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Sycophant or Dissenter - which would you choose?

When you have a vacancy on your senior leadership team and are down to two applicants with the skills to do the job, one an ingratiating yes person and the other always challenging the corporate line, which would you choose?

Everyone likes to hear positive feedback from time to time. Some people need feedback more than others, and its good to hear when you are getting things right. You can see it going well around you, but your inner doubt likes to hear other people say things are going well too. So the sycophant is useful. They are predisposed to tell you what they think you want to hear, and that you will like to hear praise more than criticism, so they will tell you how well you are doing. There's a difference between sycophants and yes people. Sycophants are giving you praise in order to ingratiate themselves, in anticipation of gaining advantage. Their primary goal is to better their own position, and so the feedback they give you, is given with that in mind. Yes people are simply inclined to agree, with everything, and may have a whole host of reasons for doing so, including fear, and their natural instinct for finding similarities and agreement.

On the plus side people who continually agree with you are easy to get along with, and offer your ego a real boost, and sometimes that really important. Everyone can have a difficult day, or experience self doubt, and to have that source of praise can help at a difficult time. And of course good leaders will be getting it right much of the time. You're getting things right, and you know you are, and people are telling you how well things are going. Everything is well. But that is where the problem starts - when things are going less well, you only have your internal barometer to let you know. And worse still, even though your gut feeling is that things aren't quite right, the yes people are trying to convince you all is well. They are no help when it comes to course correction.

So what about the Dissenter? Well they are prone to disagreeing, points out the flaws in the plan, wanting to head off down a different route. They can be difficult to work with. Of course not all dissenters are equal. Some may use dissent to undermine you or because they really believe that they know better. But others are not challenging out of self interest, it is simply that they are hardwired to see the differences in things. They may be on a spectrum between pointing out alternative perspectives to everything, through to the infernal cry of 'yes, but...'

The greatest changes in society have arisen when someone has chosen not to follow the crowd, has recognised that wrong is wrong, even if everyone is doing it. They have taken a stand, and spoken out with a different point of view. They have challenged the status quo, and pointed out when right is right, even if no one is doing it. Dissent can seem a negative attitude but that can depend very much on where you view it from. If you are the leader being challenged it can feel uncomfortable. Unless of course you are able to listen with curiosity to their perspective, and be open to finding a better way.

Diverse views allow us to find the best answers, because they bring more perspectives. Dissent stops being challenging when trust and respect are fundamental to the relationship, and those opposing views become heard as diverse alternatives. They are included in the thinking and the emerging plan is one that has shared and collective ownership. Impossible? Not at all, honest conversations are all too often avoided, when in reality they are the only conversation that should taking place in the leadership team.

"Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak; courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen."

Winston Churchill


So as you reflect on your leadership team, are they telling you what they think you want to hear? As you put forward your plan, does the corporate nod ripple around the table? Or do you have a team with enough trust and respect in each other to say the things that need to be said? When you are ready to speak and listen with courage contact us and find out how we can help.

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