Monday, 20 November 2023 04:32

Watch out for organisational sycophancy

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We often hear corporate leaders talk about transforming their company culture. But this transformation needs to be more than a buzzword – it has to start with an honest analysis of an organisation’s current culture. This authenticity is vital because organisations have unspoken codes, and therein lies the hidden truth that unmasks their culture.

Corporate leaders need to be genuine seekers of what they need to hear and not what they want to hear from employees who are just there to butter them up. Those kinds of employees are sycophants – people who will tell you what you want to hear. If leaders cannot hear the truth, it will be difficult for them to separate fact from fiction.

How do you spot if your organisation suffers from a culture of sycophancy? Here are two pitfalls that corporate leaders need to be aware of:

1. Broken Psychological Contracts

Most employees get into organisations with ‘psychological’ contracts. They start with expectations, which may be met at variable scales. Or they may not be met at all. 

The danger of sycophancy in organisations is that corporate leaders will have employees around them who tend not to inform them of the realities on the ground. As much as these leaders try to show the world their corporate values, they should find value in assessing their employees’ emotional climate from time to time. 

Organisational sycophants prevent leaders from listening to their employees. They tell the leader all is well, even if most employees are going through hell. The downside is that these propagators of the old ‘yes-man’ bro philosophy often make corporate leaders appear unempathetic and narcissistic. Unguarded strength is actually a weakness.

Corporate leaders need to ask, are my employees’ psychological contracts broken? How is it that an A*-level employee two years ago is now performing at the C-level? Although this is no justification for poor performance, leaders might need to know what happened.

2. Org-wide Trust Deficit

Corporate leaders like to attract, retain and nourish good talent. They want to engage with employees aligned with their sustainable business objectives. However, they do not aim to have significant updates on employees’ perceptions of the organisation. This raises the question of what feedback gets to corporate leaders. 

Trust is one currency that every pragmatic and future-thinking organisation should have. Trust is not forced – it is earned. And the distortion of employees’ psychological contracts could lead to a lack of it. In Art Baxter’s recent book, Farmer Able, the author asserts, “Trust breakdown causes a rust build-up; everything moves slower and costs more.” 

A major predicament of organisational sycophancy is that ‘yes people’ do not pass the right information through the right funnel to the corporate leader. As a result, employees no longer trust the company they are working for. So when corporate leaders speak, they might think they are painting a beautiful vision, but what the employees are seeing is a smokescreen. 

Corporate leaders need to understand that an organisation is a people business inside before it becomes a business for the people outside. It’s one thing for corporate leaders to tell employees they see their value; it’s another for the employees to believe it. 

If corporate policies are only for the few, the corporate leader has created an organisation for the few. This is dangerous. You cannot sing the song of Ubuntu when the collective will not see themselves taking part in the collective, to begin with. 

Sycophants will make corporate leaders gloss over pertinent issues, and the organisation will be like a restaurant that redesigns a new menu cover (and increases its prices). What is forgotten is that customers are more interested in the quality of the food than a new cover. 

The way forward

Corporate leaders should be intentional about finding out the current realities of their organisation. They should avoid sycophants. They do not need gossip. They need solutions and people around them who brainstorm, not blamestorm. They should kick against a culture where employees are under pressure to momentarily perform rather than authentically aim for incremental progress toward excellence. 

Corporate leaders should aim to solve the real problems that define their organisation’s culture and not rub the surface. They should listen to Pied Piper’s tunes but to the people.

** Chim Okecha is an academic faculty, leadership expert and strategic HR professional with expert knowledge of people dynamics, organisational culture and leadership strategy.



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