Being a yes-man equals safety for anyone playing status games. If safety and cheap approval are your top priorities, be a yes-man. If being idolized is your top priority, surround yourself with yes-men. But if truth and excellence are your top priorities, then you must develop an allergy to the very idea of a yes-man.

It was lunchtime at a restaurant I had never visited. I had arranged to meet the owner of this restaurant, for whom I would eventually manage several locations over the next two years. It was an opportunity to test the food, see the operation, observe the energy of the staff, and get to know the owner—I needed to know exactly what I was getting into.

Before the owner sat down with me, I watched as he interacted with his manager and his employees. Everyone seemed joyful, energetic, and genuinely happy. The food was coming out fast, servers were on top of their customers’ every need, and the bussers were cleaning and setting tables at a blistering pace. When the owner gave orders, his workers followed them. When he told his manager to do something, it was done right away. No questions asked. To my untrained eye, this was a well-run operation.

I should mention that the owner is a physically imposing man (picture a taller Dana White with a beard). So, to disagree with him might bring to mind an entirely different set of consequences. He also owns several locations, so the people at his restaurants only saw him about once every few weeks. I can’t blame them for standing on pins and needles when he came around on this occasion. Everything I saw at this meeting seemed perfect, but I had missed an obvious signal—a bad sign of things to come.

Apples and oranges

Flash forward two years. It was a Tuesday morning meeting at the owner’s office with the owner himself, the manager from that original restaurant location, my new assistant manager, and myself. We were summoned to talk about cost-control and strategies for increasing revenue as we headed into the summer months.

The owner was not happy with how either location’s numbers were looking. He told each of us, in no uncertain terms, that we had one month to cut costs by up to 40%. But having a joint meeting about two locations with entirely different circumstance was the owner’s initial mistake—comparing the two was almost literally apples and oranges.

The other restaurant in question was in the middle of one of the wealthiest communities in the entire state. For them to have cost-control problems in the warmer months was simply inexcusable. But if drastic cost cutting measures were necessary, that location was much more flexible and well-prepared to weather that storm, since they were far above any financial floor.

But if you recall from How to Solve the Principal-Agent Problem, my restaurant was brand new and right on the edge of a college campus. All of our business in that first year depended on the academic calendar. But the owner didn’t quite seem to understand that. After graduation week in mid-May, our business was cut in half overnight. Dramatic cuts to food costs would be the easy part. But the same cuts to labor costs would mean that we would be embarrassingly understaffed for the next three months.

It’s all in the eyes

As a completely detached owner who came to visit my location once every month (at best), the owner didn’t have the understanding of what it was like on the ground. As I listened to him bark at us, I watched the other manager and my own assistant manager take feverish notes and nod their heads persistently. I noticed something peculiar at that moment. The owner was making eye contact only with the other two, but not once did he look at me. It was right then and there that my suspicions were confirmed: the owner only wanted yes-men to run his restaurants. And he knew I was certainly not one of them.

I consciously chose not to voice my contrary view during that meeting. The energy was negative, and it would produce nothing but more negativity. For over two years, I had built a reputation with him based on truth and principle. And for the most part, things had been going well. I never really had a problem with telling him hard truths. But when the going got tough, he became resistant to these hard truths. If anyone told him anything contrary to what he wanted to hear or to what he was saying, he ignored them.

And by ignoring me on that day, he was signaling the calm before the storm.

What good is personal safety, approval, and popularity, when your ship is going down?

It was the receding tide before the wave. It was the calm before the storm.

It was the opposite of a death stare. The owner had not made eye contact with me for the duration of the hourlong meeting. He was fixated on the yes-men in the room. It was an impossible situation because I knew what he was asking for was irrational. And he knew that I knew. Yet two-thirds of his audience—my brand-new assistant manager and the manager from an entirely separate restaurant location—agreed with every word he said, and so he continued to push forward.

Of the four people in the room, only I had firsthand knowledge of what was happening on the ground at my restaurant. Only I had spent every single day of the past year in that restaurant. Only I had an understanding that cutting labor costs by 40% would decimate my kitchen staff and leave us understaffed and unprepared for when business inevitably picked up again.

The owner was chasing solutions, and he was being validated by the yes-men. He was grasping for answers because he hadn’t spent time on the ground. He hadn’t seen the context behind the numbers on his computer. And yet he ignored the only person in the room who could provide proper solutions, answers, and context.

Yes-men seek safety and approval

I understood what the other two were doing. They were in survival mode. The other manager knew he had to get his restaurant back on track. He was seeking safety. My assistant manager was hired only days earlier. His inexperience with the owner was understandable, and so he sought approval.

As a leader, I knew I had to take ownership and accountability for the situation. Only I could properly identify and put in place a plan to fix the problems my restaurant had. But as a subordinate, I failed miserably. The irony of it all was that, while I was seemingly the only rational-thinker in the room, I was trying to survive as well. By not speaking up, by not putting forth a common-sense solution, and by not calling out the things that didn’t make sense, I was just as much at fault as my colleagues.

I left the meeting in disbelief. At the owner. At the other managers. And most of all, at myself. Groupthink and yes-men had determined the direction of the ship I had been commanding all along, and I didn’t have the courage to stand up for myself. But at the same time, if I had said something, would the man who wouldn’t look me in the eye even listen to me?  Perhaps it was worth a shot—a shot I never took.

Nothing but a rebel

It was from that day forward that the relationship between me and the owner began to deteriorate. Throughout the summer, he would call me almost every day. We had more communication than ever before, but the tone wasn’t the same. It was tense. At times, it was angry. With my hands tied behind my back, I managed to cut costs as far as I could. But it would not be enough for him, as he would never see me as anything but a rebel.

I hadn’t earned the respect for standing up for myself (because I hadn’t stood up), and I didn’t have the safety and approval for being a yes-man. I lost the battle on multiple fronts, and I was on the verge of starting (and losing) the war—the story of which will be told in the next essay.

As a leader, having yes-men is a serious dilemma. It is tempting to want everyone to agree with everything you say. It can be soothing to your ego to have everyone nod their heads when you speak. It feels good when everyone is on the same page as you. Such an environment can make things easier and smoother in the short run, but will present large, unforeseen problems in the long run as groupthink takes hold.

If you see an iceberg…

If you want to build a strong, durable organization, you must develop an allergy to yes-men. Invite your subordinates to push back against your ideas. Trust those who are closer to the situation and have more reliable information. Hear what they have to say, even if it’s not what you want to hear. Your job is not to find ideas that everyone agrees on. Your job is to find ideas with the most merit—that make the most sense.

As a subordinate, you must stand up when something doesn’t seem right. The captain of the ship may not see the iceberg in the distance, and decide to push forward even faster. If all you are is a yes-man, if all you do is agree, you’re putting your personal survival and thirst for approval ahead of the welfare of the entire ship.

And worse, if you have the telescope in hand, if you have sight of the iceberg, and you say nothing at all…