Why yes-men get promoted

What is the purpose of newspaper columnists? Simple, says Chris Dillow, they exist to reinforce the views of their readers. Bloggers spend hours pulling apart their articles and refuting their arguments but there is really no point.

Criticizing a newspaper columnist for not being right is like complaining that your cat doesn’t make you a cup of tea in the morning. It’s not their job.

Bloggers love to slag off Melanie Phillips, but not one of them points out the key fact – that she’s paid to write columns and they are not. This difference exists not because Ms Philips is a better writer or better informed than her critics, but because she is better able than they to express Mail readers’ prejudices.

Newspapers are businesses like any other. And the function of a business is to give its customers what they want. And in many cases, what the customers want is not the “truth” but the comfort that they are right.

Confirmation bias, the tendency to favour information which confirms our views, has been the subject of psychological studies for decades. Being right, it seems, makes us feel better and being wrong irritates us. Therefore we allow in the information that makes us feel good and filter out that which pisses us off.

Eli Pariser, author of The Filter Bubble, explains:

[T]here’s this thing called confirmation bias, which is basically our tendency to feel good about information that confirms what we already believe. And, you know, you can actually see this in the brain. People get a little dopamine hit when they’re told that they’re right.

Which is why, he says, websites are increasingly tailoring information according to the preferences they detect in each viewer. People have always chosen information sources that reflect their views, which is why we have left-wing and right-wing newspapers. But now, technology is not only allowing us to filter out the information that contradicts our views, it is anticipating those views and doing it for us.

Technology has made more information available but it has also increased our ability to restrict what we see. When we only had a few TV channels, we watched what we were given. Nowadays we need never see anything that contradicts our view of the world.

There is even some evidence to suggest that Americans are replicating their online filters in the real world. Increasingly, people are choosing to live in areas populated by those who share their views, leading to greater political polarisation:

In 1976, just 26.8% of Americans lived in a “Landslide County” where one presidential candidate won the county by more than 20%. By 2004, however, 48.3% of Americans lived in Landslide Counties.

Left to our own devices, then, we will restrict their information intake to that which makes us feel good, even to the extent of moving to areas where people have similar views. Information which challenges our view of the world is hard work. We don’t get the same high from it and it’s much more difficult to process so, unless we are being paid to read it, most of us don’t bother. We much prefer information which confirms our views. That is why newspaper columnists who reinforce people’s prejudices make so much money. They are pushers of feel-good hormones.

So what are the implications of “confirmation bias” for organisations? Jackie Ashley, commenting on Alistair Darling’s memoirs in yesterday’s Guardian, had this to say:

We know, or say we know, how good decision-making works. It should be fact-based, deliberative and tested by real arguments. This means it needs people who have the knowledge to engage and the self-confidence to challenge assumptions. In theory, a cabinet of ministers who are there because they have parliamentary support and have risen through past successes should provide just that – a table full of people with the facts in front of them, able to say “no, prime minster”.

In theory, just the same should apply to the management of big companies, including banks. Around the boardroom table, independent-minded people with business records of their own, are able to cross-question CEOs and managing directors. New ideas are thrashed out. Mistakes are honestly debated and learned from. If things go too wrong, then the wider electorate can call a halt – the real electorate in politics, and the shareholders in business. It’s a theory of public life most people sign up to.

It is also, however, a pious caricature of how Britain really works. The people who rise to the top tend to be the scary bullies. They’re the ones with personalities so large, and self-belief so shocking, that people around them shrivel and go quiet. They promote yes-men and yes-women. Their mistakes are unchallenged.

As I’ve said before, at work, we often operate in an “as if world”.  We behave as if certain things are true even though we know they are not. If we can put together rational arguments and robust data, we tell ourselves, then eventually people will see the logic of what we are saying and change their minds. A lot of management literature and business journalism makes the same tacit assumption. All issues are rationally discussed, the evidence is assessed, constructive challenges are made and logical conclusions are reached.

Anyone who has watched corporate decision-making closely will know that this is a long way from what really happens. Chief Executives and directors are just like everyone else. They feel good when their views are confirmed but they get irritated when they are challenged or, worse, proved wrong. Unlike most of us, though, they have the power to make sure they keep getting their feel-good hits and to stop anyone who interrupts their supply with inconvenient counter-arguments.

During the financial bonanza of the mid-2000s, when people were high on adrenalin and making money hand over fist, who the hell wanted some misery guts to turn off the supply of happiness? It’s no wonder that those who sounded warnings or even suggested caution were sidelined or booted out. No-one likes a party pooper.

Of course, senior people say they want radical left-field thinkers who will challenge them and that they don’t want yes-men but their behaviour too often proves the opposite. The yes-men are rewarded while the Cassandras are sacked.

Sometimes, those who look like radical thinkers are actually yes-men. Coming up with new data or off-the-wall suggestions which support what the leaders wanted to do in the first place is the secret of success in some corporate regimes. A lot of ‘out of the box’ thinking in organisations falls into this ‘radical conservative’ category – innovative new ideas which support the status quo.

Of course, none of this is to say that business leaders never change their minds about anything. Clearly they do. Ray Anderson, the carpet entrepreneur who died last month, is great example of someone who read something which contradicted his view of the world and, instead of dismissing it, used it as a basis for the complete redesign of his business.

Such epiphanies are unusual though. Corporate executives, change management consultants and coaches often talk about shifting mindsets and changing attitudes but it’s a lot easier said than done. Preparing evidence and constructing a sound argument is unlikely to be enough on its own. We like to think that logic and reason will prevail in the end but the forces ranged against it are strong. People cling to their attitudes and views of the world because they make them feel secure. When those views are reinforced, people feel good and, when they are challenged, people feel uncomfortable. The more powerful people are, the more able they are increase the flow of feel-good information and filter out that which annoys them. As a friend of mine once said, “It’s hard to tell people what they need to hear when everyone else is telling them what they want to hear.”

We all like to be told we are right and to have our biases confirmed. There is evidence to suggest that some of us may be more addicted to the confirmation drug than others but few of us are total abstainers. Yes-men get promoted because they provide these feel-good hits to the powerful and act as gatekeepers against inconvenient feel-bad information.

Of course, not all senior executives surround themselves with yes-men but even the more enlightened ones are rarely as open-minded as they claim to be. When you are struggling to make headway against entrenched views and corporate group-think, it’s worth remembering that you are not just engaged in an intellectual battle. You are fighting against drug dealers too.

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19 Responses to Why yes-men get promoted

  1. Pingback: Why yes-men get promoted - Rick - Member Blogs - HR Blogs - HR Space from Personnel Today and Xpert HR

  2. somologist says:

    Isn’t it a bit of an irony to build a blog on ‘confirmation bias’ around a newspaper column on ‘confirmation bias’ about the fact that we all like to be right.

  3. David Goddin says:

    Great post Rick. If you want you want to build better organisations (in all senses) then I believe neuroscience is where the gold lies. Using that knowledge is a whole different ball game but it’s where the future of leadership development, change management and learning lies.

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  5. yorksranter says:

    The explanation of “landslide counties” isn’t some sort of handwavy David Brooks cultural trend. It’s redistricting. It is relatively easy to change the boundaries of US counties, congressional districts, cities, and their politicians do it all the time. They do so for a reason – they want to include their voters in the constituency and exclude the other lot.

  6. Paul says:

    Top post.

    I love the idea of yes-men as drug dealers

  7. Excellent post

    A corporate change or transformation initiative is possibly one of the hardest things to implement within a large business. Interestingly I think the problem stems from the fact that once a business is up and running the C-level team could probably take a year off and not much would change. The people who can successfully make the change are those that actually do the work so leaders need to be able to harness and direct this talent to achieve the strategic aims of the business. I’ve done some work for a company who’s MD set things up in this manner and change projects tended to be more successful. A major part of this though was giving people ‘permission’ to challenge and say no, which was a big cultural shift as previously naysayers weren’t promoted or were managed out. A personal observation is that yes-men type behaviour is more prevalent in the UK than in say Germany or France, just wondered what everyone else thought

    • Rick says:

      Richard, a country comparison would be interesting. Charles Handy once told a story about a German who addressed his boss formally and an American who called his boss by his first name. Difference was, the German told his boss the truth, warts and all, while the American told his boss what he wanted to hear.

      Informal cultures can be just as oppressive and rigid as formal ones, sometimes more so.

      • I agree with you about cultures. I lived and worked in Germany for a few years and although the work culture was more formal the conservations were a lot more open. If there was a problem it was discussed in depth and everyone was truthful. This was also the same outside where if you asked how someone was, you did get a run down of their health issues warts and all.

  8. Doug Shaw says:

    A tip top read. And some great follow up commentary too. There we go – I’ve agreed with most of this, have I got the job yet?🙂 Good work.

  9. Kevin Ball says:

    I read this after I wrote this: http://www.west-writing.com/2011/09/question-everything/

    Sounds like we should drink beer and confirm ourselves in our shared opinions.

    Great work.

  10. Blissex says:

    There is a deeper reason why yes men thrive and change is difficult in large organizations of every sort…

    It is that very often career success and power structures are tied to championing specific strategies.

    If a career got boosted by hitching the manager’s fortunes to a specific bandwagon, that manager will resist any attempt to change strategy, and not necessarily because she feels that the strategy she championed is right, but because the change could boot someone else’s career at her expense.

    This is often the reason why businesses follow doomed strategies to the end: those managers whose power in the company is vested in them will not tolerate change for fear of weakening their position. It is not confirmation bias, it is politics bias.

    For politicians following a doomed strategy just because it is the one on which they built their career eventually is cut short by voters.

    But business managers are in general unaccountable, except to creditors, and for them it can be an entirely rational decision to prefer driving a business to bankruptcy by riding the strategies on which their position is built rather than change them and risks their massive salaries.

    Business management structures are first and foremost power hierarchies, and it matters a great deal what underpins that power.

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  12. James F says:

    Hi there – I intended a few times to post a comment on this blog just to say how much I enjoyed it. I guess it’s a shame to only get round to it once it seems like it’s… winding down.

    Better late than never and fingers crossed you’ll find more time for this. (I never knew I was interested in HR before).

    Cheers – J

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