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The Dangers of A Yes Person

How do you clash over ideas and still leave the room as friends? The chief executive of Digitas shares her tips, and warns of the dangers of becoming a ‘yes-person’ with no critical view

By Dani Bassil

At times when you need to take stock and re-evaluate your team’s approach, it is often a fine line you tread between delivering constructive feedback and not alienating colleagues.

Yes, it may feel like criticism, when you question any accepted wisdom, but how we conduct the work is so important: You never get to great work if you all just agree with each other. And we don’t want just the ordinary. That’s our differentiator.

As CEO, it’s of course easier for me to question everything. But I’ve always been this way – perhaps that’s how I got here.

I’ve always questioned linear processes, like, going from ‘A’ to ‘B’ in a set manner, from planning to production, all in a pre-ordained way – taking the set route. That always felt long-winded, arduous - even absurd - to me. Perhaps it was easier in a smaller Sydney market, in the old days - when we all just gathered in a room. Back in those days, when I was starting out in Australia, we were all a bit planner, a bit production, and a bit account person...

But it’s important to recognise, too, that - all too often - it’s perceived as more important to get to an end result rather than to the very best result. With client and financial pressures and a myriad of competing tasks, people sometimes want to get to the end goal the quickest and generally the simplest way. But this can also lead to mediocrity. It’s always important to remind ourselves that there might just be other, better ways.

And it may sound obvious but the way to make progress is not to say, “This is the way it’s always been done.” That’s total nonsense. If that were the case, we’d still be living in caves. Businesses that think like that don’t exist any more, and businesspeople that think like that certainly don’t get very far. “That’s never going to happen” or “Don’t even bother” are other phrases we hear too much. This is anathema to modern thinking and modern brands.

Fortunately, over time, I’ve an ability to sniff out lazy complacency: I can sense if somebody is playing it safe, rather than considering the bigger picture.

Working in an agile way helps, both in terms of an open work culture and efficiency of process. We run two-week sprints, looking back at the end of each period – asking what went well and what could have gone better. In an environment like this, you can’t hide. That’s a good thing.

We’ve also set out to create a culture which celebrates great work. We have a ‘Unicorn of the Month’ scheme, in which individuals who have contributed in a particularly notable way win a £250, a £500 or a £2000 Amazon voucher. There’s a selection committee, and the awards are built around our aims – the work, clients, our culture.

Marketing is not just about selling a fantasy or building on insecurities, either. Brands that succeed set out to make our lives easier or better in some way. Teams can’t do that if they’re doing things the way they’ve always been done.

So, as we marketers return to offices after a period of 18 months like no other, this is the perfect time to question - indeed to keep questioning - the ways we work together. If we’re just going into the office to be on calls the whole day, then what’s the point of travelling in? Design thinking is about solving problems, employing critical thinking, and collaborating. Constructive debate – which sometimes takes place best in physical spaces – helps with that. We must embrace what works best about working from home, whilst developing our offices so that they are safe, open places in which collaboration thrives and everyone can do their best work.

But we must make sure that there is accountability, too. Shedding hierarchy and creating a flat structure can help. At Digitas, we empower people to make their own decisions – encouraging entrepreneurial spirit, rather than stifling creative output by waiting on approvals. It’s important to foster teams that have the autonomy to create real change, within an open culture of constructive criticism.

Of course, when you are on the receiving end of criticism, it can hurt. I’ve felt that, too. But you need to be adults, to leave the room as friends and get on with the good work. As a leader, I know that at times I may need to temper my approach, but there are arguably more troubling, multifarious dangers of being the ‘yes-person’ in business. It stifles your growth as a business, as an individual, and indeed as a leader if nobody feels they can share their views, or show you what’s really happening.

Learnings accelerated over the pandemic. This has been a huge, if unexpected, benefit of a very tough time. Let’s keep those challenging questions coming.


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