TTLS S1 8 | Toxic Followership

 

Dr. Wendy Edmonds is an Assistant Professor in the College of Business at Bowie State University. Dr. Edmonds coins the definition of Toxic Followership as the manipulation of individuals by a trusted party who transforms the mindset of others, whereby individuals become an extension of a toxic leaders’ moral decay. This type of behavior leads to destruction and, in some cases, death.

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What is Toxic Followership? Learning From Expert, Dr. Wendy Edmonds

We have Wendy Edmonds, who is an Assistant Professor in the College of Business at Bowie State University, the oldest Historically Black College and University in Maryland. She is Chair of the Followership Learning Community at the International Leadership Association, the largest followership research and practitioner group in the world.

Recognized internationally as a scholar-practitioner in Followership, an emerging field of study in organizational leadership. Dr. Edmonds is the author of inTOXICating Followership scheduled for release in March 2021. Her research focused on the lived experiences of victims of domestic violence in relation to Followership and the impact of spirituality. Let’s get to it.

I am so excited. We have Dr. Wendy Edmonds here. How are you?

I’m well. I’m happy to be here.

Welcome. As we get started, one of the things I want to bestow upon readers is to know about your story. Where are you from, what you’ve been working on and where you’ve been? That’s helpful context.

I am in the DC area. I’m located in Maryland. Probably ten minutes down the road, I’m on the DC line so that works out well for me. I am an Assistant Professor at Bowie State University and I have been working on conducting research using toxic followership as a framework. That’s what I did during my dissertation and that’s what I’ve continued to do. Understanding why in the world do people follow bad leaders. What better time to even have this conversation so I appreciate it.

I want to dive into your research but before that, let’s dive up a little bit. As you think about that toxic leader, talk to us about your connection or any experience you have in that area.

I don’t think there’s any place I’ve been that I have not had an experience with a toxic leader. One that comes to mind is when I was working for an organization and I noticed that every time my supervisor came in, he would speak to everyone personally and make it his business to speak to them except for me. I was the only African-American in the department. It was very interesting that I was dismissed and it was deliberate.

Whenever there was any type of function, I was ignored. He could come to me and give me projects but beyond that, there was no conversation. When it came time for working hard and working on weekends, I showed up but it was all dismissed. I tried to ask the question just to talk to him about it and he was not having the conversation. I ended up having to go to HR to have a discussion with them and see why in the world is this happening.

Not only did I notice it but everyone else did. When it’s not them then you might be the one who’s overly sensitive, “He’s a nice guy. He’s not bad. Perhaps you’re overly sensitive.” That wasn’t the case at all. What HR did was pull us in together. He never denied it. His reason for ignoring me was because he said that he had never been exposed to African-Americans.

He grew up in a place where there were no African-Americans. He never had to see them and be in the same spaces. I don’t know what he thought he was doing when he came here to the DC area because it wasn’t like home. What did he expect? We spent time and they coached him. That was a good turnaround from toxic leadership because he made my life miserable.

When you were going through that, your research is on followership. You’re in the follower’s seat now. What did you go through when you experienced that? What came to mind? What were you thinking?

I tried to talk to my other coworkers and say, “Do you see what I see?” Again, they would say, “You’re overly sensitive. He’s a nice guy. Just ignore it.” How long do you ignore it? For 6, 7, 8 months to a year, I ignored it and it never got any better. That was time for me to definitely go to HR and have that conversation.

I’m glad you lifted that up because I do want to say sometimes people are negligible. They’re very indifferent about if they go to HR or not. I worked at HR departments in my career and when those things came to us, we mitigated and looked at how to have those conversations and how to bring the best out of people. The one thing I want to point out is he may have been ignorant. It wasn’t purposeful to harm but it did evoke harm.

It did and other people witnessed it. Even though they were saying I’m overly sensitive, they never thought it was their duty to say, “This is wrong. Why are you doing it?” No one thought it was important for him to be told by people that look like him and otherwise that, “Maybe you shouldn’t be doing this. Look at how you’re making her feel.”

The power of the bystander is they can influence one way or the other. They can ignore the bad behavior by the leader as it continues, or they can stop it.

We see it and then they just allow it. It goes to another point I wanted to lift up. It’s interesting how a lot of our coworkers want to be our “friends” and yet we don’t get that support when we need it.

It’s for so many reasons. They don’t want to upset the apple cart because they’re living this good life, “You’re the one with the problem. I’m good. We’re good with him. It’s you.” The other part is if it gets bad enough then maybe you’ll leave and go away. You’re dealing with that because these are people that you talk to, work with and laugh with at Christmas parties or potlucks.

With that being said, have you had any experience after that working with people who have been in those same situations or similar environments? Have you had any experience with that?

I’m the one who loves to have the discussion. I like to have the conversation with people. I want to be the one to say, “This isn’t right. Let’s fix this. You can’t do this.” I like to try to nip it in the bud. When I see things, I confront them. Everybody else doesn’t and everybody else doesn’t always like that. In situations where you see that things are wrong, you try to tell the person, “Don’t follow what they’re asking you to do because you are enabling them to continue their bad behavior and they’re controlling you,” and not to let that happen.

There are different things that you can do within an organization. There are always protocols to follow and ways of influencing the leader to do things differently. As a follower, you encourage other followers to do that. Even from a coaching perspective, what do you do in your job? As a coach, you make sure that you bring them to action. They have to make the decision as to how to do that.

You’ve lifted up two points I wanted to call into. Being on college campuses, we talk a lot about bystander intervention training when it comes to Title IX, Sexual Harassment and Sexual Assault. Where were the bystanders intervening in a microaggression type of situation? Where was that same action and energy?

Bystanders, for different reasons, will do just that. Let’s talk about the power of the bystander. Think about this. They can influence one way or the other. They can ignore the bad behavior by the leader as it continues or they have the power to stop it. One of the things that I think about that comes to mind is the #MeToo Movement.

The #MeToo Movement started because this was a way to share stories from women who had been victims of sexual assault, sexual abuse and sexual harassment. They’re sharing their stories and that turned into a global platform for them to do that but it affected the greater society. They prompted a change from a social and a legal perspective and there’s a report. The report is conducted by a challenge in 2019.

In that report in 2019, they had the highest number of CEOs to leave organizations because of the pressure from the #MeToo Movement. It put the lens on the CEOs. As a leader, are you acting in an ethical manner? Are you holding up the values of the organization? Suddenly, they were scrutinized. That was pressure from the outside and the bystanders couldn’t do it anymore. They could no longer enable. They were on blast. They could no longer enable that bad leaders’ behavior.

I’ve never thought about that as the power of the bystanders. You said 2019 was the year.

When you look that up, that’s it indeed.

You lifted up two things. I heard something about followers don’t give up the power you have. You can ignore or step up. We got to find ways to do so.

TTLS S1 8 | Toxic Followership

Toxic Followership: In situations where you see that things are wrong, try to tell the person, don’t follow what they’re asking you to do because you are enabling them to continue.

 

Let’s think about followers for a minute. I’m talking about followers in this perspective of businesses and the #MeToo Movement. Kellerman defines that as the subordinate position where they have less authority, less power and they are subjected to that leader. In that position, we tend to think that you can’t do anything because of where you are in the organization but you do.

There are more followers than leaders in any organization. Power is just in numbers. If we don’t take them from a passive mindset and bring them into active to understanding their power, using their power to influence or walk away if necessary, whatever the case may be but to at least unleash your power.

We do know in organizations. There are different forms of power. You got like, “I’m the influencer. I got the power to fire you.” What people miss or place in their minds is different power doesn’t mean you’re powerless. What do you think about the followers’ forms of power? Tell me more about that and where can people find it? Where can people find their source?

We’re always looking at the power dynamics in any relationship, especially in business. Where does that come from? Sometimes, people don’t have power. It is perceived power. The followers turn over their power to the leader just because they perceive this person because they are in a certain position and they hold a certain status because of pedigree.

It could be for any number of reasons because we’ve been raised to do that. That is a challenge. What followers have to understand is that if they take the approach in helping the leaders to understand that no matter what project we have to complete and how bad you want us to meet the bottom line number and stay out of the red, we need to make sure that co-creation is the active word upfront.

It’s a symbiotic relationship. It isn’t you over me. It isn’t the leader over the follower. Some people don’t even like the word follower. They don’t even like the term follower but that’s what we’re using. When you look at the position that they are in, they’re not the ones who are the decision-makers but they can surely influence those who are.

In a lot of cases, the leader is not even the one that knows the answer but they sometimes act as they do.

I’ve seen in organizations where people with this perceived authority act and behave in such a manner that it’s believable that they have that power. That’s very scary.

It’s the power of confidence. We didn’t lay it by confidence and not anything else. How safe does that feel if you talk about psychological safety?

Not at all.

I’m fascinated by your research contributions. The burning question is why did you choose to focus on followers? I see a lot of research talk about the leader and things like that. Tell us more about that.

Don’t see yourself as someone who doesn’t have power because you are not in the leadership role.

When you look at the research, the sheer number of articles and books that are on research is amazing. There isn’t half that number for followership. I didn’t even think of that part first. It was an incident that happened during the time I was preparing for my internship during my dissertation. Soledad O’Brien was doing a documentary on the Jonestown survivors. I remember looking at the TV like, “Survivors? I didn’t even know there were survivors.”

I watched that. I study followership and look at everything through that lens. You’re never the same. I’ve been in school for so long that my husband even watching the movie says, “You don’t have to analyze this,” but that’s what I’m doing. I decided that it was time for me to find out why in the world would people follow bad leaders? We see it all the time but what’s behind that? I’ve been on that quest ever since.

I suppose the way to think about it is for every bad leader, there are followers.

The thing about the Jonestown massacre, I’m not the first person to interview any of the survivors because they have been interviewed. I am the first to hold focus groups with the survivors. That’s a very different combination. That’s a very different ballgame as opposed to the individual interviews. I did hold some individual interviews as well but it’s the nature of focus groups and the richness of the conversation that comes across in a focus group that you cannot get in an individual interview setting.

The beauty of me doing this was I did travel to California and I did go to underground, undisclosed locations to host the focus groups. What I noticed in doing that is several years later, if you listen to them, there are parts of their lives that are missing. They were in the same place, the same time, the same events going on.

Yet, the conversation for each one is different. Their take on what happened is different because of their position in the organization, their age during that time and the fact that they were able to put pieces together back in their lives like, “I was so-and-so and this is what happened.” I said, “I didn’t know that.” All of that took place during the span of the focus groups. That kind of magic cannot happen.

When we go through trauma, our brains sometimes misform memories in a process called disassociation. Do you feel like that’s a part of that where they were forming memories from a coping mechanism or they just forgot because it was many years ago?

I think they just didn’t know. Age is different. Some were children some were adults and some didn’t know what had happened, like where this person was or when this event took place. For instance, Jim Jones would make people box and fight each other. If he thought that there was anything that he needed someone punished for, he would make someone fight this person.

That makes no sense at all but everybody perceived that differently. When you talk about the same incident, everybody has their own take on it. Time is very interesting because we say time heals all wounds. Time does heal but the wound still exists. They learn to deal with it and live with those wounds.

There are various forms of coping and such. I imagine you probably saw differences based on their experience if they were a child at the time or an adult.

One of the things that I remember from being in the room was, I thought, “This is really something else.” We knew that it would most likely be emotional so I had to prepare for that but not doing it in this focus group. Three minutes into the focus group, there was emotion. I just had to let it happen because there’s nothing else to do. The chair of my dissertation committee says, “Here, you could have followed up with another question in here,” and I was trying to explain, “You don’t understand. There’s a level of sensitivity that must take place. It’s not about sensationalism. This is about research.”

That makes a lot of sense to me. I totally understand. Going to that point of the power that followers have, was there anything you learned about when toxic leaders aren’t at the helm? What can followers do based on your research and knowing?

TTLS S1 8 | Toxic Followership

Toxic Followership: We tend to think that you can’t do anything because of where you are in the organization, but you do. There are more followers than leaders in any organization.

 

I defined followership differently. Followership is the manipulation of an individual by someone that you know and trust. They transformed the whole mindset to the point that you become the conduit for the toxic leaders and moral decay. You become the person that behaves as they do. There were comments where they said, “I wanted to be like Jim Jones. I wanted to be like him so much.”

You look at all the bad things about him but it’s the power that he had to control people. That’s some of the things that they saw. Followers, in that perspective, are very different because, in the church, it’s very hierarchical and somewhat in the business setting as well. There are things that you can do when faced with a toxic leader, just to name a few.

The first thing when you’re confronted with a toxic leader is how about doing a self-evaluation to make sure it isn’t you. Check yourself and make sure. It’s like looking in the mirror and making sure that there isn’t anything under your skin but it’s not bad. I always say to look for patterns. In doing that whole self-evaluation, you don’t compromise your morals and begin to evaluate. Is this person acting in the same way that they say that they do? They state their values but do their actions line up with that? Those are questions that you have to ask.

You can also go to your peers, which is what I did. In the one job setting, I went to my peers. I went to them for help, “Can you all help me out here? I’m not understanding.” Go to your peers, but in going to your peers, there are some things that you want to remember. When you go to your peers, you don’t want to go in a space where you can manipulate the information so that you can get them to say what you want them to say.

Make sure you have a diverse group of peers where they’re going to be honest with you and tell you the truth. Be prepared for the truth. What happens is that in the end, if they say that, “Perhaps this is going on,” but your personal consequences are at risk, let it go. You, as the follower, have to make a determination at that point as to whether or not you’re going to do that.

At least you had honest information from an accountability standpoint.

That’s the point. That’s hard, though because we’re talking about the jobs. Why do we work? We work because we’re responsible people, we have people who are depending on us and we have bills to pay. For all of those reasons, you don’t want to leave a job. Hopefully, you can. The way you are is going to influence the leader to do differently and to behave in a different manner and that’s not always the case. Sometimes, you do have to withdraw your support and make the decision to leave.

Especially before you start changing who you are to fit that toxic leader.

Also, a lot of this is fear.

The fear of what?

The followers may have a fear of retaliation. They may have a fear that, “Where am I going to go during this time?”

“During a pandemic, where am I going to go? I got benefits I got to keep. I have a reputation. I actually like my job. I just don’t like the boss.”

If you don’t start off looking at the leader-follower relationship as a symbiotic relationship, you’re making a mistake.

When people say they don’t like their job, it isn’t the job. They don’t like their boss in most cases.

Both of us researched in very similar areas and we know the supervisor-employee dyad. That’s what they call it at research. It’s that relationship between the supervisor and the employee is the topmost variable a lot of times as it relates to the employees’ engagement or happiness at work. What other experiences would you like to share? Is there anything else? I want to make sure I gave space because I was fascinated with the Jim Jones research that you did.

I never will be the same after that research because of the information that I was exposed to really understand toxic followership and the level of manipulation when leaders abuse their authority and their positional power. One of the things that were a lesson learned for me was that in the church, the pastor is always revered as the top person, the one to be respected.

Even when that was challenged and they knew that the participants were aware that, “We don’t like what he’s saying anymore but we liked this wonderful family that we created here. We like living our communal lifestyle. We like all of this so we’re not willing to let this go. We’re family. That’s him. Ignore it.” That’s what happens to us. We see it and we will make excuses. I’ve been guilty of it. Bad day, bad month, bad year.

When you start seeing patterns, you start questioning that. Remember to never compromise. Don’t compromise your values. Stick to them. For followers, I don’t want them to be perceived as sheep that need to be led. I want to always remind followers in any organization, whether it’s a religious organization, a business organization or a relationship, that you have power. You have to not take a passive approach but move to an active part and use your power to make a change. Sometimes, that means influencing the leader in different ways to do that but definitely use your power.

Especially in the workplace, it’s your choice to give it up.

It may be painful to make the right decision. How many times in business have we seen that? All the time for those who make the right decision.

I may take the path of least resistance and by doing so I may give up the power that I had. This has been very amazing and I want to thank you for your time.

Thank you for having me.

If there are any words of wisdom you can leave our readers, feel free to do so.

I just want to say a lot of people don’t even like the words followers or and followership. Most of the time, people think I’m mispronouncing the word, “Fellowship? What do you mean? Are you sure about misspelling that?” It’s a word that often has to be defended. Don’t see yourself because you are not in the leadership role as one who doesn’t have power.

The one thing I will say that I learned is that when subjected to the point that their life was in danger, that was a turning point in their life. Suddenly, the followers had enough strength, power and coordinated effort to survive. That’s sometimes what it takes. Always see yourself in an active role. If we don’t start off looking at the leader-follower relationship as a symbiotic relationship, you’re making a mistake.

TTLS S1 8 | Toxic Followership

Toxic Followership: Followership is the manipulation of an individual by someone that you know and trust, and they just transform the whole mindset to the point that you become the conduit for the toxic leader’s moral decay.

 

Thank you. This was great. I want to give you time to share any initiatives. Further, how can readers reach you?

I wanted to talk about two things. One is that my research is with a colleague of mine and we are conducting research using followership and toxic followership as a framework and servant leadership. We are looking at the effects on victims of domestic violence and the impact of spirituality on their decision-making process.

We’re still in the preliminary phase of the findings and that’s very interesting so I’m happy about doing that. Also, I have a book inTOXICating Followership: In the Jonestown Massacre. I’ll be sharing the information about the experience and the whole journey of writing that book and absorbing all the information that I have for the sheer purpose of sharing it with everyone else. They tasked me with making sure that everyone understands what followership means to be a follower of any kind.

You’re shining an important light on the word follower and how it’s not necessarily negative. It’s about our mindsets. Can we reach you on LinkedIn?

You can reach me at LinkedIn and also my website, DrWendyMEdmonds.com.

Thank you. This has been amazing. I hope to have you visit back. I hope to bring you back.

Thank you. I have enjoyed this. This was great.

That’s it, folks. Thanks for reading. Until next time.

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About Dr. Wendy Edmonds

Leaders and their leadership are often commented on, while little attention is paid to the followers who support and/or enable them. Much of what we think of as toxic leadership, however, is actually the product of toxic followership. Dr. Edmonds defines toxic followership as the manipulation of individuals by a trusted party who transforms the mindset of others, whereby individuals become an extension of a toxic leaders’ moral decay. Authoritarian rulers would be nothing without those who willingly follow, exchanging an ethical compass for a flawed human one. Followership is, in fact, one of the most pressing and least understood issues of our time.

Dr. Edmonds is an Assistant Professor in the College of Business at Bowie State University, the oldest Historically Black College and University in Maryland.

She is chair of the Followership Learning Community at the International Leadership Association – the largest followership research and practitioner group in the world. She is the first researcher to conduct focus group studies with survivors of the 1978 Jonestown Massacre that occurred in Guyana. It was that life-changing event which fueled her interest in “toxic followership”and the various perspectives of leader-follower relationships.

Recognized internationally as a scholar-practitioner in followership, an emerging field of study in orgnanizational leadership, Dr. Edmonds’ most recent work focuses on the lived experiences of victims of domestic violence and the impact of spirituality. She is also the author of inTOXICating FOLLOWERSHIP and co-author of When Leadership Fails: Individual, Group and Organizational Lessons from the Worst Workplace Experiences, two upcoming books in Spring 2021.