Is Your Company Cultivating Echo Employees?

The meeting participant whose main contribution is summarizing what the boss just said is common, but many of us still don’t notice it. It’s only in recent years that I’ve noticed it myself—how highly some employees are regarded who offer no original thoughts at meetings or anywhere else at work. Do you think it’s a faulty corporate culture that makes employees fearful of offering innovative solutions and new ways of thinking while rewarding “yes” men and women?

A recent survey by AMA Enterprise, a division of American Management Association, looked at why many leaders lose touch. A majority of respondents cited poor internal communications or the corporate culture, with 23 percent blaming “too many ‘yes’ men and women advising the CEO.” That made me wonder whether corporate trainers and Human Resources executives should think about the tacit message they’re sending their workforce. Have you ever thought about or studied the most common personalities of employees who are promoted in your organization? If the most common successful personality at your company does not match your corporate values, then you have a problem.

Not rewarding “yes” men and women does not mean cultivating argumentative or difficult employees because that also is a problem. In fact, a frequently argumentative employee is just as bad as a “yes” man or woman because in either case new, productive ideas are shut out. The “yes” employees, who I also think of as “echo” employees because they just echo the prevailing company opinions, offer nothing new out of fear, just summarizing or saying in slightly different words what the boss just said, while the argumentative employee just shoots down new ideas (including the boss’). These “no” employees are the ones who love to get wrapped up in process, forever debating and hemming and hawing, rather than coming up with new ideas and getting the ball rolling.

I once worked for a company that had an “Entrepreneur’s Award,” which my boss won, and which, I have to brag, I also won. The award, which came with $500, rewarded innovative thinking and resourcefulness. In my case, I think I won for being resourceful in getting my work done—coming up with new ideas for articles and finishing a heavy work load expediently. My boss received the award for founding a new newsletter. So there were several ways to define the entrepreneurial spirit, but the important thing was rewarding employees who did more than just nod their heads in meetings and echo back to the boss his or her own words. Award recipients offered new ideas and new, more efficient ways of getting work done. None of the other companies I’ve worked for since that time has offered any similar award, and I’ve always thought that was a shame.

In addition to the danger of a pool of employees who serve as the boss’ echo chamber, many companies are in even worse shape, using their own pre-approved, corporate-safe lexicon. I think of it as the corporate version of politically correct speech. At my current company, my boss deliberately uses the same phrases and words. I suppose I’m supposed to follow suit. I’ve done it as much as I’ve had to for survival, but otherwise ignore his language. For example, the word, “problem,” is frowned on, so the roof of our office building could be on fire and ready to crash on our heads, but I would say to my boss: “Roger, we have an immediate challenge on the roof.” Well, it’s not quite that bad, but almost. I work with my boss on a trade publication Website in which he keeps repeating like a broken record the need for readers to get all the information they need “at a glance.” This “at a glance” mantra is never questioned, when, actually, many believe just the opposite to be true of successful Websites—rather than giving people everything they need as fast as possible, it’s more effective to encourage them to dig ever further into the site to get the reward. It’s definitely a point to debate, but it’s never questioned because his “at a glance” mantra is sacrosanct.

If your company isn’t as innovative or efficient as it could be, fear and a limiting internal language may be to blame.

How can companies free their employees from the fear of expressing new ideas and new ways of getting work done? Is your company rewarding the kind of employees who match your stated corporate values?

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