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Employees & Family Roles: More Similar than You Think

You can't be heard if someone isn't listening. Similarly, you can't be in charge if people aren't following. Harvard University JFK School of Government lecturer Barbara Kellerman is releasing a new book next month about followers, Followership: How Followers Are Creating Change and Changing Leaders. (You can read an adaptation in the latest Harvard Business Review.) Kellerman describes five types of followers in an organization that are strikingly similar to roles in a family system. "Isolates" are detached and practically invisible to the organization, only doing what is needed in order to get by and with zero enthusiasm. "Bystanders" will go along passively as long as it serves their best interest, but are not motivated to engage. "Participants" invest their time and energy into their jobs and the organization's mission and can be strong supporters of the leadership or can create dissension by opposing leadership. "Activists" feel even stronger one way or the other and can work on behalf of their leaders or work hard to undermine them. Finally, "diehards" are rare, deeply devoted and prepared to go down for their cause. She suggests that whistleblowers can even be a type of diehard.

Family roles that are similar include the hero child. This is usually the first born and the one that takes the lead, accepts responsibility and is often the overachiever and star in the family. There is also the rebel, which is often the second born child. This role gets filled by rebelling against the hero and acting out in self-destructive ways. The next child may fill the role of the clown or mascot and is the person that tries to get the group together with humor. Their focus is on keeping the family bond united. The last child role in the family literature is the lost child. This one doesn't have an active role to fill and becomes almost invisible or agreeable to the point of not voicing their needs or desires.

How are these similar? Notice the continuum of participation. The hero child might be more like the diehard, activist or participant (or leader!) that steps us, takes the lead and derives satisfaction from doing a great job. Rebelling against the leadership can be indicative of both a hero and a rebel (depending on the leadership). Bystanders, and to some degree participants, can be like the clown/mascot and get involved when it serves their best interest (status quo). The lost child has obvious linkages to the isolates.

The theory behind the family roles is that one role gets filled by one child and squeezes the other children out, leaving them to find different roles. In other words, there's only room for one hero, so children find a way to differentiate themselves. Traditional hierarchical structures (in families and organizations) can reinforce the rigidity of these roles. Think of family heirlooms and legacies that have been reserved for the first born...or the big corner office for top performers. Often a healthy solution in a family is to cultivate the sharing of roles by rewarding the "hero" in each child. Give quality time and attention to each child and recognize their unique talents. In an organization, everyone can be given a voice by allowing employees to share their insights in a safe way (via satisfaction surveys, anonymous comments & suggestions, team meetings, open-door policies, etc.). In addition, in large organizations randomized coffee chats (via a lottery type system) can be instituted that unites leadership with different employees across the vertical and horizontal lines of the organization. Like good parenting, equal opportunity to access of being heard might foster improved team relations and positive participation among all role-players.


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Evelyn Wangari

Thank for sharing this post.

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