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Et Tu Brute: Are you a Yes-Man?

I worked seven years with a person I came to distrust and lose respect for. We did some amazing things together, but ever so slowly what started as a great relationship became tainted, and at the heart of it was trust. I finally chose to leave both because I was worried about the legal ramifications of his behavior, but also because my own heart was shifting to a place of paranoia, and I was worried what this would do to all other aspects of my life.

"my own heart was shifting to a place of paranoia"

I cannot help but see a parallel between the relationship of Brutus and Caesar, and what it means for a “yes-man” to be allowed to thrive in an organization. Once close friends, Brutus was able to give counsel to Caesar that was direct and honest. But at some point, that counsel changed.

Brutus decided he didn't like the choices that Caesar was making and rather than providing constructive feedback, he chose to pretend to continue a good relationship with Caesar while at the same time speaking out against him in other circles, fomenting discord, and ultimately leading to the final solution when a group of conspirators literally stabbed Caesar in the back. Brutus was not Sustaining Caesar. This is a yes-man.

It is fascinating to consider this as a parallel to modern working life. Caesar expressed surprise upon seeing Brutus as one of his assassins.

I had the privilege of speaking alongside Niel Nickolaisen, CTO of OC Tanner, at the Utah CIO summit. During his talk, he mentioned that when he starts a new job he finds somebody he trusts and asks them to tell him all the things that everyone knows about him but him.

"He finds somebody he trusts and asks them to tell him all the things that everyone knows about him but him."

My first impression was that this was a sign of somebody who was very paranoid. I recalled my earlier relationship and remembered the fear and paranoia this other person had often exhibited. But as the discussion ensued I realized what Niel was doing was something entirely different. He was asking for this feedback not because he wanted to be prepared for the Brutuses, but because he was trying to focus on a heart of peace.

He wants to know the mistakes he might make—and we all make them daily—so he could work to correct them. The challenge for anybody in a leadership position is in getting realistic and genuine feedback that is not simply yes-man oriented.

The Brutus Effect

"They will give feedback only on what they feel safe talking about..."

This comes down to a simple conundrum that all leaders face, and that is that you can rarely get genuine feedback from people who report to you because frankly, they are afraid for their job. They will give feedback only on what they feel is safe talking about, limited by what they feel will affect their ongoing employment, and this can create a false sense of what is going on around you. This is the Brutus Effect.

I found this exemplified at another place I worked when in my weekly one on one with the CEO I reported a certain level of discontent with some of the teams in the organization about some things he had said. He is a very empathetic individual and wanted to correct what he felt was a wrong impression, so he took the time to meet personally with some of the individuals and feel out the situation. When we discussed the matter again later he felt that everybody reported there were no problems, and they were all happy, and he didn’t see the problem I had reported. This was in direct and stark contrast to the same feedback I had received from the same individuals. Who was right?

The challenge here is I had heard these concerns expressed in a strong relationship, where the barriers were lowered because they trusted I would not simply fire them if they said something I disagreed with. They were expressing genuine feedback, fears, and concerns, in a hope that maybe the message could make it somewhere it would do good. And it did go to the level it needed, but then the Brutus Effect kicked in. The CEO wields ultimate power within a company. People cannot help but tread lightly and say what they hope will protect their own employment, so when he came to talk to them, of course, the feedback would be different.

Can you get genuine feedback in a distorted bubble?

It is an exceedingly difficult challenge. Instead, focus on finding the yes-men. These are what Adam Grant, in his excellent talk about what it takes to be a Giver or Taker (I highly recommend watching the entire talk) would call “Agreeable Takers.” Recognize them for what they are. Yes-men can introduce a level of toxicity into an organization that is subtle because it creates a false bubble of reality at the highest levels.

Niel Nickolaisen, in asking somebody to tell him what everybody else was saying about him, was using it as a tool to pierce the bubble, but more so, he was doing something that is very difficult: he was trusting somebody else. And that is one of the hardest things for any of us to do.

Givers and Takers

"In many organizations a culture exists where it is dangerous to give genuine feedback"

At the heart of Adam’s talk (what it takes to be a Giver or Taker), he summarizes the paradox situation where those people often seen as the least productive from a metrics perspective may be the most valuable to an organization, as long as they are in the category of a Giver (which is more than simply not being a yes-man). A Giver is one whose heart is at peace, who is more often helping people, improving the team and mentoring others, but unfortunately, they personally suffer along the way. This is because in many organizations a culture exists where it is dangerous to give genuine feedback and to ask for help.

In these organizations, yes-men, or Takers, can rise quickly. They say the right things, they have an agreeable demeanor. They will "fight" for their positions of power, even accusing the givers, who might be giving direct and real feedback, as playing politics. But they are also often the people who believe in an eye for an eye, and they struggle with even the concept of Sustainment. These are the people at the heart of the drama, but who seem to have a coating of teflon.

What can we do?

What are some ways to identify if you have a yes-man? It cannot simply be if they are agreeable, warm, friendly, polite, and striving for power.

Consider a few questions about somebody:

  • Do they help others, even if it might hinder their own productivity? Probably not a yes-man.
  • Are they your biggest detractor when you are not around but are your friend when you are? Speaking with two different "voices": definitely a yes-man.
  • Do they give you advice, even to the possible detriment to their own aspirations? Not a yes-man.
  • Does talking to them sometimes make you uncomfortable, because the feedback they are giving isn’t what you want to hear? Not a yes-man.
  • Do you find they agree with you most of the time? Might be a yes-man.
  • Do they challenge your decisions to you, in private? Not a yes-man.
  • Do they have your back, supporting you to their peers, even when you are not around? Not a yes-man.
  • Are they constantly adapting to help and mentor other people? Not a yes-man.
  • When talking about other people, do they tear them down, or build them up? A yes-man will complain about others, perhaps in an agreeable manner and especially if it furthers their own aspirations; but they will rarely if ever build them up. Tearing somebody down to one's own benefit: A yes-man.
  • Do they give you critical feedback that nobody wants to hear, but everybody needs to hear? Not a yes-man.

On this last question, if they gave you critical feedback, did you respond with gratitude, or defensively, saying statements like you are comfortable with how you are running things?

If the latter, it is unlikely they will give you feedback again, even if they are not a yes-man. Does this make them into a yes-man, or is it a giver who has gone silent?

"Do you see a sudden quieting of what was once regular feedback?"

After making a change in an organization, do you see a sudden quieting of what was once regular feedback? This may not be a sign that all is good now, but rather that somebody who was a giver has instead closed up shop. They have stopped because they are afraid to tell you the truth. When this happens you need to be reminded of Caesar. Things are actually worse than you may realize, and these most valuable assets may be preparing to leave.

"Ask them whose careers' they have fundamentally improved"

Adam offers a great way to identify people who might be yes-men: Ask them whose careers' they have fundamentally improved, and pay attention to the roles of the people they give as an answer. If the people are more influential than them, it is likely they are a yes-man. If instead, the people are below them in the hierarchy or don’t have much power, and helping them really couldn't do them much good, it is likely they are a giver.

How to create this positive atmosphere?

"At the heart of this culture is trust, and it starts with you"

Create a culture where success is about contribution and helping other people succeed. Adam identifies this as Pronoia, where other people are plotting your well being, where people are going behind your back and saying exceptionally glowing things about you.

I wonder if Caesar and Brutus's relationship had been Pronoia based if history would be much different.

At the heart of this is trust, and it starts with you. Are you yourself a yes-man? Foster an environment where you feel you can trust people. This isn’t about declaring that you have an open door policy, that you want to hear any feedback, good or bad. Look for ways, like Niel did, to help pierce the bubble around you and get genuine feedback on your own behavior.

Trust starts by making yourself vulnerable. Identifying the fears you hold yourself. Listen to difficult feedback and speak gratitude for it, consider it honestly with yourself. Talk up the people around you, even when they aren't there. Sustain your peers, even if you disagree with them, and stitch Pronoia into your behavior.

If you want to learn more, look into Activator. It is a great reference on how to be a better person at any level of a tech organization, and it starts with you.

This article is also at Medium: Et Tu Brute: Are you a Yes Man?