Do Your People Ever Tell You No?

August 10, 2009

If not, you are in trouble.

You are not hearing what you need to hear from them, only what they think you want to hear.  Don’t think for a moment that because you are the boss you know what’s going on in your organization.  You only know what is really happening to the extent that your folks tell you what’s happening.  And please don’t be tempted to think that this means you have some “bad apples” working for you.

Your followers have learned from you not to disagree, challenge, or bring you bad news.  That’s right, it’s probably you.  Let me suggest the two biggest things you are doing to create this behavior in your folks:

  • Your people never see you say no.  You never disagree or challenge the people you work for, so your people never learn from you how to do this with purpose.  You send the very clear message that “no” is not acceptable around here.
  • People that have told you no are gone.  You have systematically removed from your inner circle everyone that disagreed or challenged your policies and decisions.  But that’s ok, because everyone knows they were not team players, or were disloyal or disrespectful.  This is the rhetoric of conformity and exclusion.

The paradox here is you will think that lack of dissent is a good thing, a sign that you are providing stellar leadership.  And it feels so good to be such a good leader.

Wake up.  You are deep in self-deception.  If no one ever comes to you with bad news, that’s bad news, and you cannot correct it with wishful thinking, a new policy or a motivational speech.

Acknowledge the gap between where you are and where you need to be, and live with the creative tensionAccept responsibility to change how you think about this situation, and then change your behavior.

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  1. The Courage to Challenge « Bret L. Simmons | September 3, 2009
  1. Bret, I agree with you a 100%, again.

    If someone can’t say “no,” their “yes” has no meaning.

    Your points about the causes of why people don’t say “no” are dead on.

    Nice post.

  2. I was part of a management “team” where everyone waited to see which way the wind was blowing before agreeing. If the CEO thought one way, so did the so-called “team”. No one ever said no to any request or at least challenge the prevailing thought with sound reasoning…needless to say, I did not last long. You simply can’t isolate the word no from your lexicon because there are times when you do have to say. If you’ve got children, you know that’s true…think the same way…Another good post, Bret.

  3. Steve: Your point about if you can’t say no your yes has no meaning is excellent. Peter Block wrote about that in a book called “The Answer to How is Yes”

    Alain: I’m sure your experience is similar to the one so many are having, unfortunately. Like you, I have left those jobs. The one thing I refuse to surrender is my voice.

    Thanks once again to both of you for taking the time to add your unique value and insight! Bret

  4. I so strongly agree with you.
    To stay grounded, I think It is really important to be surrounded by people who are able to tell you what you need to hear rather than what you want to hear.

  5. Harini: Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts!! Bret

  6. Ed Batista says:

    Great stuff, Bret. Prompted some further thoughts:

  7. Ed: Love your post! Left my comment there as well. Thanks for adding value to the conversation. Bret

  8. Michael Ling says:


    I’ve come across this kind of situations numerous times in the past. You are absolutely right about this – in the end, the organization suffers when its culture does not accommodate the difference in opinions.

    However, this phenomenon is very common for the reasons you have given us. There is an invisible barrier that holds the ‘no’ back.

    Here is a quote from Lou Gerstner’s book – Who says elephants can’t dance – when he talked about selecting a new management team he could trust.

    “I sat with them in meetings and evaluated the clarity of their thinking and whether they had the courage of their convictions or were weathervanes ready to shift direction if I scowled or raised an eyebrow. I needed to know they were comfortable discussing their business problems candidly with me (p.74)”

    .. Lou obviously mastered the technique well ^.^

  9. Micheal, great example from Lou Gerstner! I would bet he also rewarded this courage and conviction, which would send a strong message that he did value it. Thanks for sharing! Bret

  10. Todd says:

    I agree with the points raised; however, they are not original. If anyone has ever read the HBR book on “The Test of a Leader”, you will notice the same principles stated. I recommend this book to anyone in a leadership position or an aspiring leader.

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Todd, I appreciate you stopping by and sharing your thoughts. Here is a link to the book I think you are talking about It looks like a collection of HBR articles. I agree with you that HRB is a great source for managers. You are so correct, there is very little “new” stuff out there in management – I learned the principles in my post long ago. Sutton and Pfeffer remind us that the gap between knowing and doing is larger than the gap between knowing and ignorance. My role here is remind people what we already know but may not be practicing. Thanks!! Bret

  11. Sean Meehan says:

    You are correct Bret.

    I would say no when needed.

    I got fired.

    The remaining crew is now driving the company out of business.

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    You are better off in the long run. You are only accountable for your behavior, not someone’s reaction. Thanks for sharing! Bret

  12. Dawn says:

    Not to be a “yes” person – but experience has mirrored the same. In jobs where disagreement or respectful feedback are seen as attacks, operating effectively is very challenging — especially if the leaders in question “think” they are open to feedback, but their behaviors result in exclusion, blaming, and/or retaliation. Self-Deception is an apt description of the “syndrome.” Any thoughts on operating effectively in this type of environment?

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Dawn, you ask the million dollar question. Before I give you my answer, let me point you to Bob Sutton’s book “The No Asshole Rule” because he addresses this very issue, and in a different way that what I am about to say.

    The behavior you describe is ineffective and hurting your organization. I think followers has a responsibility to address these bad behaviors – a responsibility to the organization and to themselves. Good people do bad things, especially under pressure, and behavior CAN change. But it will NEVER change unless there is some kind of awareness. That takes courage, both on the part of the person that confronts the behavior, and on the part of the person that will have to admit the behavior if they ever hope to change.

    My bottom line, personally, is I REFUSE to give up my voice. Do everything you can to help change bad behavior, be patient, but also be resolute. Whenever I go down this path, I always prepare my exit strategy, just in case. If you try to help but fail, you have a choice – leave or stay. If you leave, you face uncertainty. If you stay, one thing is for certain – you have NO VOICE.

    So GREAT question. My answer is just that, my answer, and I fully realize there are other answers (See Sutton).

    Thanks!!!! Bret

  13. I enjoyed your post.

    I was trained early on to focus on adding value versus being a yes man.

    The trouble is the leader, the board, needs to have a strong Emotional intelligence to be able to discuss real issues…I find that to be rare.

    What is often the case, I become the Heretic as I discuss in my blog post : Want to add value to your bottom-line quickly?…Hire a Heretic!

    Thanks for the content

    Mark Allen Roberts

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Love your blog post, Mark! Thanks for sharing. You are correct the trouble is manifest in the behavior of the leadership. But the real problem goes beyond personality of any individual. The real problem is systemic – e.g. why do we hire people like this and accept these ineffective behaviors. Unless you address that, you will continue to see this manifestation and others at different times, and in different places throughout the organization.

    Thanks!!!! Bret

  14. Bret- You are right on. As a consultant for 25 years as well as a commercial real estate broker, I have found that smart executives have hired me and other up front consultants to tell them the truth, because they understand that perhaps they can find one loyal soul in house but others are content to do what is necessary for a paycheck and a promotion. Stifling necessary information
    [good,bad & ugly] stifles thinking, creativity & progress.Intuitive thinkers, the future forecasters & planners, cannot work in that climate.

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Nancy, I appreciate your thoughts! Here is my only question – why did they have to pay anyone to tell them what their folks should have been telling them? I don’t think the blame lies with the folks. Thanks!! Bret

  15. Talk is Cheap, and getting cheaper says:

    I find it highly entertaining that Ed Batista’s blog, which expanded your thoughts about the evil of stifling dissent, has a moderated comments feature which requires that Ed approve all comments before posting them.

    That kind of hypocrisy puts the lie to the author’s credibility….which is the fundamental failure of leadership. Credibility failure by a leader fractures the team, and immediately creates sub groups vying for power within, instead of focusing on the external mission.

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    I appreciate your thougts and hear what you are saying. My blog also requires moderated comments. What may not know is that we get hit by all kinds of automated spammers daily. I hate it as much as you do, but I will continue to do it given what I have seen behind the scenes at my blog. I will tell you I have published every single coment that was not obvious spam. And Ed is a great guy!!! Thanks for sharing! Bret

  16. Talk is Cheap, and getting cheaper says:

    Okay, thanks for the response. I’d ask you to expand your thoughts to the concept of stifling dissent, to the “leaders” whose entire organizations are focused on stifling dissent on corporate scale. Nardelli, whose board didn’t even show up to answer questions their own own shareholder meeting for Home Depot, and who ultimately terminated the meeting to stifle dissent.

    My question is: Isn’t corporate structure itself designed to stifle dissent, and obfuscate responsibility for self-interested decision making? Shareholders have no real power (the corporation counts the votes), and their points of view are routinely dismissed or repressed. With the weakening of whistleblower laws, isn’t “dissent” now just becoming a quaint anachronism in reality?


    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Once again I think you raise some valid points. I’m not really at the 10,000 ft philosophical level on this one. To me it is a rubber meets the road interpersonal issue. Regardless of what is going on at the corporate level, leadership is interpersonal. Corporate leadership matters, but the most important relationship is the one between an employee and the supervisor. Thanks again!!

    PS: it’s ok to leave your name! Bret