The Difficult Follower – Is it You?

By Lisa Petrilli

Steve Woodruff and I decided to focus on the topic of “the difficult follower” at this week’s #LeadershipChat on February 1st.  In preparation for the topic, and in thinking about my own personal experiences both leading and following, I of course had to look in the mirror and ask myself when I’d been a difficult follower.

I think there are two, distinctively different ways to look at the question:

  • Am I a difficult follower?
  • As a leader, am I difficult to follow?

Let’s take a closer look at the first question and consider what constitutes a difficult follower:

1. They don’t agree with the leader’s vision.

In this case, the difficult follower is resisting the impetus to be in the same boat with the leader, rowing in the same direction.  They simply don’t want to go where the leader is taking them.

In my experience I’ve seen people resist silently through their communications but loudly through their work.  In other cases I’ve seen team members fully support the vision through their work but build up layers of resentment, anger and other emotions in the process.  This leads to another indication of a difficult follower…

2. Emotional barriers prevent them from following the leader.

In some cases they have built up anger and resentment toward the leader as suggested above, or perhaps there is a rivalry of sorts with lingering jealousy or distrust.  Regardless of the cause or the particular emotional barrier, this leads to a toxic environment for the entire team if not addressed head-on.

3. They are frustrated by a lack of direction.

This is, in essence, a mixture of the first two barriers to followership.  In this case, it’s not that they disagree with the leader’s vision, they simply don’t see the leader as having a vision for them to follow, and this leads to emotional barriers of stress and frustration. 

This one is critical because without a lack of direction from above you have the added challenge of not fully understanding how your own performance will be judged.  So, even though you may be working incredibly hard for the company and want it to succeed, frustration can mount from even the most respectful intentions.  This leads to another driver of difficult followership…

4. Uncertainty plagues their role.

I remember early in my career at Baxter a voicemail going out from an executive in the Office of the CEO (who was expected to be the CEO’s successor) to every employee in a non-manufacturing role.  It was in regard to a restructuring effort that would affect every sales and marketing person along with the way we represented the larger company to our customers. It ended with a statement, “The train is leaving the station and everyone needs to be on board or you’re getting left behind.”

You can probably imagine the degree of uncertainty that this statement led to, especially within the sales ranks. 

Uncertainty left unchecked leads to fear.  The restructuring never worked – although if handled and communicated properly it might have had a chance – and the executive left the company.

5. They don’t trust the leader

Plain and simple.

Now, let’s move chairs and look at this question from a leadership perspective…are you difficult to follow?

1. Do you have a vision and have you clearly communicated it to your team?

If not, you’ll need to do so in order for them to be equipped to follow you.

And – let me state this as clearly as I can – A LIST OF ANNUAL OBJECTIVES GIVEN TO YOUR TEAM IN A POWERPOINT DECK IS NOT A VISION!  Ok, thank you, I feel better now…moving on…

As a leader, it’s “on you” to ensure a vision exists and to be its key steward. 

2. Have you explained to your team members the WIIFM of that vision?

Do they understand what’s in it for them in regard to moving toward that vision – not simply from a pay or bonus perspective but from the perspective of how working toward this vision will be valuable to them in their careers or for their teams? Are you positioning and resourcing them for success? If there is a disconnect, have you talked about it openly and take emotion out of the conversation?

3. Are there emotional barriers between you and your followers?

Ask yourself what role you’ve played in building these barriers and address them head-on.

4. Are you feeding uncertainty or fear?

Take a close look at your communications strategy and ask yourself:

  • Am I communicating frequently enough?
  • Am I communicating clearly enough?
  • Where I recognize uncertainty, am I doing everything possible to address it, to be open with my teams and to be fully transparent?

5. Are you trustworthy and a values-based leader?

What did I leave out, and do these indicators resonate with you?

Please share in the comments and join Steve Woodruff and me, along with the brilliant #LeadershipChat Community on Tuesday evening, February 1st at 8:00 pm Eastern Time as we debate this topic and share insights and experiences – you won’t want to miss it!

You can find me on Twitter at @LisaPetrilli and on LinkedIn at I look forward to seeing you there!You can also eMail me anytime at [email protected]

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Photo is Do Not Even Bring Sandals by fradaveccs.


  1. I’ve really had to watch myself lately in terms of being a difficult follower. It’s not my natural role, but it’s so easy to sink into when you are surrounded by people who are.

    One observation I’ve noticed is that often the lack of vision from the leader then sparks emotional barriers and disagreement with any vision that leader may soon come up with. Yes, it’s the leader’s fault that there was no vision, but once it is given, I’ve seen many followers balk at anything thrown out because they’ve sunk deeply into the frustration.

    Given that every leader also has to follow, I think the leading follower in these instances has to be the one to break the cycle, rally the other followers and say “Hey, we’ve finally got a vision. Let’s go chase it down with everything we’ve got.”

    Looks like I’ve got some work to do this week ….


    • Brett,

      I fully understand where you’re coming from and I think it shows a tremendous amount of leadership to recognize the need to step up to the plate and “lead the followers” as you described. You don’t necessarily “have some work to do” – it sounds like, instead, you’re “choosing” to take on some work – but it will probably feel very rewarding for all the right reasons! I wish you all the best with your efforts and hope they lead down an exciting path! I also hope we’ll see you at #LeadershipChat tomorrow night – perhaps you can share more about your experiences with the group.

  2. Lisa, what a great post! You have done a wonderful job of distilling this complex subject about the role of leadership and employee buy-in to something succinct and on target.. I wrote on it not too long ago myself at: I’d love to know what you think.

    I love your content. You get it while so many other leadership blogs don’t.
    Craig Juengling´s last blog post ..Accounting Executive and Client

    • Craig, that is *quite* a compliment! Thank you – it means a lot to me. I read your post on vision and loved your focus on how leaders must bring it to life for their employees – *and* the reminder that it’s the role of managers and supervisors to carry the message to their teams as well! Bravo – and thank you so much for being here and taking the time to share your thoughts. :)

  3. Great article, Lisa! I would be surprised if any leader could say that they haven’t filled both sets of shoes at some point in time. I know that I have – and every time I was living that reality was a great learning experience.

    For me, I think that trust and open communication, while being authentically who YOU are, are the foundational pieces to being a great leader – and a great follower.
    Georgia´s last blog post ..How to Get More Women Leaders

    • Thank you, Georgia! And thank you so much for sharing your perspective on the core of it – trust, open communication and being true to who you are – eloquently said. I’m so grateful to have you as a reader, Georgia!

  4. Lisa, Good list and worth considering from post sides, following and leading. On the leadership side, in addition to the what’s in it for them, I’m for pulling back the curtain a little and letting folks see what it is you do as the leader. Part of that combats distrust, fear and uncertainty. It also assures followers that leaders actually do a JOB, demonstrates values, gives them direction more than a mind-numbing PowerPoint bullets. FWIW.
    Davina K. Brewer´s last blog post ..Think your business is ready for marketing Think again

    • Davina,

      Great thoughts about “pulling the curtain back” as another way to combat those emotional barriers and the uncertainty as well. Thank you so much for sharing them & for being here. I hope to see you tonight on #LeadershipChat – would love to learn more from your insights!

  5. Lisa –
    Excellent Post – I have read over and over again!

    This subject is so timely for me. This past week, I was thinking about me as a follower and questioning my ability to follow – I truly asked myself, “Am I A Difficult Follower” or “Is It Poor Leadership that I am asked to follow” – this is an excellent question that everyone, especially leaders, need to reflect on. Sometimes, and I am guilty of this, I question leadership (and I realize it is okay to question leadership) – perhaps thinking that I know it better – does that make me a difficult follower? Or does the problem lie with the leader? (As you pointed out)

    I think another way to describe the DIFFICULT FOLLOWER is the RELUCTANT FOLLOWER – those that are compliant but not committed. (And there is a BIG DIFFERENCE) From my experience, this is a BIG ISSUE in organizations. Eventually, that lack of commitment will show its face, and that is where the problem escalates. In this case, I truly believe the vision has not been clear enough – concise enough and they don’t understand how the vision benefits them.

    Your part about VISION being more than a PowerPoint Presentation is right on – made me smile. How many times have you seen the VISION outlined in meeting, pinned to a corkboard, taped to a executive door, but have no further meaning!

    I will add that CONSISTENCY in following through on that VISION from the leader is Key. For example, part of the vision encompass strong customer service or clear and concise communication, yet, time and time again, the leader of the team falters in this area – why should other team members take this vision seriously. Does the leader hold themselves to their own VISION?

    Thanks Lisa – an excellent post!


    • Steve,

      I’m downright honored that you’d read it more than once! Thank you.
      Kudos to you for asking these questions of yourself already. And yes, I think we are all guilty at various points in our career and for various reasons. After all, we’re human.

      Great insight about compliance without commitment – is this a form of being a difficult follower? Great question… I hope you’ll be there tonight to raise it and see what the community thinks. And you’re right about consistency in regard to the leader – alignment with values and vision would be another way of thinking of this – and “walking the talk.”

      Did you see Steve’s post on this topic as well? You’ll want to check it out before tonight because he gets at the issue of reluctance in a stronger way. All the best!

  6. Awhile back, Kate Nasser wrote a post about the changing world of middle management. She talked about how with all of the economic turmoil, a lot of people who had been with companies for a long time as “one of the guys” were suddenly promoted to a management position to fill a gap. Now they are cracking down on the crowd that used to be their friends.

    I mention this because I think this is a kind of new scenario in which people are poor followers or are hard to follow. How do you make that transition, as so many are having to do, from “one of us” to “Hi, I’m one step up from you now!”? It’s really tough on all parties, and it probably creates another layer of resentment from the person who was promoted up to his or her leaders.

    Great idea for a chat! :)
    Margie Clayman (@margieclayman)´s last blog post ..Happy New Year All Over Again

    • Margie,

      Great example of what would lead to this conundrum – thank you for sharing that. I think this is a very difficult situation, as is the one where someone very junior is leading a team made up of more senior leaders in other parts of the company. In these cases I think ensuring the team members that you are postioning them and resourcing them for success is key – and then living that.

      Hope to see you tonight!

  7. Vision & Trust two things a process or a technology can not fix, but how many hours and dollars are invested in these two areas. Have to address the ART of business to be effective. Too many times we put in required in front of a process and think we get adoption & effectiveness.

    Lisa does a good job pointing out both sides. Now what happens if the employees are the only ones that have to change & not the leader what happens to the leader when they get a talking too? Does the leader above them follow up with their employees to see if there is a change. This is sometimes I see a huge disconnect.

    Thank you Lisa very good constructive view of this messy world of leading people and following leaders.
    Keith Privette´s last blog post ..The Social Business Swirling in my head

    • Thank you, Keith – and I love how you talk about it as a messy world – because it most certainly is! :) Great example of the disconnect. Will you be at #LeadershipChat tonight to raise it? All the very best!

      • I did not know about this chat, but I do now! Have you added to my curated list of chats

        Thank you for the reply and yes messy is an understatement. I struggle with how much can you say to a leader without being in that difficult category and if I don’t say anything to help fix how am I being a good leader?

        Everyday is a learning process. I will most likely be stopping by more often, if that is ok with you!
        Keith Privette´s last blog post ..The Social Business Swirling in my head

  8. Lisa,
    It seems like the points you mentioned occur due to a failure to effectively communicate. Communication is so much more than just words coming out of your mouth. Leaders must gain the trust of their followers and be willing to listen. They must seek to know their followers concerns and the barriers they see. When leaders actively work to communicate better the gap between the follower and the leader will be narrowed. Thanks, Brandon
    Brandon Jones´s last blog post ..How to Climb the Corporate Ladder

    • Brandon,

      I couldn’t agree with you more – trust is so vital to the relationship. So often it’s what they don’t say that does the most damage… Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts here – I really appreciate it!


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