Flattery is Death for an Organization

The WSJ wrote the other day about Hillary Clinton's emails:

A common thread running through the tens of thousands of emails that landed in Hillary Clinton’s in-box in her time as secretary of state is that aides and assorted advisers believe she is, well, awesome.

With a few exclamation points tacked on.

In notes sent to the private email account Mrs. Clinton used, various advisers routinely heap praise on the person who gave them their jobs or elevated them to her inner circle. Email flattery of this sort is a common tactic in the everyday workplace, but the Clinton emails show how it comes into play at the highest levels of government.

Employees tell Mrs. Clinton she is doing a “spectacular job,” that she has many admirers and that her remarks were “pitch perfect.” They assure her she looks “gorgeous” in photos and commend her clothing choices.

Look, I guess everyone has their own leadership style but from my experience it is a terrible idea to promote this kind of thing in one's organization.

Why?  Well, my organization has 350 people in it.  We can either think with just one person (me), working to improve our operations, or we can think with 350.  Those 349 other people know many of the ways in which we are screwing up and can improve -- the problem is getting them to come forward with those ideas.  And getting them to do so is far less likely if we are maintaining some sort of North Korean style personality cult of the CEO.

I have written about this before, but it's why I consider my Ivy League degrees to be a negative in running the company.  Many of my employees have only a high school education (at best) and are intimidated in bringing up an idea or telling me I am screwing up because they assume since I have these Ivy League degrees I must be smarter than they are and know what I am doing.   But in their particular job, in terms of my knowledge of what they see every day from customers and operationally, I am dumb as a post and completely ignorant.

Anyone who has worked for me for more than a few months can likely quote my favorite line which I use in most of my employee talks -- "If you see something that seems screwed up, don't assume Warren is smarter than you and wants it that way, assume that Warren is screwing up and needs to be told."

Postscript:  This sort of flattery also makes me deeply uncomfortable on a personal level, so much so I have a hard time understanding people who revel in it.  I once had an employee that could not stop with this sort of personal flattery, and eventually we ended up terminating them.  We terminated them for other good reasons, but I must admit to being relieved when they left.


  1. bigmaq1980:

    Not only as you describe it. Who has the time to be making all the decisions?

    IMHE, those kinds of employees are highly unlikely to make an independent decision, always first requiring your approval. It is also a way of absolving themselves of responsibility.

    On the flip side, I have seen leaders in Fortune 500 companies that encourage employees like this. They also tend to be unrealistically demanding and can often be soul crushingly nasty. They will quickly claim success, but are equally quick to find blame for failures. They manage to hop from one role to another without realizing the full consequences of their tenure.

    Oh, and they are very good at sucking up to their higher ups too, and hiding their actual behavior and failures.

  2. Bram:

    I find "leaders" who surround themselves with simpering toadies, usually aren't. Good leaders gather good followers - who are honest and willing to disagree.

    Sycophants don't supply good intel, useful suggestions, or important warnings. MacArthur's blind blunders in Korea come to mind.

  3. bloke in france:

    Shorn of context it's hard to see which cheek the toady who called Hilary's speeches "pitch perfect" had his tongue in.

  4. uncle_bill:

    Sort of related: I used to work in an R&D lab. One of my problems was getting people to tell me the truth when we had bad results. I think they were afraid I would blame them for the bad results. I sometimes had to make a little speech: "Look, tell me what actually happened. If it is bad, it is much better for me to find out now, than weeks or months down the road. I just want to know the truth!" Even then, it could be a problem.

  5. Scottvan949:

    Hillary appears to be a terrible manager (I won't even use the term leader). It speaks volumes that her aides did not stop her from setting up her own server. Her best and brightest staff did not foresee some problems that idea? Or, they just could not bring up their concerns to her? Either way, it is really bad. Her management of her presidential campaigns are good examples. 2008 & her current campaigns are bloated and burn through money like there is no tomorrow. On Benghazi, she held no one accountable for anything! She claims she could hold no one accountable because under civil service rules you can only fire someone for gross negligence. Ignoring 600 requests for improved security sounds like some gross negligence to me, but even so you can still remove people from their jobs. Her Foundation is one big conflict of interest. The list goes on.