Think differently

Beliefs at the heart of the leader-follower relationship

Sylvie Deffayet Davrout , Professor, Leadership Development Chair Director

In this article, originally published in Harvard Business Review France, Sylvie Deffayet Davrout, Professor at EDHEC and Director of the Leadership Development Chair, examines the dynamics of the leader/follower relationship and the omnipresence of belief.

Reading time :
18 Mar 2024

If leadership is defined as "the process by which an individual influences one or more people to achieve a common goal", it must be acknowledged that the respective beliefs and representations of the stakeholders play a crucial role in this dynamic ("Leadership : Theory and Practice", by Peter G. Northouse, Ninth Editions, 2021).

In other words, when I try to exert my influence, I do so on the basis of a set of beliefs from four distinct families:

  • My beliefs about myself (positive and negative): Do I have the legitimacy and/or the necessary skills to influence?
  • My beliefs about the people I want to influence: Who are they? What are their motivations?
  • My projections about what these people think of me: Do they trust me? Do they respect me?
  • My representations of the relationship: What do I expect from this relationship? How will it go?


This set of representations does not take into account the point of view of the people I influence. They also have their own assumptions and interpretations of the situation.

You might hope that this tangle of beliefs would stop there, but it doesn't. There are also much more established and deeply rooted patterns of thought that theorists call 'implicit theories' or 'naïve theories'. These theories influence our way of thinking in a much more systematic way, whatever the contexts and actors involved.


The necessary construction of our personal theories

To make our relationships as predictable as possible, we are used to classifying people according to their behaviour and attitudes. With the help of our experiences, our education and our culture, we create representations about others. We then confirm (rather than invalidate) them over time ("Social cognition", by Susan T. Fiske and Shelley E. Taylor, Mcgraw-Hill Book Company, 1991).


The construction of our personal theories is a largely unconscious process. In fact, it takes place in a few milliseconds, without us even being aware of it. It is only by reflecting on it afterwards that we can grasp its ins and outs...


To read this article in full (in French) go directly to


Image by Alexa via Pixabay


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