Most narratives of those leaders who surround themselves with yes-people / yes-men go something like this: The leader became successful and that success led to an overinflated opinion of their ability and that resulted in no tolerance for those who disagree with their ego.
While that might be correct in some cases, the analysis leaves much out of the timeline.
I have an alternative idea of how leaders end up surrounding themselves with yes-people. This is based on my experience starting companies the last 17 years.
Imagine you have a small startup or local business you are trying to get off the ground. You’ve put a lot of your savings into it, you’ve made sacrifices and you really want it to work.
A new business endeavor has more hiccups and challenges than any day job you could imagine. You’re working 12+ hour days and the problems and emails never stop coming at you. You thought you would be spending your time growing but you spend much of your time dealing with the unexpected and putting out fires. Many of which might take the whole ship under.
There’s a limit to how much mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual energy any human being has in a given day. And by the end of the day you are tapped out in most if not all of those categories.
Now let’s talk about the negativity bias.
This is humans’ vestigial habit of focusing disproportionately on bad things rather than good things. One bad thing happens in an hour and 99 good things happen in that same hour. Guess what you spend most of your time thinking about?
If you let the focus on the negative take hold, it decreases your ability to do what you need to do to make a successful company. On the other hand, it is possible to fight the bias successfully, but that also takes energy and decreases your ability to do what you need to do to make a successful company.
If I’m tapped out and my employee comes to me with a customer complaint or an unjust negative review, I might just say “hey, I’m tapped out right now. Can you tell me just the good news right now?” or “I know there was an issue with so-and-so, can we not focus on that until next week?”
I know it’s going to sap what little energy I have. I know hearing about one bad review that I can do nothing about is absolutely not part of the set of most important things. I am attempting to sort out the important from the most important.
And that is how I think it begins.
It’s a completely logical action to conserve energy in the name of helping your company: “Don’t tell me anything that feeds the negativity bias right now”.
As the company grows, there are more issues that come up. There’s way more bait for the negativity bias to pounce and bring your efforts to a crawl. What do you do? You do what worked before. You minimize the bad news so you can move forward: “Don’t tell me anything that feeds the negativity bias right now”.
For the most part, this is a useful strategy because that bias is big and dangerous and has ruined many many lives. And because most of those issues are not going to affect your company much but will effect your ability to help your company a lot.
But your staff might not know which bad news will trigger the bias and which won’t. So they stop telling you any bad news. In fact, if they do tell you triggering news you might get upset with them. That makes them tell you less bad news.
This is the point of the entrepreneur’s story timeline where the media narrative of the “yes-person culture” starts. It’s the point where things are really messed up. It’s closer to the end of the story, but the critic believes it to be the full story.
The critic doesn’t look back on the timeline, but instead just extrapolates back the current situation. “That’s just who they are and have always been. They are an egomaniac.” is the story. The truth about how things got this way is left out.
I’m sure that there are many leaders out there who were egomaniacs from day one.
I’m also sure that there’s a lot of leaders out there who got drunk on power and created a “yes-person” culture in their inebriation.
But I bet there’s a lot more who got to “yes-person culture” as an act of self-preservation. Individuals who were just trying to make it through the tough early days with a sincere desire to help grow the company by avoiding the destructive minefield of negativity bias.
So how does a company avoid this path? That’s beyond the scope of this post.