Some commonly used expressions in the corporate world i.e. ‘submissive’, ‘subservient’ and ‘Yes Man’ have more or less become part of the acceptable vocabulary. The questions we must ask ourselves as leaders: Who are these people? Why they are preferred for hiring? Which corporate sectors, in particular, actually want to hire them?
Before we move any further, let’s understand that the above terms are frequently used in a derogatory manner to describe a man or woman who is perceived to be overly agreeable and hesitant to share contrary viewpoints. Most so-called ‘yes’ people get their way up in a mediocre culture because the bosses are such who want their employees to just listen without uttering a word, get things done and they don’t need to argue. In fact, they are responding to a culture or the management team who elicit and reward this type of behavior. Most submissive employees are doing what they think they need to do to survive on a dysfunctional leadership landscape where all the signals and messages confirm for them that dissent is bad and agreement is good.
Now let’s have a look at both the sides of the coin and see where the real problem lies and how to address it.
About ‘Submissive’ Work Culture
Of the many factors that contribute to a culture of submission or surrender, a big one is when decision makers frequently surround themselves with people having similar mindset, training or behaviours i.e. management consultants, executives and managers and then reward them for constant agreement. This mostly happens in customer service domain, with particular reference to hospitality industry where one expects total surrender, courtesy and prompt service. Studies prove that this type of people are fearful, less confident and sometimes incompetent. When this happens, the team and organization start falling short of its collective wisdom and intelligence, collective creativity and collective ability to innovate. Not much undermines leadership effectiveness like surrounding yourself with or creating submissive employees who fear expressing dissent. For them, the concept “Agree to disagree” doesn’t even exist.
Like-Mindedness doesn’t always pay off
While it is common to desire the ease that comes with working with ‘like-minded’ people, leaders need to be cautious not to overdo this to the point of excluding diverse and divergent thinking as this sends very clear signal to rest of the organisation that:
- Disagreement isn’t appreciated
- Creativity and Innovation has no place in that very organisation
- One would only receive recognition and promotion if he/she continues to agree with the management
How to fix it?
Making good hiring decisions can have a significant impact on the success of your business. No matter what industry you work in, it’s imperative that you hire people who don’t always agree with you and have a fresh perspective to share.
Here’s how to hire people who won’t be afraid to argue when necessary, and avoid the kind of associates who fail to push your business forward.
1. Manage referrals
In any new startup, people prefer to hire referrals i.e. through or from friends and family. Hiring team assumes that the skills they needed to get things done will be fulfilled through the candidates who had a previous, positive relationship. It feels good to be surrounded by supportive people, especially when first starting up with a new business venture or a green field company.
We must be careful here that this move greatly inhibits our ability to get important feedback and make necessary changes. It’s not necessarily that such referrals are ‘submissive’ by choice; instead, because they have a pre-existing relationship with you, they’re inclined to behave in certain ways — most of which are far from professional.
Among other things, this includes refraining from hurting your feelings, which often takes the form of unqualified praise (or conversely, squashing negative news). Based on your past, you may even find such hires defensive as well: perhaps it’s an older sibling who thinks he / she knows best, or a friend who sees you not as an employer or a supervisor, but as an old college roommate or a distant cousin. Either way, you aren’t getting the constructive criticism you need to make the right call.
2. Transparent Culture
It starts at the top: as a leader, if you don’t leave yourself open to criticism, how can you expect others to be forthcoming with their feedback? And if your employees are focused on keeping you happy and your fragile ego intact, how can you expect them to air out any festering problems?
In fact, this inability to provide candid critiques carries with it a monetary cost, as well. According to a Harvard Business Review article, any business whose employees spoke up and pointed out problems always saw better financial and operational results. For instance, middle managers at one restaurant chain persuaded senior leaders to make improvements which then reduced turnover by 32 percent, thus saving some $1.6 million annually.
Yet the same article makes it clear that building an environment where your employees are expected to come forward with concerns is no easy task. A huge number of variables are involved: the fear factor, which prevents subordinates from speaking their minds; relying on anonymous input, which paradoxically reinforces the risk of speaking up; and failing to actually address the issues which were raised.
There’s no easy, quick fix, especially if your organization has struggled with soliciting and implementing employee feedback. But the good news is that it’s always possible to start. It simply takes a lot of hard work, and a significant amount of active listening.
3. Constructive Confrontation
Confrontation doesn’t come easily to most. Some leaders want peace in the organisation. In fact, they are hard-wired to avoid it, especially as social harmony could mean the difference between life and death — at least in the prehistoric, mammoth-hunting days.
But in today’s modern society, confrontation is a crucial part of everyday life, be it at the office or at home. Instead, it’s important to divorce ideas from people, and not take everything so personally.
This ability is called constructive confrontation. That’s not to say that these head-to-head discussions should be heated or tense; rather, all parties should have ground rules in place. E.g. have an impartial moderator to keep things from getting out of hand; allow parties to walk out and take a breather if they feel the pressure (or anger) building up to intolerable levels; or agree to disagree without resorting to personal attacks.
Aside from sticking to ideas rather than resorting to personal attacks, the key to constructive confrontation lies in listening. At Intel, employees understand that the ability to speak their thoughts and minds is critical to ironing out bugs or innovating the next big development. In fact, constructive confrontation was one such tool that Intel used to build its position as a leader in computer processors and chipsets.
Ultimately, the truth is this: whether you’re a massive, dominant multinational like Intel or a small, family-owned business, it’s in your best interest not to hire yes men. Moreover, you should go one step further: build and encourage an open environment, and listen to your employees when they tell you what’s wrong. Implement their reasonable feedback as much as you can, and learn to confront one another in a constructive manner.
To summarize, we identified the following categories of employees that we are generally surrounded with.
- Who simply agree with you on anything and everything. For them, it is peace that they have to maintain in the larger organisational interest.
- Who are opinionated and can challenge you. They are the true well-wishers and they deserve appreciation.
We as leaders, must also be sensitive to the fact that we have a career too and we as leaders need to grow as well and we must identify factors that hinders our own leadership success.
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Muhammad Sajwani is the Founder, Managing Director and Principal Consultant at Evolve HR which aims at transforming, enriching and evolving Human Capital of Pakistan. At Evolve HR, him and his team thrives in challenging assumptions that hinder organisational aspirations, by creating innovative solutions that yield maximum impact, scalability & benefit to a wider base of stakeholders. As a Business Coach and Organisational Consultant, Sajwani knows how to combine business insights with people insights to transform organisations and put them on the path to growth.