Beware the yes men (and women)

They might get stuff done, but it's unhealthy to have everyone agreeing with you.

by Stephen Jones
Last Updated: 21 Jan 2020

Filipp Golikov is arguably more notorious for what he didn’t do than what he did. As chief of the Soviet Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU) during the spring of 1941, it was his job to pass on the almost irrefutable intelligence indicating an imminent Nazi invasion. 

Stalin, however, was convinced that Hitler wouldn’t turn back on his promise not to attack Russia - or at least if he did he would wait until he had defeated Britain - and was known to have a less than savoury approach to senior officers who disagreed with him.

It’s widely believed that Golikov (left) discounted or manipulated intelligence so that it would corroborate his master’s existing views. When Operation Barbarossa was launched in June 1941, Soviet forces were taken entirely by surprise and the Wehrmacht would not be stopped until it was within days of Moscow, five months later. 

The extent that Stalin would have actually listened is debated - he received countless warnings in the days preceding the invasion - but Golikov's story still illustrates what can happen when you surround yourself with yes men - subordinates unwilling to rock the boat, always happy to tell their leader what they wanted to hear.

It’s nice when someone agrees with us; it validates our point of view, makes us feel good and makes sure that decisions are enacted quickly. But having a room full of people saying the same thing - or not pushing back - is good for no one, in statecraft or in business. If ideas aren’t shared, or taken on board, a company can miss out on key information and can risk making bad, potentially disastrous decisions. 

It can also jeapardise engagement, if employees feel unable to push back on excessive workloads. One self-confessed yes woman Management Today spoke to (she works at a London based travel company but did not want to named) says that she regularly agrees to do more work, even though she already feels like she has too much to do. The extra workload means she often ends up working beyond her contracted hours, risking burnout. She's highly unlikely to be alone.

Where does your Yes Man problem come from?

It’s often the result of the culture a leader sets. If, like Stalin, a boss gives the impression that they cannot be questioned, leads with fear and shouts down any suggestions they disagree with, people will fear speaking out against them. 

Hierarchy and dominance play a role regardless of whether you’re a command-and-control boss or not, says Matthew Syed, whose latest book Rebel Ideas discusses the importance of cognitive diversity, and demonstrates what can go wrong when it is lacking.

"The fact that people don’t say what they truly think, or just say what they think the leader wants to hear often happens unconsciously because the leader states an opinion and everyone starts to find reasons to agree with it."

What can you do about it?

A good place to start is to remove dominance from conversations. In meetings, the leader should always speak last, after encouraging others to offer their ideas before they offer their own opinion, says Syed. "That way you hear everybody’s point of view. They’re saying what they truly think because they haven’t heard your point of view yet." 

Syed also suggests "brain writing", where everyone anonymously offers ideas, usually via the form of sticky note or virtual equivalent. As no one knows who suggested the idea, you’re voting on its merit rather than the status of the person who had it. 

Leaders have a responsibility to know how much work their staff are doing, and whether they’re doing too much. Regular one-on-one feedback sessions - that ask how an employee feels about their work, rather than just how much they’ve done - can help you gauge how they’re getting on. 

But beware, collaborative meetings and feedback will only get you so far. If behind all that you’re still running your business like Stalin, prepare to miss out on opportunities. Ultimately the only real way to prevent yes men and women is by creating the "psychological safety" that gives people the confidence to voice their view.

That means trusting your staff with decisions and, ultimately, being willing to accept that you might just be wrong. 

Image credits: Sovfoto / Contributor via Getty


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