How do followers distance themselves from leaders? : An interpretive study of followership in physical and non-physical contexts

Wang, Diansha and Leitch, Claire and Stead, Valerie (2021) How do followers distance themselves from leaders? : An interpretive study of followership in physical and non-physical contexts. PhD thesis, Lancaster University.

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The topic of followership has been attracting growing attention as a response to the dominance of leader-centric assumptions in the leadership research field. However, the followership literature does not adequately consider followership as a complex phenomenon in terms of two research gaps. First, the followership literature pays excessive attention to follower traits, characteristics and roles, and tends to identify what good or effective followers are. This may confine a follower in a subordinate position within traditional asymmetric structures and reproduce a binary opposing relationship between followers and leaders. The second gap is the failure to consider the impact of follower-leader interrelations on shaping understandings and meanings of the followership context. The literature describes a hierarchical context as a setting where followers have to hold formal roles and accept asymmetric positions relative to leaders. Informed by a critical approach to studying followership, this study aims to explore followership complexity from two aspects. First, it examines the ways in which followers interrelate with leaders and peers to construct follower-leader relationships. Second, it investigates how physical and non-physical contexts shape and are shaped by these relationships simultaneously. An interpretivist approach, influenced by an inter-subjective ontology, underpins the research, which comprises a single case study of a financial analysis organization with 30 participants. Financial assistants as followers interrelated with managers as leaders in the same workplace, and they belonged to a financial analysis organization. These assistants simultaneously interacted with remote analysts as leaders in different locations and global financial institutions, where they employed email and telephone to communicate, and then construct relations, as a result of interrelations. The findings reveal key insights into followership related to the overarching concept of follower-leader distance. This concept is understood in two important aspects, five dimensions (physical, psychological, cultural, functional and structural) and two degrees (proximity and detachment). Five dimensions capture the multi-faceted and constructed nature of follower-leader relationships, which were shaped by ongoing followers’ interrelations with leaders and peers; the dimensions also reveal the diverse characteristics of physical and non-physical contexts, which were shaped as distinct opportunities and challenges to which followers needed to respond. Two degrees of follower-leader distance illuminate the potentially dynamic and tense nature of the follower-leader relationship; they also demonstrate the interdependence of physical and non-physical contexts, arising from followers’ inter-relations with different leaders in two different contexts. This study makes two significant theoretical contributions to followership research. First, this study moves beyond a static and objective conceptualization of the follower-leader relationship towards a more social, dynamic and situated conceptualization. Second, this study extends critiques of the followership context as a setting where followers are confined within hierarchical structures and informs a more nuanced interpretation of the complex nature of the followership context.

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Thesis (PhD)
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04 May 2021 08:30
Last Modified:
13 May 2024 00:33