If you ask people what they think the word sycophant means, many believe it relates to psychopath. Well, kinda. A sycophant is not as overtly destructive as a psychopath, but is certainly a contributing cause of disruption within organisations. In this Thursday Thought, we briefly explore the origin of the word sycophant and the destructive nature of sycophancy as it relates to organisational effectiveness.
Sycophant comes from Greek sykophantēs: sykon “fig” and phainein “to show, make known.” One of the original meanings of sycophant was someone who offered insincere flattery. It is thought that this came from fruit sellers in street markets who were known for their fawning over potential buyers, flattering them so they might make a purchase. Sycophancy was also associated with Athenian legal contexts to describe those people who brought frivolous, malicious and unjustified complaints, hoping either to obtain the payment for a successful case, or to blackmail the defendant into paying a bribe to drop the case. Sycophancy in the workplace has a slightly different meaning and is more rampant than you might think, it also contributes to corporate downfall in many ways.
Sychophancy in the Workplace
There is a phenomenon in the field of marketing where marketers adorn an organisational leader’s work route with company advertising on bus shelters and billboards, they may even book radio advertising on that person’s favourite morning radio show. This gives the leader the illusion that their brand is omnipresent. As a result, the leader believes that their experience matches that of the customer. This approach shapes a false reality for organisational leaders and stymies opportunities for growth.
Just as the marketers tactics shape a false reality, so does the actions or inactions of the workplace sycophant. Thanks to the reassurance of sycophants and the filtering of information, leaders gradually lose touch with the view on the street.
The sycophant deeply understands the politics of organisations and the psychology of those who run them. These crafty character position themselves as handmaidens to those in power, shifting from job to job while shirking any true responsibility. Sycophants are not wondering what is best for the organisation, they are only interested in what is best for them.
If you were to ask them for a SWOT analysis of your company product or opportunities for disruption, they will spout some generic nonsense. They will hide behind a cacophony of acronyms and buzzwords, but will do so in a very confident manner. In truth, they don’t have a clue.
However, were you to ask them about section 2, article 3c, paragraph 2 of the company handbook and they will recite it to the letter. In essence, they know how to survive in an organisation all the way to pension, riding on the coattails of those in power, enjoying a career full of benefits and liberties.
Good for them? Bad for You
Sycophants have survived since time immemorial and great for them — if you could stomach such an existence.
Indeed, sycophancy presents a real problem for corporate culture. These actors recognise that sucking up to the boss offers greater benefit than objective critique.
While they attempt to curry favour from influential people by flattery, they stifle disruptive thought and innovative ideas. Anything that upsets the status quo destabilises the sycophant and they will go to any length to maintain power. Whether it was the fall of Nazi Germany or the fall of Enron, history reveals those who held power were surrounded by sycophants. Sycophancy encourages the gaining power, but equally contributes to its loss.
Leaders may recognise that sycophancy creates blind spots because sycophants act as gatekeepers of information, shielding leaders from bad news and harsh realities. It is important for the leader to realise that they are susceptible to sycophancy, just as we are to being biased. If you are human, you are biased and in that vein, if you are human, you are receptive to praise, flattery and empathy. Leaders welcome such praise as relief from the constant pressures of running an organisation. While they do not take office believing that they’ll fall for sycophantic charms, it is easy to become addicted.
The Mum Effect — Shooting the Messenger
We have been taught to see collaboration and conflict as opposites, when they are actually symbiotic. Constructive conflict means there is an intention to sculpt the best possible outcome, this is at the heart of healthy collaboration. Collaboration does not mean we get on well and agree all the time, it means we can offer critique without fear of retribution or condemnation. It means we can offer a half-baked concept without fear or shame. It means we can disagree and feel psychological safe to offer alternative solutions or viewpoints.
Those colleagues who see the threat as well as the opportunity must be cherished by leaders rather than avoided. It is pain in the backside to listen without judgement or defence when someone identifies gaps in your theory, business plan or strategy, but it can save you a lot of pain in the long run.
If one of the success metrics in innovation work is to spread your bets, another is to de-risk those bets. Therefore, a gainsayer, who can identify why something won’t work and explain their rationale as to why it won’t work is a vital member of your team. Beware the fake protestations of a sycophant, who has a strategy to avoid being revealed. Realising it might be too obvious to say yes all the time, sycophants often disagree with you on some small points, but mostly they imitate your tastes and often share your opinions enthusiastically… especially if you are within earshot.
When a leader is surrounded by “yes men”, it becomes even more difficult for colleagues to flag negative news. It is really difficult thing for leaders, for all of us to avoid associating the message with the messenger, also known as “shooting the messenger” or “the mum effect”.
The term “Mum Effect” stems from to keep mum or to remain silent about something that may be sensitive or secret. The Mum Effect refers to the reluctance to relay negative information for fear of negative consequences. Often the bearer of the bad news — even when they aren’t responsible for it — is blamed and has negative feelings directed toward them. Many of us consider the bearer of bad news less likeable, However, we can mitigate this phenomenon when we know the intention of the news-bearer. If we believe that the messenger means no ill and has good intentions, the dislike is dminished. If we believe the messenger is malevolent, the dislike is amplified.
We are living through a period of mass change, where we will make mistakes as we innovate, iterate and reinvent our way into a new normal. In such an environment, our colleagues must feel psychologically safe to share information. To do this, we must foster an organisational environment where we can discuss the good news as easily as the bad. In a business environment in flux, we need everyone in our organisations to be watchful messengers, sensors to rapid change and to reveal the sycophants rather than the figs!
It comes down to a choice. Do you feel good, live in the short term and empower the sycophant. Or, do you do the right thing, empower your people and emerge triumphant?
THANKS FOR READING
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