By Gerry Murray. 15-11-2020
(Scroll down for a laugh)

“Big egos are big shields for lots of empty space.” ~ Diana Black

"Yes, sir. No, sir. Three bags full sir.” So goes the nursery rhyme Baa Baa Black Sheep - the phrase implies that people say what their boss wants to hear. 

Reflecting this past week on the results of the US Presidential elections I wondered whether this could in part explain what happened in the campaign of the outgoing president? 

Could this be a lesson for all leaders who have larger-than-life egos, bully others and can never admit a mistake? 

A quick Google search reveals that the “Yes Man” syndrome has dangerous consequences for leaders and their organisations. Many of us have had first-hand experiences of leaders who challenged everyone on everything to the point where we found that silence was the best policy. 

You’re probably familiar with the phrase: “that would be a career-limiting move!"

A Harvard Business Review article from June 2009 features a quote from renowned economist, Albert O. Hirschman, highlighting this experience: 

"In the early 1970s, Albert O. Hirschman posited that employees who disagree with company policy have only three options: exit, voice, or loyalty. That is, they can offer a principled resignation (exit), try to change the policy (voice truth to power), or remain team players despite their opposition (loyalty). Most people choose option three, the path of least resistance. They swallow whatever objections they may have to questionable dictates from above, concluding that they lack the power to change things or, worse, will be punished if they try. Most executives expect their people to be good soldiers and not question company policy, but a great leader will welcome alternative viewpoints."

Somewhat prescient, to say the least. We’ve seen the consequences for many talented people when they chose to voice truth to power in the outgoing White House administration. 

How does this problem evolve?

Aside from the character of a dominant CEO, much of the problem comes from how people are recruited and/or promoted. I’ve written in the past about unconscious bias and how it leads us to make poor decisions. We tend to recruit people like us, who like us. 

However, having 11 goalkeepers doesn’t make for a great team! 

Also, organisations are wedded to outdated recruitment practices that research has shown give a predictive validity of around a 20% chance of selecting the best candidate. This means that 80 out of every 100 people may not be the right fit for the job! No professional gambler would take those odds, yet organisations seem perfectly ok with them. 

I’ve also written about Craig Weber’s excellent work on Conversational Capacity and how a lack of this can seriously handicap a team or an entire organisation for that matter. Feeling that you should speak up is one thing. Having the mindset and skills to do so is quite another. 

And, in that same vein, I’ve written about the research of Professor Amy Edmondson into Psychological Safety in the workplace and how fear/silence has cost lives e.g. in hospital operating theatres, airplane crashes, etc…

These factors can play a powerful role in facilitating a “Yes sir. No sir. Three bags full sir” culture. 

These are just a few examples but there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that blind loyalty can create problems. 

What can we do? 

First, we all need to be aware of our own tendencies, either as leaders or as employees. And then be prepared to change, especially if diverse viewpoints are not welcome. As a leader you can set the tone. As an employee you may have a more valuable contribution to make elsewhere.  

Second, there are tools out there to help individuals, teams and organisations understand these tendencies in their organisational cultures. For example, we have the tools to provide an organisation with a mapping of their Cultural DNA

Third, ensure that people have the mindset and skills to make the changes. As I wrote a few weeks back, when we combine our diverse maps or models of the world we can all benefit from an enriched map. Our “Mindset for Excellence” Leadership Programme was created to teach leaders how to do this. 

When we acquire, practice and perfect skills we become more effective in a given domain. 

According to Nigel Nicholson, Professor of Organisational Behaviour at London Business School, leaders often need to employ Trusted Advisors:  

“The trusted advisor is one who challenges your thinking and shows you what you can’t see. If you want change in your organisation, you need to bring in people who can help you do that.”

The current Covid-19 crisis has created an impetus for change in many organisations. 

Perhaps, now is the time to sow the seeds towards a better harvest?



I used to have a major ego problem
But since I got rid of if I'm pretty much perfect!

The king's ego really took a hit when he couldn't put Humpty Dumpty back together again.
As a result, his men were walking on eggshells.

A woman who lived next door to a preacher was puzzled by his personality change. At home he was shy, quiet and retiring, but in the church he was a real fire orator, rousing the masses in the name of God. It was as if he were two different people.
One day she asked him about the dramatic transformation that came over him when he preached.
“Ah,” he said, “That’s my altar ego.”

My friend is a farmer with a huge ego problem
All I did was ask him where he was and he bragged that he’s out standing in his field

What do you call the boss at Old McDonald's Farm?


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