The Human condition: Apart from the common herd

Companies need No-men to tell the boss when he's wrong, but (surprise, surprise) it's the Yes-men who get promoted, reports Hester Lacey
Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online
DAVID FOSTER (nothing like his real name) was delighted when, a few weeks before Christmas, he landed a marketing job with a large high- street retailer. A month after he joined the company, he was called to a meeting with several board members, along with three other new staff members who'd joined at the same time. The board, it was explained to the rookies, wanted a fresh perspective on how the management structure in marketing was working. Were there any problems that the new recruits had noticed?

David, impressed with this enlightened policy, leapt to his feet. He and his fellow new bugs had noticed and discussed quite a few points where communication was not all it could be; hence work was being duplicated. He explained in detail - until he noticed that the board grandees were sitting stony-faced. "Erm - I think you'll find that everyone else agrees with what I've said," he wound up nervously. The person next in line cleared her throat slowly. "I think David has expressed himself rather too forcefully. The marketing department is really extremely well run," she simpered. David, devastated, felt he'd been invited to shoot himself in the foot, as the big cheeses, all smiles now, invited her to continue praising the company.

David's experience - that companies want yes-men who will cheerfully bend to corporate culture, rather than no-men who won't automatically agree that, if the boss says so, everything in the garden's lovely - is by no means unique. "Some bosses are like that," says Vicky Wright, who is president of the Management Consultants Association. "There are bosses who don't like to hear bad news and they shoot the messenger. If you keep shooting the messengers, of course eventually they stop coming. Some bosses can have such a mismatched view of what their organisation's like that they don't even know if it's heading for disaster."

Sandi Mann, research psychologist at the Management School at Salford University, believes the insecurity of the modern workplace is to blame - with plenty of well-qualified staff always available, a capacity for flattery can sway who gets to keep their post. "These days it's not enough to be good at your job," she warns. "At the same time you need to create the image of enthusiastic, being a team player, being excited simply at being in the office." Nobody dares say "No" or betray any criticism or lack of enthusiasm, she says. "Being honest can mean you are seen as having a bad attitude." And, she adds, the Americanisation of management structure, with lots of small teams and less hierarchy, means maverick opinions are particularly unwelcome. "We have created a group-think culture where nobody steps back and really looks at decisions that are being made. We are losing individuality in favour of a bland corporate persona."

Bland on the outside maybe; but bosses who want their employees to respond without question to their every whim are extremely uncomfortable to work with. "My boss is so autocratic she won't brook any discussion about anything she decides," says Anna, 32, who works in PR. "We all sit there nodding and smiling and saying 'Great, great' because it's simply not worth the dreadful storm of rage if you cross her. We nearly lost a client because she insisted on trying to hold this elaborate themed party midweek and miles out of town. It was a fiasco, hardly anyone turned up - it was so obvious people weren't going to drive miles on a Tuesday evening for a glass or two of champagne, but no-one dared say so."

One political yes-man who (perhaps) went beyond the call of duty was the Clinton associate Vernon Jordan, who (allegedly) asked Monica Lewinsky to perjure herself for the president. How much aggravation could have been saved by a no-man saying at the crucial moment, "Mr President, it is frankly not a good idea to have sex with the staff", rather than helping him cover it up.

Studies have shown that, when confronted with a boss who knows it all, meekly swallowing anything and everything is in fact a valid technique. A paper entitled The Impact of the Frequency of Ingratiation on the Performance Evaluation of Bank Personnel by John D Watt of Kansas State University discovered that yes-men (and women) are approved of by their superiors, obtain positive assessment reports and are more likely to be promoted. (Suggested tactics include "Look out for opportunities to admire your supervisor".)

But any Brownie-point advantages the yes-man may build up are, sadly, likely to be of short-term use only; because "opinion uniformity" is damaging in the long-run. "Companies can lose lots of money, make products that don't sell, implement strategies that don't work," says Sandi Mann. She points out the Bay of Pigs fiasco as an American classic of no-one daring to say "Erm, this is a rubbish idea". "It was really ill-thought-out, but rushed into with huge enthusiasm because nobody wanted to be seen as not behind it," she says. "It's like today we have New Labour, new this, new that, new everything: everyone is carried along." Her own solution is that every office should have one team member whose specific task it is to play devil's advocate and look for holes in strategy. Vicky Wright adds that a boss surrounded by bootlickers is a boss with his head in the sand. Her company recently surveyed American life insurance firms, and found that the difference between top and mediocre performers depended very much on open senior management style. "The best had bosses who were team players," she explains. "They were all interested in overall achievement - not personal power."

POSITIVE AND NEGATIVE

JUST SAY YES TO...

Chris Evans. Be on his show by all means, but don't dare be funnier than he is.

Jeanette Winterson. Protected and supported by a loyal sisterhood of acolytes.

Tiny Rowland. Notorious for heading a board at Lonrho that liked to say "yes".

Robert Maxwell. Browbeater extraordinaire, of family as well as employees.

John Birt. Accused of creating a "climate of fear" at the BBC.

Bill Clinton. See any newspaper.

Paul Gascoigne. Jimmy Five-bellies and chums unlikely to say "You've had enough, Gazza. Let's get home for an early night, man."

THE NO PEOPLE

Diana Princess of Wales. So what if you're the Royal Family? I'm doing it my way.

Clare Short. Buy your own golden elephants.

Gordon Brown. Has an eye on the Labour leadership.

Mark Tully. Top BBC foreign correspondent who accused John Birt of surrounding himself with yes-men.

Gordon Strachan. Football refs quake when he sounds off about "disgraceful" decisions.

Joy in Drop the Dead Donkey. The antithesis of sweetness and light in the office.

Sinead O'Connor. Tore up the Pope's photograph on television.

Comments