Why Leaders Are Easier to Coach than Followers

BY Kate Adams – HBR.org

Followers receive very little fanfare. In a culture obsessed with leaders, we think of follower’s role as submitting, taking direction, and dutifully executing the leader’s will.

Recent research from PsychTests, however, reveals that followers may not be as compliant as we assume. In a study that measured individuals’ openness to coaching, PsychTests discovered that people who identify as followers are actually less open to coaching than people who identify as either leaders or adapters (those who are comfortable leading or following depending on the circumstances).

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Across these three groups (and 380 total respondents), followers proved least willing to take direction or criticism, least comfortable admitting their faults and weaknesses, least willing to ask for help, even when they need it, and least open to learning and improvement.

So why do they lag behind the other groups in terms of coachability? “The answer lies in their perspective—what coaching means to them,” explains Dr. Ilona Jerabek, the President of PsychTests. Most of us have trouble taking criticism. But followers in particular “seem to have a self-confidence issue. Being criticized makes them feel weak, incompetent, or incapable…. When you offer coaching or training to followers, they may take it as an indication that something is wrong and that’s why they need help.” While they may realize on some level that a manager’s desire to coach them is actually a good thing, “they still see it as an indication that ‘I’m not good enough,’” which can generate resentment.

People who identify as adapters, on the other hand, tend to see coaching as an opportunity. Adapters outscored both followers and leaders on many coachability scales. 82% of adapters actively pursue learning opportunities, compared to just 52% of followers. 91% recognize that even negative criticism can be helpful compared to just 77% of followers, and 57% of adapters seek out feedback from their managers, while only 37% of followers do so.

Should employers care about coachability? Is there a correlation between coachability and performance? PsychTests analysts think so. “In today’s businesses, people need to wear many hats,” says Jerabek. A team member who isn’t willing to learn new things, or to work outside of their job description, can bring the whole team down. “What you want is people who are capable of adapting to or growing into different roles, people who want to work on their skills and improve their performance.”

It’s worth noting that scores for coachability across all survey participants was fairly high, indicating that most people are open to coaching. Because responses were self-reported, there’s also the possibility that people over- or under-estimated their level of coachability. However, there are important lessons both for managers and individual employees in these results.

First, managers need to support their followers. Analysts at PyschTests recommend that bosses try to help followers overcome insecurity. “Help them recognize that you [want to coach them] because you see their potential,” Dr. Jerabek suggests. “Make sure they understand that your company wants to invest in them because they are worth it, that [coaching] is an opportunity rather than a punishment.” Managers who want their feedback to stick should be patient and focus on delivering criticism in a constructive way. Reassure your people that it’s OK to make mistakes and that everyone has weaknesses

Second, companies need to do a better job of communicating the reasons for coaching or training, Jerabek adds. Make sure employees know that they aren’t being singled out for bad performance but that coaching is an investment in their development.

Third, hire adapters. It’s advantageous to have employees who are versatile, can both lead and follow, and are open to feedback and learning. How do you identify them? Make sure you ask for examples that demonstrate a willingness to hear criticism during the interview process. Most people will tell you what you want to hear when you ask for this, so it’s important to go beneath the surface. Inquire whether candidates liked school. Do they enjoy trainings? And pay attention to non-verbal cues. Some people may cringe while others will respond with wide-eyed enthusiasm about learning experiences.

Lastly, don’t count out older workers. The PsychTests study also revealed that the older we get, the more open to coaching and the less susceptible to “know-it-all-ism” we become. Older workers tend to be more confident in their abilities and less likely to take criticism personally—something we could all stand to get better at.

As for those resistant followers, Jerabek recommends keeping in mind that nobody is perfect. “In order to benefit from coaching, you need to be willing to put your ego aside and accept guidance and criticism, as painful as it may be.” And learn from the leaders and adapters of the world: asking for help is not a sign of weakness. On the contrary, PsychTests data show that those who achieve their goals often turn to others for help and advice and are quick to admit when they don’t know something. They also actively seek feedback and opportunities to stretch themselves. Self-awareness, Jerabek says, is the key. We must see our strengths and weaknesses clearly in order to develop—and advance in our careers.

It’s not a bad thing to be a follower. In many roles and situations, someone who takes direction is exactly what an organization needs. But closing off to criticism, coaching, and self-improvement is a bad thing—especially from the perspective of organizations and hiring managers. PsychTests created this survey in response to requests from clients who were looking for a tool to assess coachability among job candidates. So the next time you’re up for a promotion, applying for a new position, or responding to criticism from your boss, remember: people who are open to feedback, willing to ask for help, and eager to learn new things are in demand—and are more likely to achieve their goals.