How to work with yes-men

Great idea, boss.

Whatever you say, chief.

I’m on it, buddy.

The yes-man is the collabohater you don’t see coming until the maddening lack of insight, input, or personality has you grinding your teeth and snapping pencils. What can you do to forge a more productive working relationship (and save your pencils)?

Pushovers and problem children

Don’t rush to judgment. Some people are genuinely and consistently agreeable and helpful. That, in itself, isn’t a bad thing and certainly doesn’t mean they are collabohating yes-men. You could do far worse than to attract people with positive attitudes and a team-first spirit.

True yes-man behavior comes in two distinct flavors: the pushover and the problem child. Pushovers don’t realize that their insights and opinions are just as valuable as their compliance. By saying “yes” without thinking, they may be signing off on something they are actually highly qualified to correct, enhance, or debunk. Pushovers just never feel that it’s quite their turn to speak, and that can lead to dangerous oversights and mistakes.

Problem children look just as passive as the pushovers, but there’s a darker undercurrent to their seeming agreeability. They’re saying “yes” but thinking “no.” Their “yes” is not a commitment or a promise—it’s just the quickest way to get out of the room. Some problem children out themselves with their record of falling far short of their commitments. For the rest, it’s a matter of reading attitude.

“They might be resentful. They might not want to be there,” says Michael Sanger, consultant at Hogan Assessment Systems. “You’ll hear ‘Yeah, yeah, whatever you want,’ but then the yes-men go back to their own agenda.”

Both types would rather skirt a discussion than embrace it, so you need to tread carefully.

“Confrontation will make them uncomfortable and likely very upset,” Sanger says. “They may be feeling overwhelmed and the last thing they want is to have more tasks assigned to them by peers. This is a very hard issue to break through.”

Getting past the yes

Yes-men wear their acceptance and agreement as a shield. Get around that barrier by holding them accountable to specific details.

“Tell people early on that you’re allergic to vagueness,” says David Nour, CEO of The Nour Group. “Don’t let them tell you that you’ll get together ‘next week,’ make sure that you’re talking about ‘next Tuesday at 10.’”

If you suspect chronic affirmation is coming from a place of good intentions but poor self-esteem, try a softer approach.

“The strategy should be to make it safe for them to speak up and speak the truth,” says Michael Lee Stallard, president of E Pluribus Partners. “They may feel threatened by speaking up in a group, so ask them to come to you in private with issues, ideas, and opinions which would produce better work.”

Pushing someone out of his or her comfort zone can lead to over-correction, so be prepared with additional input once you finally do unleash the yes-man’s inner, opinionated beast. “Sometimes when people who don’t normally speak up finally do, there’s a lot of passion and they go overboard,” Stallard says. “That’s where it helps to be a coach or mentor who can help them tone down the emotion or avoid coming across as hyper-critical or judgmental.”

Don’t feel that you have to fundamentally change a yes-man. Particularly for types who do follow through on what they agree to do, pair their strengths for diligence and compliance with the weaknesses of others who are less focused. Pairing an eager, responsible yes-man with a corner-cutting personality can yield very significant returns.

“The corner-cutting strategist can tell the yes-man to go deal with the details,” Sanger says.

Self-care for the chronically affirmative

If your default answer is “yes” to every question, there is hope. Start by training yourself to be very intentional, deliberate, and specific about every “yes” you utter. Not only does it break the bad habit of agreeing without thinking, but it will start to repair your reputation as a pushover or problem child.

“Specificity drives credibility,” Nour says.

If people shut you down because they’re not accustomed to granting your opinions any weight, stand up for your right to equal time. “Even if it’s a yes-or-no question, you can answer back with your opinion and be participative,” Sanger says. “Training people to explain themselves when they give short answers is the best way to combat this issue.”

Yes-men can be skeptical of change because of a desire to be liked, included, and connected. Make an honest evaluation of your own credibility and influence against your more outspoken peers. It’s difficult for those who never disagree to make a lasting impression and form deep partnerships.

“A lot of people confuse vibration with forward motion. They’re super-connectors, but have nothing to show for it,” Nour says. “Don’t confuse busywork and touches with quality and depth.”

Post by Jason Compton

Jason Compton is a writer with over 15 years of experience covering marketing, sales, and service. Based in Madison, WI, he is a regular contributor to Direct Marketing News, previously served as executive editor of CRM Magazine, and has been published in over 50 outlets.