Executives Need Contrarians in Their Ranks
“I wanted to meet outside the office to tell you … your brown nosing is getting worse.” Shutterstock

Executives Need Contrarians in Their Ranks

'Flattery inflation' and loyalty signaling can drown out valuable input from subordinates who have different—and often better—ideas.
“I wanted to meet outside the office to tell you … your brown nosing is getting worse.” Shutterstock

In the classic novel Crime and Punishment, Fyodor Dostoyevsky lets the nasty villain of his story offer special insight into what makes the urge to compliment their superiors so ubiquitous among the powerless—and so seductive to the powerful.

Svidrigailov, the character familiar with all things nefarious, in contrast to the soul-searching protagonist Raskolnikov, argues “nothing in the world is harder than speaking 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 executives, like world leaders throughout history, are constantly warned that their subordinates—their “reports”—must be discouraged from simply saying what the boss wants to hear. Independent thinkers are, in this view, a highly sought-after species—employees who are sorely needed for organizations seeking change and growth. 

But what prevents these “thinkers” from speaking up and raising questions that might rattle the boss? Recent research says it’s not egomaniacal CEOs or hierarchical rigidity that ultimately suppress dissent. Rather, it’s the employee next to the dissenter who’s an expert at “signaling loyalty” to the top dog.

In a startling 2020 book chapter entitled “The Mechanisms of Cult Production,” written by New Zealand college professor Xavier Marquez, the notions of loyalty signaling and “flattery 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 “praises of sycophants to a clear-headed ruler are not credible as a signal of their loyalty. Yet many ruler ‘courts,’ both ancient and modern, appear to be prone to flattery.”

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

One of the better and well-written management books on the topic of contrarian employee input is Creativity, Inc. by Ed Catmull, former president of Pixar Animation.

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

But what Catmull explains most convincingly is his realization that, because of his position as president, “people became more careful in how they spoke and acted in my presence.” As he put it, after he was promoted, “snarky behavior, grousing and rudeness disappeared from view—from my view anyway.”

He didn’t like this. Rather, he found it alarming, because his position severely reduced his access to information. People “bring their best selves to interactions with their bosses and save their lesser moments for their peers, spouses, or therapist,” he wrote, so he knew he was not getting a complete picture of his own workplace.

Catmull solved his dilemma by ramping up a Pixar tradition called the “brain trust,” in which colleagues painstakingly dissect a colleague’s first-draft film in a group setting, apparently with gusto and no-holds-barred criticism.

The reader is left with the impression that all the Pixar professionals are amazingly undefensive, collegial, and beyond team-oriented. What rings truer, however, is Catmull’s emphasis on candor rather than honesty.

Encouraging employees to be “honest” in their opinions has, he notes, a moral implication that if they remain silent, maybe they’re exhibiting dishonesty. Rewarding candor, on the other hand, signals a sort of team spirit, a commitment to helping the organization as a whole in a way that enlightened leaders value.

Whether in ancient Rome with Caligula or modern-day California with Pixar, the importance of serious and consistent employee input about a company’s operations, services, or products cannot be overstated. Listening to naysayers and devil’s advocates is one way of explaining it. Questioning the motives of flattery is another. Listening to truth-tellers is best.

Linda L. Holstein is a Minneapolis writer, trial lawyer, and veteran employment law attorney. Holstein also mediates employment and business law disputes (holsteinmediation.com).

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