Management Matters Management MattersManagement Matters
Practical advice for federal leaders on managing people, processes and projects.

Say No to Yes Men

Everyone does stupid things -- some more stupid than others and some more frequently than most. People make mistakes, bad decisions and poor judgment calls. Managers and leaders are not immune to this human condition. So it behooves good leaders to surround themselves with people who are willing and able to tell them when an idea just isn't up to snuff.

For an extreme example, look no further than the criminal complaint outlining the federal government's case against Gov. Rod Blagojevich, the Illinois Democrat who aimed to sell the vacant U.S. Senate seat of President-elect Barack Obama. The government's wiretaps captured Blagojevich proposing various schemes to profit from his appointment authority for the Senate seat. They also captured his employees and advisers largely playing along with him.

At one point, the criminal complaint describes a two-hour conversation. Blagojevich discusses a convoluted scheme in which he would get a cushy union job in return for the Senate appointment. The advisers question details only. "One of Rod Blagojevich's advisors said he likes the idea, it sounds like a good idea, but advised Rod Blagojevich to be leery of promises for something two years from now," the complaint explains. A variety of similar schemes come and go, some weirder than others, such as an idea to convince Obama to get billionaires Warren Buffett and Bill Gates to help set up a foundation for Blagojevich to lead. The employees and advisers promise to follow up on the ideas.

In the criminal complaint, Blagojevich's subordinates come off poorly as they plot with him. Such yes men generally fall into two categories. The first set -- quite common in politics -- consists of sycophants who view their jobs as constantly assuaging their bosses' egos and doing as they're told. The second -- common throughout the working world -- is made up of normal people with good heads on their shoulders who have learned not to challenge their bosses. They go along to get along. If Blagojevich's advisers fell in this camp, then they may have known that his ideas were bonkers, but they saw no point in raising objections because they believed the governor would not respond constructively.

Indeed, Blagojevich confirmed such suspicions when he revealed that two consultants had recommended that he just appoint whomever Obama wanted and expect nothing in return. Through a string of F-bombs, Blagojevich made it clear that he wouldn't be taking that advice.

Egocentric bosses such as Blagojevich naturally attract yes men of both varieties. Normal managers don't, but it's still important for leaders to guard against any tendency to squash dissent. The idea is not to encourage dissent for dissent's sake, but to encourage subordinates to share their thoughts on the potential pitfalls of various approaches -- or to strongly object when they know an idea crosses ethical or legal boundaries. In the short term, it can hurt to hear one's ideas get beaten down. In the long term, listening to dissenting opinions that kill bad ideas is in a leader's best interest. Just ask Blagojevich.

Brian Friel covered management and human resources at Government Executive for six years and is now a National Journal staff correspondent.


Brian Friel is founder of One Nation Analytics, an independent research, analytics and consulting firm for the federal market.

Close [ x ] More from GovExec

Thank you for subscribing to newsletters from
We think these reports might interest you:

  • Going Agile:Revolutionizing Federal Digital Services Delivery

    Here’s one indication that times have changed: Harriet Tubman is going to be the next face of the twenty dollar bill. Another sign of change? The way in which the federal government arrived at that decision.

  • Cyber Risk Report: Cybercrime Trends from 2016

    In our first half 2016 cyber trends report, SurfWatch Labs threat intelligence analysts noted one key theme – the interconnected nature of cybercrime – and the second half of the year saw organizations continuing to struggle with that reality. The number of potential cyber threats, the pool of already compromised information, and the ease of finding increasingly sophisticated cybercriminal tools continued to snowball throughout the year.

  • Featured Content from RSA Conference: Dissed by NIST

    Learn more about the latest draft of the U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology guidance document on authentication and lifecycle management.

  • GBC Issue Brief: The Future of 9-1-1

    A Look Into the Next Generation of Emergency Services

  • GBC Survey Report: Securing the Perimeters

    A candid survey on cybersecurity in state and local governments

  • The New IP: Moving Government Agencies Toward the Network of The Future

    Federal IT managers are looking to modernize legacy network infrastructures that are taxed by growing demands from mobile devices, video, vast amounts of data, and more. This issue brief discusses the federal government network landscape, as well as market, financial force drivers for network modernization.

  • eBook: State & Local Cybersecurity

    CenturyLink is committed to helping state and local governments meet their cybersecurity challenges. Towards that end, CenturyLink commissioned a study from the Government Business Council that looked at the perceptions, attitudes and experiences of state and local leaders around the cybersecurity issue. The results were surprising in a number of ways. Learn more about their findings and the ways in which state and local governments can combat cybersecurity threats with this eBook.


When you download a report, your information may be shared with the underwriters of that document.