Career Guide


Capping the ‘Yes, Boss’ culture

Be careful of the meaningless ‘Yes’ and the Hidden ‘No’

“She is one of our best employees because she never says, ‘No’ when we ask her to do things.”

“The boss likes it when we agree with him all the time.”

Oh, the number of times I have heard these lines ever since I entered the working world. According to Merriam-Webster, a yes-man is simply someone who agrees with everything that is said especially: one who endorses or supports without criticism every opinion or proposal of an associate or superior.

Saying “yes” to every task or agreeing with bosses while quietly seething with frustration encourages employee disengagement. While last minute projects, clients or workloads are unavoidable, what about the times when we can actually control the situation at hand?

As leaders, how can one manage time and planning to prevent employees from the malady of “Malaysian timing” or “last-minute syndrome”? Should we even have this “last-minute” mentality to start with or is it merely an excuse to laugh off poor time management or poor planning skills?


When you say nothing at all

In university, critical thinking was a subject and we had to actually learn how to think critically and make sound judgement. It is not that we don’t know how to think for ourselves but because the concept of speaking up, sharing your opinion with the class, or maybe even having an opinion was often shot down while we were in school. Why so?

According to the Asia-Pacific global research group, the west practises a low context environment, where focus is placed on the way of communication rather than the context. Clarity is key, which in turn, means brevity and direct communication. This means, messages are prompt, clear and concise.

But here in the east, we practise a high context environment, where we focus on the way we communicate as we pay more attention to relationships, emotions, gestures and other verbal and non-verbal cues. In simpler terms, our messages are more indirect and long-winded.

Why is the way we communicate a problem if it’s just “culturally ingrained”? Because being a yes-man can become an issue. . .


When it affects your health

To be a yes-man means to be a people-pleaser. Loving the sense of approval and recognition at the expense of your health or personal life is sure to set alarm bells ringing. When this starts to happen, it’s important to take a step back and evaluate the situation.

Are you biting off more than you can chew? If yes, why? Saying no occasionally does not make you a selfish person. Neither does it make you irresponsible. Saying no, sends the message that you are just another individual who’d like to be respected for your opinions and feelings, regardless of your position. It helps you draw the line between a gullible and a firm individual.

When tasks are continuously and unnecessarily handled at the last minute, it may signal that we are taking someone else’s time and effort lightly. It also leads to poorer decision making and more room for mistakes.

Research shows that the habit of completing your assignments at the very last minute drastically affects students’ grades. David Arnott and Scott Dacko, of Warwick Business School, looked at work submitted online and found marks dropping closer to the assignment deadline. The same can apply to our work environment.

While we feel that we work better under pressure, can we really say that we have produced our best work? Or merely the best work we could produce given the time we had?

A person who says yes all the time but bottles up his or her frustration and lets it spill elsewhere, shouldn’t be praised or encouraged. Neither should congratulating someone for “never saying no”.


We like to be liked

It’s not a surprise. We would rather be surrounded by people who agree with or are nice to us instead of those who are brutally honest. It’s comforting to stay in a Yes-man culture. It feels safe.

However, it’s also completely dangerous to live in this zone. If we find that our team follows our every order without question and we get what we want when we want it, it’s time to review the way we communicate. Are we surrounded by “suck-ups” or are we surrounded by people who will provide their honest feedback without fear or favour?


Be Bold

Companies innovate when fresh ideas are brought to the table; when feedback is welcomed, and when management doesn’t get defensive. Yes-men are good with carrying out tasks but they would never challenge the ideas to see if they truly work. It may be too late by the time you learn whether your team believes in what you do.

Fellow Leaderonomer Louisa Devadason, states in her article: Lose The Yes Men, “If a company has cultivated a yes-man culture, they have unwittingly bred a culture of people who are either too afraid to say anything or just shut up and collect their pay cheques. A corporate landscape and a leader that does not welcome some opposition and moreover collaboration, is doom to be stuck and risk the business being bogged down.”

When employees stop opening up to employers, perhaps they have been beaten into submission by their behaviour. The more employees shut down, the more the company risks running a mechanical business akin to having a set of robots perform their duties without any form of attachment or sense of belonging.


How to avoid being a yes-man

1 Remember that you always have a choice.

The first step is to recognise that you have a choice. Often, we become yes-men for fear that we may lose our jobs, or that the bosses may think we are incompetent or not “hardworking” enough. You may feel trapped. Recognise that no matter what situation, the power of choice is in your hands. Ask yourself, “If I say no to this for a good reason, what is the worst possible outcome that could occur?”


2 Know your priorities.

What are the most important things on your plate right now? Are you capable of taking on more work? Sometimes, we take on more than we can handle because we think that we can push ourselves. But it really ends up doing more harm than good as you end up stretching yourself too thin.


3 Remember that honesty is a characteristic to be praised.

Completing tasks assigned to you with perfection, is great. At times, knowing where and when to draw the line is the difficult part. Remember that open communication is vital as a team player. And so is true listening – being open enough to listen to what your employees or teammates are saying and feeling (and maybe not blatantly telling you) before it’s too late.

“I don’t want yes-men around me. I want everyone to tell the truth. Even if it costs them their jobs.” —Samuel Goldwyn


Tamara is an assistant editor and writer with Leaderonomics. She loves thought-provoking conversations over cups of tea. If she is not writing, you might find her hiking up a mountain in search of a new waterfall to explore. Let her know your thoughts about this article by e-mailing editor@leaderonomics.com

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