Trust in leader-follower relationships

8th March 2023

Author: Richard Oloruntoba Ph.D., AIMM

Richard Oloruntoba photo

Introduction and background

Leader-follower relations have increasingly been a focus of research in leadership studies (Popper & Mayseless, 2007; Kark & Van Dijk, 2019; Alegbeleye & Kaufman, 2020; Plachy & Smunt, 2022). Studies of leadership have focused on a diverse range of contexts such as the corporate private sector (Alvesson, 2019; Li et al., 2020; Saha et al., 2020), the public sector such as healthcare (Till et al., 2020; Nicola et al., 2020), education (Bjugstad et al. 2006; Harris et al., 2019), higher education (Bryman, 2007; Akanji et al., 2020) and political contexts (De Gennaro, 2019; Ghazal Aswad, 2019; Drezner, 2020; Schneiker, 2020).

Often, implicit and explicit aims of research on leadership have to do with finding out the factors that contribute to effective and successful leadership as regards sustainable organisational performance and outcomes (e.g. Ilyas et al., 2020). Initially, studies have tended to be leader-centric, asking questions such as: Are leaders born or made i.e., the Great Man Theory (Borgatta et al., 1963; Organ, 1996), after which studies evolved into focusing on leadership styles (Sousa & Rocha, 2019; Gandolfi & Stone, 2018), leadership skills (Zenger et al., 2019; Guzman et al., 2020), leader communications (Johnson, 2018; Men et al., 2020), leader charisma (House et al., 1990; Steyrer, 1998; Awamleh & Gardner, 1999), leadership traits (Uslu, 2019), qualities (Godwin, 2019), behaviours (Breevaart & Zacher, 2019), and situation-dependent leadership (Larsson & Vinberg, 2010; Buehler et al., 2020).

However, research attention has more recently expanded to followership. This is because it takes effective leader-follower relations and effective leader-member-exchanges for leadership to be effective. It also takes effective leader-follower relations and exchanges for organisations to achieve their performance goals on a range of internal and external measures on a sustainable and ethical basis. Hence, research questions arose such as: Does good leadership rely on good followership? Can leaders succeed with bad followers? What are the determinants of effective leader–member exchanges? Is subordinate performance positively associated with higher quality exchanges? Do trusted leaders perform better?

The field of leadership research has thus expanded to investigations of followers (Kelley, 2008; Uhl-Bien et al., 2009, 2014; Bastadoz & Van Vugt, 2019), and asking related questions such as: Why followers who are attracted to leaders feel that some leaders are more attractive than others? Do we each have an inherent need to be led or to follow leaders (Popper, 2012)? Can followers shape their leaders? Why would individuals relinquish their autonomy and set aside their personal goals to follow those of another individual, the leader? What role does ingratiation to the leader play?

Hence, the focus on followers continue and arguments have been developed and presented that deal with understanding the primary micro-foundations of effective followership. For instance, the evolutionary basis for followership through emotional attachment to the leader by the follower (Van Vugt, 2006; Van Vugt et al., 2008; Castelnovon et al., 2017). The core argument being that effective and trusting followership is anchored in the bio-evolutionary phylogenetic origins and roots of the follower (Van Vugt, 2006; Van Vugt et al., 2008; Castelnovon et al., 2017). In other words, followers are inclined, motivated and enabled to trust `stronger and wiser figures’ who can provide followers with security and protection and with knowledge and practices on how to safely and successfully navigate life, and cope with adaptive challenges (Fonagy & Allison, 2014; Castelnovon et al., 2017). Such genetically controlled emotional aspects of leader–follower relations reflect the attachment dynamics of infants and children with their caregivers, and that followers trusting their leaders is a crucial variable in predicting followers’ choice of leaders, and predicting the impact of leaders (Lapierre & Carsten, 2014; Mayseless & Popper, 2019; Edwards, 2021).

In this regard, researchers have developed a diverse range of complimentary perspectives, theories and concepts on factors that lead to effective leader-follower relations and effective leader-member-exchanges within organisational contexts in addition to trust. These have for instance included the motivation and values of the followership, and whether followers trust their leader (Bjugstad et al. 2006). Greenleaf (1970) coined the term servant-leadership and stressed the importance of leaders serving their followers through active problem solving, and followers being effective and good followers. Effective and good followers take direction well, and are competent, committed and effective in their roles. Effective followers are just as important to organisational success as their leaders (Chaleff, 2009).

Furthermore, on the followership side of leader-follower relations is whether followers perceive their leader as authentically serving them and caring for them within a leadership process (Greenleaf, 1970; Shamir, 2007). Other literature on followership has similarly stressed the importance of leaders inspiring their followers through developing a trusting relationship with their followers (Hayes and Comer, 2010; Zuhlke, 2019). Overall, attachment theory through trust seems to explain the often strong emotionally trusting ties between followers and leaders particularly at times of crisis and uncertainty (Pillai, 1996; Popper & Mayseless, 2003; Harms, 2011).

Recent findings by Mayseless and Popper (2019) stress that leader support of followers, care, empathy and competence are major antecedents of developing trust in followers as well as the intelligence and honesty of the leader. As a result, caring leaders who are also perceived as competent are necessary and fundamental to building trust in leader–follower relationships. Mayseless and Popper (2019) also suggested that when followers sense figures who are capable of addressing their core adaptive needs, i.e. those who are caring and competent —trust in such figures is activated and followers turn to such figures for comfort and protection while feeling more secure. Followers also tend to follow that figure, comply with his/her demands, and learn from the figure more easily and more quickly when compared with others. The question then is can leaders really deliver on these high character callings, caring for people and being honest? What if the leaders themselves have not experienced care, empathy and honesty in their lived experience? How can they then give what they do not have?

Emerging and future research and summary

Studies of leadership, leader-follower relations and followership are interesting and multi-dimensional. Studies have evolved rapidly, and continue to evolve in different directions in a rapidly changing world. Currently, studies of leadership in the context of digitalisation is emerging strongly as digitalisation and technological change shapes organisations, the work environment and work processes (Cortellazzo et al., 2019; Birasnav & Bienstock, 2019; Pozzi et al., 2023). Likewise, studies of leadership and generational differences within the workforce in organisations is taking root (Rudolph et al., 2018). Research on leaders and sustainability innovation to address the grand challenges of taking global environmental, social and climate action is also growing (George et al., 2016; Fitzgerald, 2020; Arici & Uysal, 2022).

An important aspect of this development is leadership in the context of sustainable production and consumption of which supply chain leadership styles and their influence on supply chain practices is increasingly coming on to the research agenda (Clifford-Defee et al., 2010; Gosling et al., 2016;). The need for inter-organisational management and leadership in a supply chain context becomes crucial as we need leaders with the ability to influence the actions, behaviours and performance of their supply chain partners (Chen et al., 2017; Ojha et al., 2018; Centobelli et al., 2018; Chen et al., 2021). Thus, we need more insightful leadership and followership research. For example, on leadership and trust within the context of global and regional supply chains.

Overall, as governments, practitioners, academics and researchers make progress in addressing the sustainable development goals (SDGs), practical leadership skills, competency, trust and moral character would also be increasingly important for success. Hence, we would love to see important and interesting new research from future authors in these areas.

Richard Oloruntoba Ph.D., AIMM
Associate Professor in Supply Chain Management
School of Management & Marketing
Faculty of Business and Law
Curtin University
Kent Street, Bentley, WA 6152
Western Australia

[email protected]

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