There are an incredible number of resources about leadership, but there are comparatively few about “followership.” It makes sense that leaders require followers, right? Since that’s the case, what dynamics come into play in forming effective teams of followers?
Google has done a good bit of research into what constitutes good leadership and management. In 2013, they decided to investigate the other side of the coin and look at followership. About one out of six employees at Google is considered a manager – your family owned business probably has a greater ratio of employees per manager – and researchers delved into what makes for effective followers and, by extension, effective teams.
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The researchers’ assumption was that they would find a “perfect mix of individual traits and skills necessary for a stellar team – take one Rhodes Scholar, two extroverts, one engineer who rocks, and a PhD,” according to an article from the World Economic Forum. Their assumption was incontrovertibly wrong! The secret to creating a high-performance team has little to do with the individuals who compose it and much more to do with the dynamics of the team members. High-performing teams exhibited five characteristics:

  1. Psychological safety. Team members feel safe to take risks and be vulnerable in front of each other.
  2. Dependability. Team members get things done on time and meet the organization’s standard for strong performance.
  3. Structure and clarity. Team members have clear roles, plans, and goals.
  4. Meaning. Work is personally important to team members.
  5. Impact. Team members think their work matters and creates change.

Among the five characteristics, you are no doubt wondering which was the most important. The researchers found that psychological safety – “the ability to be bold and take risks without worrying that your team members will judge you”– was far and away the most important ingredient.
We know what you’re thinking: “You’re talking about Google, a public company worth many billions of dollars. What’s this got to do with my family business? There’s nothing in common between my company and Google.” That’s where you’re wrong! Think about it: in a family business, isn’t psychological safety, both in the context of the business and the family, critically important? If you have ever observed that family or team members are reluctant to speak up, are reluctant to take initiative, or are always seeking approval of the patriarch or other authority figure, it’s very likely that the organization has a low level of psychological safety. Team members worry about how their decisions will be viewed by other members of the family or management. They may have previously experienced second-guessing or felt like they were victims of 20/20 hindsight. They feel they can’t afford to make a mistake because others may seize upon the error, no matter how insignificant, and use it to hammer them at some later date.
In the context of a family business, psychological safety has another important component: trust. And trust, about which we have written many times, is often in short supply.