Executives need opposites in their ranks

“I wanted to meet you outside the office to tell you… your brown nose is getting worse.”

In the classic novel Crime and Punishment, Fyodor Dostoevsky lets the villainous villain of his story offer special insight into what makes the urge to compliment their superiors so pervasive among the helpless and so alluring to the powerful.

Svidrigailov, the familiar character of all evil things, unlike the introspective protagonist Raskolnikov, claims that “nothing in the world is harder than telling the truth, and nothing easier than flattery”.

You don’t have to be a 19th-century Russian novelist (or a fan of Machiavelli) to recognize the dangerous temptation of flattery. Business leaders, like world leaders throughout history, are constantly warned that their subordinates – their “reports” – should be discouraged from simply saying what the boss wants to hear. Independent thinkers are, from this point of view, a highly sought-after species, employees that organizations seeking change and growth badly need.

But what is it that prevents these “thinkers” from speaking out and raising questions that could upset the boss? Recent research indicates that it is not egocentric CEOs or hierarchical rigidity that ends up suppressing dissent. Rather, it is the employee next to the dissident who is an expert in “signaling loyalty” to the lead dog.

In a surprising 2020 book chapter titled “The Mechanisms of Cult Production,” written by New Zealand university professor Xavier Marquez, the notions of loyalty signal and “flattering inflation” were examined. The cases of political cult figures ranged from Caligula (ancient Rome) to Francisco Franco (Spain) to Hafez al-Assad (Syria) to Mao Zedong (China), not to mention Stalin and Hitler. As Marquez noted, “The praise of sycophants of a lucid leader is not credible as a signal of their loyalty. Yet many sovereign “courts”, both ancient and modern, seem to be prone to flattery. “

Marquez’s dense but enlightening examination of the “chief cults” has been cited by various sources, including Paul Krugman of New York Times. Beyond political analysis, the question that business leaders may ask themselves, even if they claim complete humility, is whether the subordinate who constantly flatters and praises his loyalty to the boss gets more time. face and more respect.

One of the best and best-written management books on the subject of Controlling Employee Contribution is Creativity, Inc. by Ed Catmull, former president of Pixar Animation.

Reading on the genesis of Toy Story, Toy Story 2, and Toy story 3 is inspiring. So is Catmull’s explanation of how he skillfully kept Pixar owner Steve Jobs out of certain meetings when he wanted open communication.

But what Catmull explains most convincingly is that he realized that, because of his position as president, “people became more careful in the way they spoke and acted in my country. presence”. As he said, after being promoted, “the sarcastic behavior, the grunts and the rudeness disappeared from view, from my point of view anyway.”

He didn’t like it. Rather, he found it alarming, as his position drastically reduced his access to information. People “give their best to interactions with their bosses and reserve every moment for their peers, spouses or therapists,” he wrote, so he knew he wasn’t getting the full picture. from their own workplace.

Catmull solved his dilemma by stepping up a Pixar tradition called “brain trust,” in which colleagues painstakingly dissect a colleague’s first film project in a group setting, seemingly enthusiastically and unreservedly critical.

The reader gets the impression that all of Pixar’s pros are surprisingly undefensive, collegial, and beyond teamwork. What seems truer, however, is Catmull’s emphasis on straightforwardness rather than honesty.

Encouraging employees to be “honest” in their opinions has, he notes, a moral implication that if they remain silent, they may be showing dishonesty. Rewarding franchise, on the other hand, signals a kind of team spirit, a commitment to helping the organization as a whole in a way that thought leaders value.

Whether in ancient Rome with Caligula or today’s California with Pixar, the importance of meaningful and consistent employee contribution to a company’s operations, services, or products cannot be overstated. . Listening to opponents and devil’s advocates is one way of explaining it. Questioning the motives for flattery is another. It is best to listen to those who are telling the truth.

Linda L. Holstein is a writer, litigator, and senior labor lawyer in Minneapolis. Holstein also advises on labor and business litigation (holsteinmediation.com).

Read the rest of this issue

Cover of Twin Cities Business magazine October / November 2021