Hear No Evil: Yes-Men Leadership

Leadership requires confidence in one’s ability to make good decisions. Yet that confidence does not guarantee quality in the decision making. Sometimes confidence isn’t well founded. The dark side of confidence is arrogance, and arrogance can lead to quick decisions based on narrow thinking and deeply rooted perceptions.

Effective leaders achieve confidence in their decision making by considering their options, thinking through the potential impact of the decision on the business and others, and listening to the input of those they trust. Oftentimes these trusted advisors will challenge the leaders’ assumptions. If they see any red flags, they will give the leaders direct feedback. Their role is to ensure that the leader is fully informed of the options and the potential consequences of each. Effective leaders ask questions to understand divergent viewpoints and to evaluate the integrity of the available information. Then they challenge their own assumptions to avoid a hasty, reflexive decision. The goal is to eliminate ambiguity, expose threats, and achieve the desired outcome while minimizing harm.

Yet there are other senior leaders who have seemingly unabashed confidence in their decision making and seek only opinions and data that support the decision they already made. They surround themselves with people who tell them what they want to hear and insulate themselves from contrary data and perspectives. They don’t want their viewpoint challenged. They don’t want bad news. In these cases, talking to others serves to validate what is thought to be true rather than to challenge their personal viewpoint. It’s certainly easier to look for supporting evidence and then move on rather than to consider anything that would cast doubt on or otherwise complicate the decision process. Those around them quickly learn what is expected of them when an opinion is expressed or input is requested. A significant part of their job likely involves keeping the leaders happy, which is not necessarily compatible with being honest with them about their decision process and how it’s affecting others.

Many senior leaders purposefully or unwittingly create these insulating barriers in their own organizations. Some have done this by reinforcing what they see as personal loyalty while discouraging contrary views, questions, and candid feedback; others have passively accepted the lack of candor they receive from those around them. In highly political work environments, the safest course of action often is to keep your head down, not make waves, and hope you can climb the corporate ladder by focusing on pleasing those above you. If surrounded by “yes-men” who dare not stir things up or risk personal retaliation by providing frank feedback, senior leaders can easily find themselves living out The Emperor’s New Clothes.

Whether the lack of candid feedback perpetuates relatively harmless views about personal effectiveness or more serious delusions about senior leaders’ impact on employee engagement and business performance, it puts senior leaders in a vulnerable position. They need a broad range of perspectives and good and bad news to travel fast to them. This feedback is necessary to adjust strategy, execution, and especially their personal management practices. Senior leaders should not assume they are hearing the whole truth about their decisions, themselves, or how they are leading their team and the business. Instead, they should actively solicit that truth.

Just as effective decision making can be shaped over time by input, feedback, and the consequences of the decisions, unilateral decision making and isolation from the truth can be unintentionally shaped in the same way. Follow these five tips to ensure you receive the direct and candid input you need to make informed and unbiased decisions:

  • Find trusted advisors – Establish trusted advisors you can call on to give you direct, honest, and timely feedback on what you’re thinking, the soundness of your approach, how you’re showing up to others, and how your behavior and decisions are impacting the business and work culture. These advisors need to be objective, have your best interest at heart, and have nothing to gain by your missteps. They can be colleagues, external mentors, and/or professional coaches.
  • Invite candid feedback from others – If others are quick to agree with you, ensure that they have thought through what you’re asking about by asking them follow-up questions and exploring what-if scenarios.
  • Separate the message from the messenger – It’s better to hear all of what’s occurring that could be considered bad news than to have people shield you from it. To ensure that happens, reinforce the behavior of updating you whether it’s good or bad news. Take care not to create a negative experience for the messenger by how you react to the news. Don’t fire questions at the person expecting the person to have all of the answers. Listen.
  • Reinforce candid feedback – Reinforce the behavior of providing direct and honest feedback, even if you don’t like what you hear. If your body language or initial reaction might be construed as punishing those giving you feedback, acknowledge that possible impact and emphasize that despite the difficulty of hearing the message, you appreciate and will continue to welcome candid feedback. (This does not mean that you have to agree with the feedback, but if the feedback never comes to you, you won’t be in a position to make that judgment.)
  • Find the value in every message – There is some degree of truth in most opinions, so listen for at least one meaningful takeaway rather than being quick to dismiss the entire opinion. If you can’t extract anything of value from what was said, sleep on it and think through the message again in the morning. If nothing else, find value in the person’s willingness to share what he or she was thinking.

(Although I refer to yes “men,” women are no less susceptible to this conflict-avoidance survival tactic. In many environments, men have been granted more leeway to speak their mind than have women. Ideally, the rise of the #MeToo Movement will further empower women in the workplace to speak their minds freely without fear of gender-based retribution.)

Posted by Tom Spencer, Ph.D.

As President and CEO, Tom actively works with ADI staff and clients to create positive change and achieve desired business goals. For nearly 25 years, his experience and ideas have shaped pragmatic and integrated approaches to applying the science of behavior to the workplace. Tom has written extensively on topics related to leadership, consequence management, performance fluency, and technology development. When not leading ADI, Tom enjoys trail running and following the WVU Mountaineers.