 1986;
Manz & Sims, 1980). Grounded in concepts of self-control (Lovelace et al., 2007), self-management involves regulating one’s
behavior to reduce discrepancies from externally set standards (Manz, 1986) by encouraging behaviors such as self-observation,
self-goal setting, incentive modification, and self-rehearsal (Manz & Sims, 1980; Neck, Neck, Manz, & Godwin, 1999). At the heart
of this approach is the idea that leaders should develop skills in followers that promote their capacity to take more responsibility
for their own direction and motivation (Lovelace et al., 2007). “Self-leadership implies that leadership can be self-imposed and
thus does not require the traditional roles of leader and follower. That is, so called followers, at least to some degree, can be their
own leaders” (Lovelace et al., 2007, p. 379).
Shared leadership has emerged more recently and refers to a dynamic and interactive influence process among members who
lead one another to help reach the goals of the group or organization (Pearce & Conger, 2003). Its focus is primarily on distributed
leadership processes that occur among members of teams (Avolio, Jung, Murry, & Sivasubrimaniam, 1996; Ensley & Pearce, 2001;
Hooker, Nakamura, & Csikszentmihalyi, 2003; Pearce, 1997; Pearce & Sims, 2002; Pearce, Yoo, & Alavi, 2004; Shamir & Lapidot,
2003). Findings on shared leadership show that in the right types of environments (e.g., shared purpose, social support and voice),
team members can demonstrate shared leadership behaviors with one another that result in enhanced team productivity and a
reduced need for external leaders (Carson, Tesluk, & Marrone, 2007).
1.2. Followership perspectives
While the above approaches do bring followers (i.e., subordinates) into the equation and can be informative to the study of
followership, they are still leadership models in that the behaviors they focus on are leadership behaviors (e.g., shared leadership
or self-leadership) and not followership behaviors. Followership behaviors differ in that they do not address independent activities
of those occupying “subordinate” positions but behaviors of individuals acting in relation to a leader(s). In other words, followership
behaviors are not about how individuals interact relative to their work (e.g., self-management and self-leadership) or other
coworkers (e.g., shared leadership) but relative to those with higher status—with respect to leaders. For example, followership
behaviors can include the way followers choose to take responsibility relative to leaders (e.g., “it’s not my job”), the way they
communicate with leaders (e.g., expressing or repressing opinions), their approaches to problem-solving with respect to leaders
(e.g., proactive problem-solving versus upward delegation), etc.
As described by Uhl-Bien and Pillai (2007), because the roles of leader and follower necessarily involve a status differential
(with leaders having higher status), prototypical followership behaviors must involve some form of deference to the leader—as
they say, once at least some semblance of deference is gone, so is followership (see also Rost, 1995). The degree to which followers
show deference can vary, however. Some followers may construct and enact followership in a more traditional “subordinate”
sense, demonstrated by behaviors such as reduced responsibility-taking, conformity, and reluctance to speak up, while others
may construct a more “dynamic” and “courageous” role of followership in which they see themselves more as partners in the
relationship or even co-leaders (Chaleff, 1995; Dixon & Westbrook, 2003; Uhl-Bien & Pillai, 2007).
Despite these suggestions and possibilities, we continue to lack empirical evidence regarding how individuals actually view
followership roles in organizational settings. We know little about socially constructed definitions of followership, or the cognitive
schema and contextual variables that are related to these constructions. Therefore, in the present study we examine the social
constructions individuals make when acting in a follower role.
2. Social constructions of followership
The social construction perspective posits that individuals create and interpret reality as they interact with their environments
(Berger & Luckmann, 1966). Based on the premise that social order is a human product, Berger and Luckmann (1966) suggest that
individuals are socialized to construct reality around institutionalized norms for thinking, feeling, and behaving. According to
Weick (1993), social constructions in organizations are best explained by the interaction between social schema that drive
perceptions and information processing and contextual attributes that make certain information salient to the constructor.
Schema and context do not operate in isolation (Lant & Shapira, 2000); instead, generalized schemas form the foundation for
individuals to socially construct roles and relationships within a given context (Lord & Hall, 2003). With regard to followership,
schema help us understand followership behavior in general. However, context will influence constructions around specific
followership behaviors that are appropriate or acceptable in a specific environment. In this sense, both schema and context
influence how one socially constructs a definition of followership and, by extension, how they enact the follower role. Thus when
speaking about their socially constructed definitions of leadership and followership, individuals reveal both their underlying
schema and the aspects of the context that make schematic traits and behaviors more or less appropriate (i.e., likelihood that
behaviors are enacted, or reinforced in a given context) (Weick, 1995).
With regard to social constructions of leadership, Bresnen (1995) examined the leadership schema of construction managers
and found that some leaders construct their role around decision making and the importance of being a change agent, while others
view having authority and control over followers as essential to practicing leadership. Bresnen concluded that leadership holds
a ‘multiplicity of meaning’ by individuals who occupy the position, and that variations in leaders’ behavior may be a product
of divergent schema and context-specific constructions. What is notable about Bresnen’s (1995) method is his examination of
social constructions among individuals acting in leadership roles and the ability to understand patterns of relationships between
schema, context, and behavior.
546 M.K. Carsten et al. / The Leadership Quarterly 21 (2010) 543–562
In the current study, we seek to take a similar approach by directly investigating followers’ social constructions of followership,
and investigating the followership schema and contextual variables that are related to these constructions. Given Bresnen’s finding
that leadership holds various meanings across different managers, we also expect to find differences in the way that individuals
socially construct followership. These differences may depend on both individual level followership schemas and relevant
contextual variables that operate in the followers’ organizations.
2.1. Followership schemas
Followership schemas are generalized knowledge structures that develop over time through socialization and interaction with
stimuli relative to leadership and followership (cf. Fiske & Taylor, 1991). Louis (1980) suggests that organizations may influence
these schemas by setting norms and standards of behavior for individuals in different hierarchical roles and then reinforcing those
standards. For example, there is evidence to suggest that we are socialized to view hierarchical systems such as organizations in
terms of the status inequalities (Bacharach, Bamberger, & Mundell, 1995; Ravlin & Thomas, 2005) and power differentials (Biggart &
Hamilton, 1984) that exist between individuals in various hierarchical positions. Indeed, research on the social construction of
leadership has demonstrated that individuals maintain a romanticized notion of leadership where the word leader tends to activate
a schema of heroism, notoriety, and success (e.g., Meindl & Ehrlich, 1987; Meindl et al., 1985). As a corollary to the romance of
leadership, Uhl-Bien and Pillai (2007) suggest that social schema may also contribute to the subordination of followership: the view
that followers are largely ineffectual.
The image that followers are less responsible, accountable, and effectual than leaders is reinforced by a top-down approach to
leadership that is grounded in hierarchical notions that status, power, influence, and prestige are reserved for those at the upper
echelon (Courpasson & Dany, 2003; Pearce & Manz, 2005; Wortman, 1982). Because hierarchical systems reinforce the view that
leaders have greater knowledge and expertise than followers, it is possible that subordinates create and maintain a schema of
followership that is defined by obedience, deference, silence, and powerlessness (Courpasson & Dany, 2003; Hirschhorn, 1990;
Tyler, 1997; Uhl-Bien & Pillai, 2007). For example, several lab studies have found evidence that simply assigning someone the role
of “follower” invokes a cognitive schema that aligns with the notion that leaders have more knowledge and accountability than
followers (Konst & Van Breukelen, 2005) and that followers should be deferent and obedient (Gerber, 1988; Morand, 1996).
Furthermore, research on upward communication in organizations suggests that followers often refrain from transmitting
negative information upward because of their vulnerability and lack of power (see Glauser, 1984 for a review; Cohen, 1958; Kelley,
1951). This research suggests that subordinates modify or omit information they send upward because they fear being alienated
by their leaders (Tynan, 2005), losing resources (Morrison & Milliken, 2000), damaging relationships (Milliken, Morrison, &
Hewlin, 2003; Tynan, 2005), or diminishing their mobility potential (Glauser, 1984).
Whereas these findings support the possibility that individuals maintain a schema of followership that is passive (obedient) in
nature, there is also reason to believe that followers could hold more proactive schemas in which they believe their role is to
engage more interactively with leaders (Chaleff, 1995). Followers who hold such views may believe that leadership is achieved
through mutual influence (Greene, 1975; Lowin & Craig, 1968) rather than authority and control, and see their role with leaders as
partners (Uhl-Bien, Graen, & Scandura, 2000), co-producers of leadership (Shamir, 2007), or co-leaders (Heenan & Bennis, 1999).
Research findings supporting this idea include studies showing that at least some followers use upward influence to obtain needed
resources (Allen & Porter, 1983; Kipnis, Schmidt, Price, & Sitt, 1981), speak up with ideas or solutions to problems (Van Dyne &
LePine, 1998), and challenge the status quo for the good of the organization (Morrison & Phelps, 1999).
Overall, there is strong reason to believe that followers will report different schema of followership, ranging from more
hierarchical views of followership as subordination and obedience (Konst & Van Breukelen, 2005) to more contemporary views
that followers are partners and co-producers of leadership outcomes (Graen & Uhl-Bien, 1995; Shamir, 2007). However, while
schema and prototypes provide the foundation for creating social constructions of followership, it is also important to consider
whether organizational variables (e.g., climate and leadership style) influence context-specific constructions and behavior
(Holyoak & Gordon, 1984).
2.2. Organizational context
According to Weick (1995), the context in which an individual operates will influence not only how one socially constructs
definitions of different roles (i.e., leader or follower), but also how individuals enact such roles. Thus, the context created by the
leader and the organization may influence social constructions by activating followership schema that are relevant to particular
situations and influence how individuals behave in their followership roles (cf. Bresnen, 1995).
Although there are a number of different variables that work together to create organizational context (Porter & McLaughlin,
2006), it may be that certain elements of the context will have more influence with respect to how one socially constructs
followership. In particular, organizational climate and leadership styles are two variables that may play an important role in how
individuals form followership constructions that are more passive or proactive in nature.
For example, organizations that maintain a tight bureaucracy or reinforce authoritarian leadership styles create a climate of
top-down decision making that can stifle innovation and personal initiative taking (Blau, 1968). Such contexts reinforce the notion
that leaders are more capable and competent than followers, and provide little opportunity for followers to make a substantial
contribution to organizational processes. Individuals who maintain a passive schema of followership might experience a high
degree of fit in this type of context given their existing belief that followers should be obedient and deferent in nature, and ascribe
547M.K. Carsten et al. / The Leadership Quarterly 21 (2010) 543–562
to the power and status differences typically created by bureaucratic organizations (Blass, 2000; Milgram, 1965; Ridgeway &
Walker, 1995). However, followers with proactive schema might find that bureaucratic contexts can stifle initiative taking. In
such cases they may find themselves having to socially construct their roles around the degree of proactivity that is acceptable
or achievable in their organization. For example, followers who maintain proactive schema might become frustrated with
organizations that reinforce status hierarchies and leaders who provide few opportunities for followers to contribute to the
leadership process (Berger, Ridgeway, & Zelditch, 2002). Thus, proactive followers may need to shift their definition of
followership to a modified version that involves being proactive without overstepping the role boundaries that are created by
In contrast to climates of authority and bureaucracy, an empowering climate may blur the lines between leaders and followers
and encourage constructions of followership that are more participative in nature (Collinson, 2006; Yun, Cos, & Sims, 2006). Pearce
and Manz (2005) contend that organizations with climates of empowerment and autonomy, as well as leaders who allow for
collaboration, will provide opportunities for followers to be proactive, get involved in decision making, and, in some cases, engage
in leadership-type behaviors (see also Spreitzer & Doneson, 2005). Such contexts may be defined by a climate of initiative taking
(Baer & Freese, 2003; Morrison & Phelps, 1999), ownership (Mayhew, Ashkanasy, & Bramble, 2007), and information sharing and
collective accountability (Blanchard, Carlos, & Randolph, 1999). Research on empowerment climates, for example, suggests that
organizations can positively influence job satisfaction and performance by sharing power, knowledge, and information among all
organizational members (Seibert, Silver, & Randolph, 2004).
Empowering contexts would support proactive followership schema and influence constructed definitions of followership that
involve proactive problem-solving, decision making, and personal initiative (Roberts & O’Reilly, 1974; Uhl-Bien & Pillai, 2007).
However, individuals with passive followership schema may resist opportunities to participate in the leadership process and
may subsequently construct followership around the passive behaviors that are important to them even when their leaders or
organizations call for more proactivity.
Leaders will likely play a large role in how followers perceive, and behave in these contexts. Just as an empowering work climate
may provoke more participative constructions of followership (Seibert et al., 2004), it is possible that an empowering leader might
encourage followers to engage in more proactive behaviors. Empowering leaders are said to share power with followers, thereby
granting autonomy and increasing intrinsic motivation (Spreitzer & Doneson, 2005; Thomas & Velthouse, 1990). As opposed to
more authoritarian leaders (Vroom & Mann, 1960), empowering leaders are not preoccupied with demonstrating their authority
or ruling with an iron fist; rather they provide autonomy and encouragement to followers, and share information to build efficacy
and strengthen performance (Srivastava, Bartol, & Locke, 2006).
In sum, questions regarding the role that followership schema, organizational climate and leader style play in the social
construction of followership are provocative. However, given that social constructions of followership have not been studied in the
extant literature, the relationship between schema and context in relation to social constructions and behavior remains largely
unknown. Thus, we must begin to investigate these issues by exploring social constructions of followership and uncovering the
underlying schema and contextual influences that are related to these constructions.
3. Present study
The present study uses qualitative methodology to deconstruct how followers define their roles in organizations. According to
Bresnen (1995), the goal of deconstruction is to extract the “multiplicity of meaning” from any construct or term. To accomplish
this, we employed a qualitative interviewing technique to …