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Et Tu Brute: Are you a Yes-Man?

Brandon Gillespie
Jun 4, 2017 · 4 min read

I worked seven years with a person and we did some amazing things together, but ever so slowly what started as a great relationship became tainted, and at the heart of it was trust. I finally chose to leave both because I was worried about the legal ramifications of his behavior, but also because my own heart was shifting to a place of paranoia, and I was worried what this would do to all other aspects of my life.

“my own heart was shifting to a place of paranoia”

I cannot help but see a parallel between the relationship of Brutus and Caesar, and what it means for a “yes-man” to be allowed to thrive in an organization. Once, close friends, Brutus was able to give counsel to Caesar that was direct and honest. But at some point, that counsel changed.

Brutus decided he didn’t like the choices that Caesar was making and rather than providing constructive feedback, he chose to pretend to continue a good relationship with Caesar while at the same time speaking out against him in other circles, fomenting discord, and ultimately leading to the final solution when a group of conspirators literally stabbed Caesar in the back. Brutus was not Sustaining Caesar. This is a yes-man.

It is fascinating to consider this as a parallel to modern working life. Caesar expressed surprise upon seeing Brutus as one of his assassins.

I had the privilege of speaking alongside Niel Nickolaisen, CTO of OC Tanner, at the Utah CIO summit. During his talk, he mentioned that when he starts a few job he finds somebody he trusts and asks them to tell him all the things that everyone knows about him but him.

“He finds somebody he trusts and asks them to tell him all the things that everyone knows about him but him.”

My first impression was that this was a sign of somebody who was very paranoid. I recalled my earlier relationship and remembered the fear and paranoia this other person had often exhibited. But as the discussion ensued I realized what Niel was doing was something entirely different. He was asking for this feedback not because he wanted to be prepared for the Brutuses, but because he was trying to focus on a heart of peace.

He wants to know the mistakes he might make — and we all make them daily — so he could work to correct them. The challenge for anybody in a leadership position is in getting realistic and genuine feedback that is not simply yes-man oriented.

The Brutus Effect

“They will give feedback only on what they feel safe talking about…”

This comes down to a simple conundrum that all leaders face, and that is that you can rarely get genuine feedback from people who report to you because frankly, they are afraid for their job. They will give feedback only on what they feel is safe talking about, limited by what they feel will affect their ongoing employment, and this can create a false sense of what is going on around you. This is the Brutus Effect.

I found this exemplified at another place I worked when in my weekly one on one with the CEO I reported a certain level of discontent with some of the teams in the organization about some things he had said. He is a very empathetic individual and wanted to correct what he felt was a wrong impression, so he took the time to meet personally with some of the individuals and feel out the situation. When we discussed the matter again later he felt that everybody reported there were no problems, and they were all happy, and he didn’t see the problem I had reported. This was in direct and stark contrast to the same feedback I had received from the same individuals. Who was right?

The challenge here is I had heard these concerns expressed in a strong relationship, where the barriers were lowered because they trusted I would not simply fire them if they said something I disagreed with. They were expressing genuine feedback, fears, and concerns, in a hope that maybe the message could make it somewhere it would do good. And it did go to the level it needed, but then the Brutus Effect kicked in. The CEO wields ultimate power within a company. People cannot help but tread lightly and say what they hope will protect their own employment, so when he came to talk to them, of course, the feedback would be different.

Can you get genuine feedback in a distorted bubble?

Continued at Surfing the Cloud: Et Tu Brute: Are you a Yes-Man?

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