Hitting the applause app

If you are working for a leader who wants only yes men and women around, is there anything you can do?

Did you know you can download an applause app on your iPhone? It seems innocuous enough — a way to cheer on someone’s victory at work, school, sports or whatever. The Chinese have taken it to a new level, incorporating an applause function into a download of Chairman Xi Jinping’s recent speech at a party congress. As the Globe and Mail reported, it’s called “Clap for Xi Jinping” and allows citizens to tap their phones to simulate applause. Since October, more than a billion claps have been registered.


We can all be wary of this adulation of political leaders in single-party states, from North Korea on down. If you combine ruthless suppression with worshipful reporting on state-controlled media, you can keep power for a long time. Many leaders of western democracies are no doubt envious. But as the saying goes, absolute power corrupts absolutely.


Something like this dictatorship can be found in corporate North America, albeit on a smaller scale and with the ultimate check and balance of satisfying shareholders. Symptoms include leaders who surround themselves with a close circle of “yes men,” who expect single-minded adherence to a few key strategies, who hear only positive news (negative results are seen as temporary or due to factors outside of the leader’s control), who only promote people who think like them and who chair boards of directors that are afraid to challenge them.


Just as in politics, this can breed unethical behaviour, especially when results are not as good as expected. In 2000, Fortune magazine awarded Enron Corp. the title Most Admired Company, both for quality of management and for innovativeness. The hero worship of the “smartest guys in the room” went on for years, until suddenly it was discovered that the emperor had no clothes. Company founders are especially prone to this behaviour, facilitated by our admiration of their great achievements in building multibillion-dollar empires. But all CEOs tend to get attached to their ideas. Wells Fargo was lauded for having the highest number of “products” per customer and continued to push that strategy without regard to what branch managers and employees would likely make of it. These are extreme examples, but any company can get in trouble if group-think takes over.


If uncritical admiration of CEOs is risky for shareholders, why does it arise? We all want our leaders to be self-confident and articulate, to develop good strategies and then stick with them for a reasonable period and to build teams of people who can implement those strategies. CEOs must be able to motivate people to share their vision and to work hard to make it happen. They cannot be surrounded by people who are constantly second-guessing their every move. But how do you ensure this doesn’t go too far?


I have worked for and with leaders who take deliberate steps to prevent their teams from becoming sycophantic. They solicit the views of their team members before disclosing their own opinions. They set measurable targets for their strategies and then re-examine the strategies if the targets are not met. They set out the risks (ethical and otherwise) inherent in their strategies at the start, and put in place policies and procedures to mitigate them. They make sure they are visibly open to constructive criticism. They ensure that their boards are provided with the information they need to ask good questions.


If you are working for or with a leader who wants only yes men and women around him or her, is there anything you can do (other than resign)? In my experience, the only effective strategy (which is still a long shot) is to couch all suggestions in language that plays to the leader’s self-interest. Would an alternative strategy make him/her look more brilliant? Would a (small) tweak to a plan seem more appealing to shareholders? How would something look if it came out in the media? What if the risk is not as tiny as the leader thinks? Unfortunately, most autocratic leaders overestimate their ability to succeed and so it’s a hard argument to win. But if you stay in your role and don’t try, you are part of the problem. You are just one of those people hitting the applause app.