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.