While it is very convenient to have people agree with us on everything at the workplace, are we really working with those who are aligned to our vision or merely ‘yes men’?
We all love a situation when our decisions seem to be agreeable to everyone around. It certainly makes us believe we are on the right track; that we cannot go wrong; that we are kind of invincible even; whether at the workplace or elsewhere. However, are we sure we are surrounded by the right people who are not merely agreeing with us because they cannot speak their minds?
Working with ‘yes men’ is a dangerous territory to be in. Should there not be someone with an alternative idea or solution to a problem? Shouldn’t we as leaders be encouraging creative thinking?
Promote innovation over congruence
It is fantastic to work in a team in which there is no voice of dissent, undoubtedly. However, let’s not make the mistake of equating the first alternative thought to rebellion. All roads lead to Rome, after all, and therefore, there has to be more than one idea to achieve a common goal.
‘Innovation survives in an environment where you encourage diversity of thinking. Diversity of thinking can only happen when you allow people to fearlessly express their minds and bring new ideas to the table on a continuous basis. This is only possible when you have a top leadership supporting and encouraging new ideas, helping people fearlessly speak their minds and bringing new perspectives, which get stunted if you have more yes men around you,’ says Amit Das, director – human resources, Bennett Coleman & Co.
Things don’t just get stagnant and boring, but there is also the danger of ignoring an idea that could have proved to be better than one unanimously agreed upon.
“A part of the leader’s role is to be able to manage having an alternative. If two people are agreeing to everything, then one of them is not needed. It is only insecure people who will steamroller and pull their weight and say, ‘Well, I am the boss. Do it!’”, says Abhijit Bhaduri, Independent consultant.
Difference between an aligned team and ‘yes men’
It is nowhere being suggested that the ideal team is the one that is always squabbling with each other over ideas in the meeting room. Multiple ideas and endless debates over them isn’t always the best use of time.
Mahindra & Mahindra’s chief people officer, Rajeshwar Tripathi, makes a significant point when he says there is a fundamental difference between people who are aligned to your ideas and ‘yes men’.
Innovation survives in an environment where you encourage diversity of thinking. Diversity of thinking can only happen when you allow people to fearlessly express their minds and bring new ideas to the table on a continuous basis. This is only possible when you have a top leadership supporting and encouraging new ideas, helping people fearlessly speak their minds and bringing new perspectives, which get stunted if you have more yes men around you.
‘Yes men will not necessarily be aligned but only want to show that they are. It is a pretence that hurts. They don’t mean what they say and they only want to show that they are with the leader. The aligned team members are actually assets,’ he says.
The danger though is that there are chances that aligned teammates can become ‘yes men’ very easily.
‘Leaders who are willing to give the space and the psychological security are more likely to succeed in having aligned people, but they must also be prepared to face dissenting views. That is the ideal balance to have. If not, then even the aligned people will not dare to talk against the leader,’ adds Tripathi.
It is certainly ideal to have a leader who is willing to give that ear to the team and encourage varied ideas and thoughts.
A part of the leader’s role is to be able to manage having an alternative. If two people are agreeing to everything, then one of them is not needed. It is only insecure people who will steamroller and pull their weight and say, ‘Well, I am the boss. Do it!
At the same time, there are also chances of things getting delayed when you democratise every topic or subject, feels Das.
According to him, it depends on the life cycle of the business.
‘If you are in a mode when you have to start operations on a new project, which has a certain timeline, you know there are certain templates that have worked in the past. I don’t think this is a situation wherein you have to create a democratic approach of seeking ideas and views from all team members and wait for everybody to reach a consensus before you act on them. However, when it is a stable business or a startup, and you are steadily trying to move to the next level or create a new product or service, you have no other option but to call for different perspectives and ideas. It will only help you sharpen and enhance the value you create,’ he says.
A pitfall to avoid here is to not confuse ‘yes men’ with great executioners of ideas. Sure, there is the comfort of work being completed quickly when time isn’t spent discussing several ideas. However, the person who is in sync with you will not always be the ideal one to finish a task well.
‘You may not get an alternative point of view or opinion but that does not mean you are going to get great execution. You and I can both agree that going to the moon is a great idea but it does not mean I can fly a rocket. If there is a fire and you need to run out of the door, it isn’t the time to debate whether you should or should not. But that is an exception. How many times during the day do you have a fire?’ says Bhaduri.
There is a fundamental difference between people who are aligned to your ideas and ‘yes men’. Yes men will not necessarily be aligned but only want to show that they are. It is a pretence that hurts. They don’t mean what they say and they only want to show that they are with the leader. The aligned team members are actually assets.
The sensitised leader
No doubt, it is a smooth run when thoughts and ideas are consistent and uniform. Having said that, there are ample instances when it is best to avoid an alternative perspective.
As a leader, one must be sensitive to this fact and constantly push the team to challenge the status quo.
At Bennett Coleman & Co., Das says the leaders are measured on how they encourage people to think differently. Opinions, views, feedback from team members, peer group and other stakeholders are constantly sought. Leaders are also encouraged to participate in various forums, where along with their peer group, they need to be the catalyst for driving ideal behaviour in an organisation.
‘The moment you are put in an environment that promotes such diversity in thinking and healthy debates on common areas of interest, which finally get aligned with the big picture of organisational benefits, people start changing their own stances and behaviour as well,’ says Das.
Tripathi adds an important point when he says that diversity should be embraced in its truest sense in an organisation.
‘The organisations of today are driving the agenda of diversity and inclusion in a big way. Diversity in its true sense is embracing all kind of diversity of thoughts, views and ideas, and not only gender as is being often made out to be. If every person is unique, why don’t you respect that uniqueness? Why do you want everybody to be alike? This is at the heart of diversity,’ he says.
According to him, organisations that have been able to drive the culture of diversity in its truest and holistic sense, have found it easier to have teams and people who are aligned to the objectives and goals and not necessarily work as ‘yes men’.
At what point does this happen? Does only hiring people with diverse ideas do the trick or should it also involve inculcating the right behaviour as a value or culture in the organisation?
Tripathi says that it is both. He cites the example of how while hiring at Mahindra, it is made sure that birds of the same feather are not brought on board and managers don’t always hire clones of themselves. He adds that inculcating it as a value and culture is where organisations are struggling.
‘Human beings fundamentally have biases, likes and dislikes. Therefore, people are drawn towards those who are ‘yes men’. It is only when the elements of diversity come in that you wonder whether you are doing the right thing or losing out. It is a chicken and egg story. If you don’t have people with very diverse backgrounds, you don’t acknowledge and realise the advantage of having them. If you don’t value the diversity, then you don’t hire such people,’ says Tripathi.