Yes Man Culture: The Price of a “Yes” Culture at Work

Shire Lyon
Feb 21 · 7 min read

(and yes woman culture)

Work culture
Work culture
Photo by Brooke Cagle on Unsplash

Let me start by saying I’m all for being positive, helpful, and optimistic. Still, there’s a huge difference between being a can-do employee and being punished for having an opinion, needs, or merely lacking time. From very early on, we’re taught that saying no to your boss is simply something you don’t do.

That being said, one of the things that we don’t often discuss is the price of a “yes” culture at work. Truly, what is the price of affirming faulty opinions, taking on work you don’t have time for, or other situations that arise from the incessant need to say yes?

I’ve worked in many places where this was an issue. Some were definitely worse than others. In fact, it may have ended in the laying off of up to eight employees in one case. While they may not have been fired, the determination of who was allowed to stay seemingly hinged on who created the least amount of friction.

Photo by Isaiah Rustad on Unsplash

Is Saying No Bad?

When it comes to business culture, one of the first things you learn is that saying no is bad. But is it really? If it were, then books like The Power of a Positive No: Save The Deal Save The Relationship and Still Say No wouldn’t exist. So why then do we believe “no” is an evil word?

Maybe it’s because people don’t like to hear the word “no,” or for some people, it represents too much conflict or a lack of can-do attitude. For some, it signifies an attack on the ego, their position of authority, or even self-worth. In contrast, when we fail to say no, what happens?

Let’s face it; someone needs to be the bad guy in the business. Sometimes you need to say, sorry…don’t do that. It’s a bad investment. Another example is not accepting some clients. Legitimately, some clients aren’t the best fit for the business. Saying “yes” to these people will cost employee-hours, reputation, and everyone’s happiness.

Cons to Always Saying “Yes”

I don’t need to tell you that the absence of “no” in a workplace can negatively affect many aspects of work culture. What you may not realize is the variety of areas it disrupts.

Creativity Becomes Dulled

When I say creativity, I don’t just mean the artistic kind. Solving problems and producing new products takes a certain amount of finesse. While work ethic usually isn’t based on rewards, it’s demotivating to know that the person who says “yes” most often will reap unending benefits. At the same time, you’ll be left behind for posing problematic questions, voicing concerns, or objecting in any way no matter how valid your points are.

Top performance comes from happy people, but it’s nearly impossible to be content if your voice doesn’t matter. Most businesses are set up as a meritocracy, so this upends the idea that staying at the top of your game yields promotions and raises. Basically, why do the work if it will never be recognized?

Yes man culture spiraling into self-destruction
Yes man culture spiraling into self-destruction
Photo by Rowan Heuvel on Unsplash

Work-Life Balance Suffers

At the heart of being able to say no is balancing your work life and personal life. Balance is about more than how many hours you work. It’s also how much time you spend worrying about what goes on at work. It’s all of the time you try to find ways to get ahead. It’s also sleepless nights stressing about performance reviews and questioning taking a day off because it could be an excuse to say you’re not up to par.

Job Satisfaction Drops

Have you ever had to say “yes” to something you knew couldn’t be done? Have you ever had to go way out of scope because “no” wasn’t an option? When “no” is not acceptable in the workplace, it creates a feeling of dread. You have to commit yourself to things you know you can’t succeed at.

A “yes” culture has adverse effects on both the person who can’t say no as well as those employees for whom that person is responsible for supervising. When someone says ‘Yes’ to everything without verifying that employees actually have the resources (including time, budget, and help from others), they are being set up for failure. This leads to extreme pressures to meet the boss’s demands and becomes a supreme disappointment if “yes” can’t be met.

Merit Doesn’t Get Recognized

Future successes by employees can be routinely overshadowed because failures are often remembered longer than successes. When this occurs, employees’ merit is lost when the boss only knows them as the person who kept them from getting to “yes.” All of their other previous and sometimes future accomplishments fail to be recognized because everyone becomes fixated on who didn’t meet an (unreasonable) expectation and getting back to “yes” becomes paramount.

Image for post
Image for post
Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

Toxic Positivity

Has someone told you to “always look on the bright side?” It’s not bad to be optimistic, but there’s a line where positivity turns toxic. Psychology Today defines toxic positivity as “the concept that keeping positive, and keeping positive only, is the right way to live your life. It means only focusing on positive things and rejecting anything that may trigger negative emotions.” Negative feelings happen; burying and invalidating anything that isn’t rosy and bright isn’t healthy or useful.

Having your concerns and struggles denied at work hurts as much as having friends or family marginalize those feelings in your personal life. The denial and avoidance of unpleasant emotions don’t have a positive outcome. It’s much like sugarcoating a lemon. It’s sweet on the outside but bitter on the inside.

It’s also essential to have your concerns addressed. Not having your worries acknowledged will leave you unsettled. A skilled manager will do their best to balance your concerns and the requirements of the job. Anxiety and stress create a hostile work environment for all involved and lead to poor customer service. In the end, taking a moment to listen to a coworker or employee’s reservations and worries or concerns can go a long way.

A Right Way to be Positive

Remember, there’s a right way to be positive, especially in the era of coronavirus. Don’t be dismissive of how someone feels. It’s okay to be optimistic, but be supportive of how the other person feels. Hear them out. Learn to recognize when someone needs a shoulder and when they need positive words. Solve problems when possible and remove conflict where it exists. Don’t ignore issues at the workplace and don’t sugarcoat pain points. Once things are out in the open and off someone’s chest, there’s a path to fixing broken processes and mending poor relationships.

How Did We Get Here?

Good question. There’s a part of all of us that wishes to please others. By nature, most of us don’t like conflict. In reality, a “yes” culture has always been a part of the workplace. Movies and TV often portray an image of an employee cowering to a boss, promising to deliver whatever is requested even when it involves missing a birthday or staying at work all night.

Our culture perpetuates this idea that it’s not okay to say no. Most of us believe that top-notch customer service means pleasing the customer no matter what it takes. The truth is, customers won’t respect you for that. It’s also not worth pleasing superiors at the cost of work-life balance, happiness, self-confidence, or personal relationships. Saying no can actually make you happier. By believing the myth, we keep the myth going.

That’s not to say that change will be easy, or there won’t be any resistance.

Where Do We Go From Here

That’s a great question! When something has become ingrained in our way of life, it’s incredibly hard to shake. Putting your foot down may make some waves and cause some conflict. Your ideas and feelings may not be readily accepted at work, so choosing when and what you express is a careful balance. Be a thought leader when you can, but know that part of standing up is also knowing when to leave.

In short, there’s no magic bullet. There will be bumps in the road, and nothing changes overnight. You’ll have to stand up for yourself, and coworkers will need to do the same. Change may not come at your current employer; you may have to find a better culture fit. The bottom line is that we need to recognize the problem as a culture and do something about it!

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Shire Lyon

Written by

I’m a Mom, a blogger & marketer. Spending quality time with my family is imperative to me. Sustainability, the environment & healthy living are my passion.

The Startup

Medium's largest active publication, followed by +775K people. Follow to join our community.

Shire Lyon

Written by

I’m a Mom, a blogger & marketer. Spending quality time with my family is imperative to me. Sustainability, the environment & healthy living are my passion.

The Startup

Medium's largest active publication, followed by +775K people. Follow to join our community.

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