Leaders generally become leaders as a result of a combination of vision, good ideas, and commitment. However, if you’re not hearing any pushback whatsoever on your great ideas, you could have a “yes-person” problem.
“It becomes more of an issue, the more you go up the leadership ladder,” says Brandon Smith, workplace dynamics and leadership professor at Emory University and founder of The Workplace Therapist, a workplace-performance consultancy. “If you’re sitting in a team meeting and no one is asking clarifying questions about what you’re talking about–they’re all just sitting back quietly–you might not just be surrounded by yes people, but maybe in a culture that’s equipping yes people.”
Smith says that the problem with being surrounded by people who don’t disagree with you or who don’t provide input is that you never benefit from having your ideas challenged or suggestions making the ideas better. While you may have a brilliant and innovative mind, most of us need a little help from our colleagues, mentors, and friends to really make a project, initiative, or idea the best it can be–even if that means just thinking through the risk or downside to be sure we’re ready for it. So if you’re light on the negative lately, try these tactics to draw out a new attitude.
One of the first things you can do is name the issue, says Zach Schaefer, PhD, founder of communication consulting firm Spark the Discussion and author of American Creativity: The Mind at Work. You don’t want to label individuals as yes people, but highlight your concern and let people know that it’s okay to speak. It sounds obvious, but team members, especially those who don’t know you well, may not know how to give you feedback.
“Simply acknowledging the fact that it’s okay to ask questions, it’s okay to disagree and push back, is a great first step,” he says.
Of course, once you invite the feedback, you have to be sure you can take it, Schaefer says. You’ll damage relationships if you tell people they can give you unvarnished feedback or criticism and then react poorly, get angry, or punish them for it, he says.
Watch your body language and tone. Remember that others’ opinions can be valuable and make your idea better. You’ll get more of the behavior you’re seeking if you reward it–be sure to recognize those who have done as you asked.
Some people just aren’t comfortable giving negative feedback in front of a group, so soliciting ideas and input individually can also help. This way, your more reserved colleagues and employees can give you their opinions directly without feeling like they’re being disloyal or criticizing you in front of the team.
When assembling teams, it can be easy to choose the people you like who make things easy, and who think like you do. That’s an environment ripe for yes-person behavior. When possible, tap people who aren’t in your typical circles and who may bring new ideas and differing insights to the work, Smith says.
Schaefer recommends making contributions mandatory, such as requiring that everyone ask two questions during a meeting. Sure, that can lead to some uninspired queries, but you’re also making a conscious shift as a leader to be sure that people are asking questions, he says. Plus, you’re going to get those that people feel are important, especially if you also state that there are no negative consequences for asking questions.
Sometimes, people feel like they can’t question someone who has greater specialization than they do. For example, if you have someone from marketing talking about CTAs (calls to action) and LTVs (lifetime value), the rest of the team might not even understand the jargon, let alone feel comfortable asking questions. Explain areas that might be unclear and let your people know that it’s fine to ask questions about something they don’t understand, Schaefer says.
If what you’re getting from your reality-check folks differs from your team, it’s a sign that you might not be getting honest feedback at the office, Smith says. Use a friend or mentor who will be honest with you as a touchstone and idea testing ground. If you’re getting the same feedback on both fronts regularly, that’s a good sign, he adds.