Leaders: nurture your naysayers (and avoid CEO Disease)

Leaders nurture your naysayers and avoid CEO Disease

Do you live in a ‘happy bubble’ in which everything is wonderful and all your ideas are perfect?

If you said ‘yes’, you might be a typical leader.

And I must warn you: you might have CEO Disease.

You see, many leaders find themselves isolated, sheltered, and unaware of problems. Usually, it’s because the people they’ve surrounded themselves with are classic ‘yes-men’ and ‘yes-women’. They aren’t given contrary information, they’re sheltered from problems, and rarely if ever does anyone say ‘no’ or disagree with the.

Sheltered from negative information, these leaders struggle to gain the perspective necessary to make informed decisions because employees keep them in the dark about negative or contrary information.

Daniel Goleman and his co-authors mention this "CEO Disease" in Primal Leadership: that vacuum around leaders that buffers them from key information can lead to disasters. We've seen some examples of such faulty and uninformed decisions displayed in stories about various financial crises and corporate fiascos.

What causes this CEO Disease?

It’s probably a confluence of things.

For one, many ambitious employees that report to these leaders are eager to move up, eager to please, and/or eager to win the leader’s favor. These motivations fly in the face of saying anything unfavorable or unpleasant, and certainly don’t promote any kind of nay-saying behavior.

But I would argue that it is also potentially exacerbated by the leader’s behavior.

Do you say and show that you want to hear bad news?

Do you say and show that you’re interested in contrary opinions?

Do you say and show that you want to encourage, not punish, naysayers?

If your answer is not an unequivocal “YES!” to these questions, you might be part of the problem. This is very common, but of course also very inadvisable. You do not want problems to blind-side you.

CEO Disease is bad news

And it doesn't only affect CEOs.

As a leader of any level, you want to ensure that the 'bad' information flows up freely and is not filtered out by various 'Yes-Men/Women’. While it's a natural tendency to shun or rebut those who don't agree with us or give us contrary information, leaders must be extra careful to nurture their naysayers. Those are people who can help leaders stay in the loop and avoid making disastrous decisions.

While it's natural to shut out those who disagree with us, we leaders must nurture our naysayers.  [ <-- Tweet it! Click to tweet this out (you can edit it first if you want)]

In my experience, most leaders are not the authoritarian commander type. They have the intention to be open; most say they have an 'open-door policy'. Yet, many find themselves feeding their info 'bubble' unintentionally with their own actions. They say and do things that squelch openness and nay-saying even if they do not consciously intend to.

So how do you know if you’re nurturing your no-men or your yes-men?

Two tell-tale signs you are failing to nurture your 'No-Men':

First, if your people never see you say no then you are teaching by example that "no" is not an acceptable answer, says leadership expert Bret Simmons.

Second, if people notice that every time someone says no, they don't stick around much longer, they get the message loud and clear about the consequences of doing so. "Wake up. You are deep in self-deception. If no one ever comes to you with bad news, that’s bad news." (source)

(Listen to learn more about the flipside of leadership, intelligent disobedience, and the related concept of courageous followership in this podcast.)

5 tips for nurturing naysayers

So what should you do to avoid this CEO Disease, you ask? Here are five suggestions to get you started:

  1. Raise your own self-awareness by soliciting uncensored information. Often the first step for changing behavior is awareness of the problem's nature and prevalence. A common tool that allows your staff, peers, and bosses to anonymously speak up about your strengths and limitations is a 360 degree feedback instrument.
  2. Verbally and visibly create space for raising concerns. During important decision processes, insert a step where contrariness is encouraged and nurtured. Ask everyone to think of possible reasons why a course-of-action might fail or possible obstacles that might arise.
  3. Withhold your opinion until others have voiced theirs. Practice the fine art of zipping your lips when you have a point of view about some product, process, idea, or service, and invite everyone else to chime in with their opinions. Often we unintentionally shut others down from voicing contrarian opinions if we’ve already expressed our great enthusiasm for something for example.
  4. Ruthlessly self-monitor to avoid shooting messengers or naysayers. Practice extra self-restraint when you hear contrary information so as not to unintentionally shut out future instances of employees speaking up. Strategize ways to notice, then overcome, your natural negative response.
  5. Create feedback loops for improvement because change is incremental and what gets measured gets managed. By monitoring your development and its effects (such as through a second and third round of 360 degree assessment down the road), you can apply course-corrections and praise positive progress. Another idea is to solicit one-on-one feedback from trusted collaborators who can help you stick to your goals and assess your success in achieving them.

How are you nurturing your naysayers? What practices do you have in place to ward off CEO Disease? Chime in below in the comments!


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