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Avoiding the yes-men: building an environment to dissent

Friday, May 6, 2016 - 15:16

Your hands are sweaty, the boardroom is silent and you could cut the tension in the room with a butter knife. Did you just commit career suicide by pitching this idea? Seconds pass although it feels like an eternity. Suddenly, you see it begin, first with a slight nod from the CEO and then like a Mexican wave, nods of agreement flow across the room.

The feeling of relief washes over you, but suddenly you think to yourself: Did all these highly qualified executives even like your idea or did they simply follow the leader? 

Leadership training teaches you to manage relationship and encourage positive conflict.

Is it easier to just follow orders?

Remembering back to when you were a kid, there tends to be a number of different images and events that spring to mind; your first bike ride, holiday or even your routine home cooked meals are just some examples. However, for many, it is also a time where you had very little control over your actions as a large chunk of your behaviour was the responsibility of your parents or guardians. Imperatives such as: "Clean your room" or "do the dishes", were a common occurrence and typically met with acquiesce. 

In many ways, the modern workplace can be a similar environment. And this is understandable, but why does it occur? Researchers at University College London and Université libre de Bruxelles in Belgium believe it's easier to follow orders, as a person will worry less about the consequences of their actions. 

"People appear to experience a sort of distance from the outcome of their actions when they are obeying instructions," said co-author Professor Patrick Haggard. In other words, people can actually feel disconnected for the actions they take when they are under orders, even though they are the ones executing them. 

Specifically, the researchers came to the conclusion that people experience passive movements rather than fully voluntary actions when they follow orders. While this is is not a claim that responsibility for a person's actions is in anyway not their own, it does raise an important question. Should leaders who give out orders be more responsible for the actions and outcomes of these and what obligations do they have to ensure an environment that encourages challenges? 

When yes-people come out of the cracks, what does this mean for an organisational leader's ability to function? Could these three myths be the problem?

Create an environment that is safe for dissent

Now you may be thinking that the behaviour of yes-people has nothing to do with you - that's a 'them problem'. Yet, a study from University of Michigan and Northwestern University found that leaders are a target of flattery and conformity due to their relatively high social status, and this can have a negative impact on the performance of an organisation. 

For business leaders, decision-making is a crucial task. Researchers found that receiving high-levels of positive remarks from yes-people can lead to overconfidence in executive's judgement and leadership capability, reducing the effectiveness of their strategic choices. As a result, the study found that this led to low company performance and increased chances of organisational leaders being dismissed. 

To combat this, business leaders need to develop an organisational culture that encourages workers to critically engage with one another and most importantly, with corporate leaders. However, to do this they will need to first address and bust the three myths that come as natural patterns of behaviour for many people and thus circulate widely throughout society.

There are three key myths that challenge every leader's attempt to develop a positive culture. The first is that people believe all arguments are a win/lose equation, and thus there must always be a winner. Secondly, some employees feel that if you challenge an idea, you are not working towards a common goal but are fighting against them. Thirdly, when a person is involved in an argument, they believe they must avoid them because talking would be an unwelcome activity.

For organisational leaders, building an environment whereby dissent is actually welcomed, not only can you improve your decision-making ability, but also the performance of your company.