Yessers, Survivors and Sheep.

Posted by jlubans on May 05, 2015

Caption: From Punch magazine, 1895.

Followers, good and bad, feature in my class on Freedom at Work: The Democratic Workplace, which I am currently teaching in Riga.
G. du Maurier’s cartoon, famously known as “The Curate’s Egg”, catches some of the dilemma each of us faces when being a Yes Man (or Woman) – or as Wodehouse has it, a “Yesser”. There’s also a bit of the compliant Sheep in the young curate and most of all, the Survivor.
How times have changed, or have they?
The winner of a recent caption contest for this cartoon, has the milquetoast slanging the Bish, “You’re bloody right, this effin’ egg is off!” While refreshing for its candor the curate’s response – given the power imbalance between the two – would hardly help advance the curate’s career. But, then stranger things have happened. Perhaps the Bishop will slap his knee, and say something like: “You s.o.b! I sure do like a man who speaks his mind! You can do my sermon this Sunday!”
In Wodehouse’s literary world, the curate was a poor assistant to a vicar, striving to get to the next level, a vicarage of his own. Usually, that meant a guaranteed salary – a sinecure for life, and enough money on which to marry. It was all up to the bishop. So, there was more than a little motivation to not ruffle the bishop, at least not until you got booted upstairs.
When my class looks in on the various taxonomies of leaders and followers, I want them to consider the reasons behind being a star follower or a loveable fool or a Yesser. How does one’s apparent role choice happen? Are we born that way – sheep like, cooperative and dependent thinking – or do corporate and personal factors influence us? I ask them about the risks of speaking up, of speaking the truth, of being an active, independent thinker.
Why can’t we all be candid – in a nice way of course – about problems at work? What gets in the way? One answer all too frequently is the demeanor of the leader. If you speak honestly about a problem, does that leader support you? Really support you?
Does the leader squirm, visibly or not, when opposing perspectives clash? What happens over time to someone that takes an alternative view to the boss’s proposal? How does the boss treat her after the discussion? Is she marginalized or do her views influence the final decision?
By the end of our classroom discussion, there’s a good understanding of the leader’s essential role in creating a climate for open and frank debate. And, the students understand, I hope, why that is important. An unquestioned leader will likely make a poorer decision than that made by a leader willing to engage in energetic and urgent debate, demanding of alternative views, and respectful of opposing viewpoints. (That's my unboss.)
I ask each of the students to consider, in private, where they would land on these follower charts. That’s to ensure that our in-class discussion is not just an academic exercise. Most of the students in this current class are already employed, so they can apply these theories immediately not just to themselves, but also to where they are working.
At the minimum, I want them to have the vocabulary to understand what is happening to them in the organization. And, ultimately, I’d like for them to understand that there is no reason to be stuck in a particular role. If there’s an opportunity to be independent and active, then do it. The risk is there but so are the personal rewards.

© John Lubans 2015

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Posted by Evangela on May 05, 2015  •  09:42:33

These are all great points to consider, John. As a director, I am always in a state of wondering if I'm asking for too little input. I try to find a good balance, but one again, my assessment is biased as it comes from my lens.

Posted by jlubans on May 05, 2015  •  22:16:22

Hi, Evangela. If staff are used to not commenting then it may take a while for them to feel comfortable to do so. Some just do not want to speak up; that's too bad. Looking back on my career, I could have been more willing to have conversations with staff about things in general and then get down to specifics. I left it at hearing from the people I felt comfortable with - they were on "my side". I should have tried much harder to reach those not on "my side". Keep up the good work, Evangela!

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