‘Yes Men’, Sycophants and Sheep - 3 reasons why they still exist, 3 missed opportunities and 3 ways to actuate positive change

We’ve all met them along the way, seen them in action, maybe even watched them benefit from their behaviour, in the short term at least. Organisations are littered with individuals that don’t, won’t or can’t CHALLENGE.

3 reasons why this behaviour still exists:

The culture:  It's just the way things are around here… heard that before? There is something unwritten and unsaid but completely tangible. Organisations with an out of date and toxic culture don’t allow for leadership to be positively challenged. No direct words or policies are needed; employees who have the potential to positively challenge are discouraged and diminished by the actions and behaviours of those around them.     

Fear of failure: The only people who never fail are the ones that never try.  The well-versed quote seems to be a solid career plan in some organisations or to rephrase it, never try and you’ll never fail. When we assess the idea of trying something new it tends to boil down to risk vs reward. If there is significant risk regardless of the reward then our ambition will be compromised.  Organisations that are risk averse and punish those that do fail (consciously or subconsciously) will always attract people who only follow and never really lead.

Lack of development: Organisations that under-invest in their staff become dominated by a few individuals in key positions and everyone else simply make up the numbers. Staff are not given the knowledge, skill and opportunity to positively challenge and become machine-like operatives to fulfill someone else’s agenda.

3 missed opportunities:

Innovation: Diversity, courage and disagreement breeds innovation.  By encouraging individuals to be individuals and have a voice you are tapping into every single employees personal experience and point of view. Ideas are generated and problems solved when numerous individuals, armed with their unique perspective, come together productively.

Employee Engagement: The most powerful strategy organisations have to increase the performance level of their staff is to focus on employee engagement. Sometimes promotion and/or a pay rise is used as a proxy to engagement; it's a short term fix that is costly and not actually that successful.  If you really want to increase performance make sure all individuals are valued, given a say in the decisions related to what they do day in day out and ensure there are regular opportunities to challenge and contribute.

Cycle of Improvement: Without positive challenge and the questioning of decisions how are improvements made? Unless you have the perfect product or service there are always ways to make things even better. Similarly so, unless you are the perfect leader or manager there are always improvements you can personally make. If we discourage feedback and instead work in a culture of ‘yes men’, sycophants and sheep then we are giving up the ability to continually evolve and improve.

3 ways to actuate positive change:

Change the culture: Create an environment that encourages people to positively challenge. Embed this directive into the values of the organisation and reward actions and behaviours that facilitate this. Leaders and other key individuals need to set the example and encourage challenge and actually put in place mechanisms to allow this to happen.

Radical candour: Actively welcome criticism of the organisation and its products/services and also of your own personal performance.  Every piece of criticism received is a chance for reflection and improvement.

Remove the hierarchy: In some organisations hierarchy translates to barriers.  Ideas and opinions are disregarded or not even heard because of job title and department.  Maybe it's as simple as ‘not being in the room’ when decisions are made or maybe unconscious bias exists that under values the opinions of others. Break down the hierarchy by having a mix of tenure and experience, Instruct managers and leaders to encourage challenge from all and ensure this challenge is welcomed.

Gary Rayneau