Justin Bieber, Senior Leaders and “Yes-Men”

Recently I heard Charles Barkley on ESPN radio, but he wasn't talking basketball. He was talking about Justin Bieber and how Bieber’s life is gradually unraveling. It’s been a slow shaping process that’s changed Bieber’s image among adults from that of a feel-good YouTube discovery to the story of another spoiled child star. Surrounded by an entourage of paid enablers, Bieber has insulated himself from honest feedback on his behavior and its effect on others. Some examples from the recent past include Bieber’s relieving himself in a restaurant mop bucket, and numerous reports of speeding around his gated community in Calabasas, Calif. Just as positive behavior can be shaped over time by reinforcing incremental shifts, negative behavior and habits can be shaped in the same way. Bieber’s entourage likely reinforces his bad behavior. They also likely shield him from negative consequences that would otherwise help keep bad behavior in check. So maintaining this insular cocoon represents a form of job security for them.

A significant part of their job probably involves keeping Bieber happy, which is not necessarily compatible with being honest with him about the impact of his behavior and where his life seems to be headed. Many senior leaders have purposefully or unwittingly created that same kind of insulating barrier in their own organizations. Some have done this reinforcing what they see as personal loyalty while discouraging contrary views, questions, and candid feedback; others have overlooked 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 appearance or more serious delusions about senior leaders’ impact on employee engagement and business performance, it puts senior leaders in a vulnerable position. They need both 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 themselves and how they are leading their team and the business. Instead, they should actively solicit that truth. Here are three tips for ensuring that you’re getting the direct and candid feedback necessary to evaluate your impact:

  • Find trusted advisors – Establish at least two trusted advisors who will 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.
  • 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.

Charles Barkley has never been known to keep his opinion to himself. When talking about Bieber during his radio interview though, he was merely describing the situation and the impact it was having on Bieber’s evolving life story. His commentary was coming from a place of caring for a young man he presumably never met. If you don’t already have a Charles Barkley who will tell it to you straight and do so with your best interests at heart, find one or two. You’ll be better for it.

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.