Say “No” to Yes-Men and “Yes” to Cognitive Diversity

When I began my first leadership role, I made a novice mistake – I surrounded myself with people who agreed with me. Whether it was my fragile ego or my lack of experience, I was susceptible to undeserved flattery. As you can imagine, this did not end well.

I’m sure you’ve never fallen for it, but many leaders hire people who are amenable and docile. These yes-men are nice to have around because they appease the leader. They do not challenge decisions, ask few questions, and are generally compliant to authority.

In a recent Fast Company article, award winning actor and filmmaker Zach Braff was discussing his movie making process:

One of the things I’ve learned in my success has been that yes-men are completely useless…If you’re surrounded by people who are kissing your ass you’re not really examining what you’re doing.

Zach calls yes-men “useless”; I call them “harmful.” They are harmful to what you’re trying to accomplish, they are harmful to your reputation, they are harmful to the future of your organization. When you are trapped in a cocoon of agreeability, this lack of cognitive diversity insulates you from reality. It happens gradually through a cycle of self-absorption:

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We can blame the yes-men for doing a disservice to the leader and the organization, but really it is the leader who must take responsibility. Inadvertently, the leader has created an environment where it is not okay to disagree. Loyalty has overtaken reason. Here are a few tips to avoid a yes-man atmosphere:

  • Identify the yes-men. Set the expectation that yes-men are not needed. If they can acclimate, great. If they can’t, then hopefully there is a place for them where decision making is not a key job function.
  • When someone tries to correct you and is right, admit you are wrong and give credit to the person who dared challenge you.
  • When someone tries to correct you and is wrong, don’t demean them or their ideas. Thank them for speaking up and move on.
  • Promote based on skill and performance, not on how much you like him or her.
  • Find people who ground you and are willing to give you the unfiltered truth.

Multiple research studies have shown that the best problem solving efforts are the result of harnessing cognitive diversity. Even with the most intelligent of leaders, success is more likely when multiple points of view are considered. This is true in the boardroom, the editing room, and any other room where decisions need to be made.