When a leader truly wants vibrant debate and healthy dissention, they need to withhold their opinions as long as possible.
I’d like to meet the marketing geniuses who used the term ‘gaming’ to take the negative edge off ‘gambling’, or ‘in transition’ to replace ‘unemployed’ …and think of the boost to sales of dehydrated tomatoes when they were re-branded ‘sun-dried’! Now there’s a newer term in business decision-making: Sunflower Management.
Sunflowers turn their heads throughout the day to continually face the sun. Sunflower Management is employees’ tendency to monitor the boss’ position and agree with him or her. Hmm… didn’t we used to call that bootlicking, brownnosing, or flattery? Personally, I favor “sycophant” (it’s wonderful how Dilbert comics can improve one’s vocabulary).
The Power Of Flattery
We’ve all endured peers who flattered the boss, offering empty praise so the boss might look kindly on them. They may lead with a seemingly thoughtful challenge but it’s a facade, always ending with support for the boss’ position. You and I were disgusted, but there was little we could do except vow we would never be conned by such yes-men.
The unfortunate news is: we probably are. When behavioral scientists study the issue of flattery in business, the results are sobering: we almost always develop more favorable impressions of those who agree with us. Even when we are aware the person is flattering us with serf-serving motives, we are still unconsciously developing more favorable attitudes toward that person!
Sunflower Management expands beyond empty flattery. It includes the influence of a leader’s preliminary opinion on employees’ actual beliefs, particularly when they hold their leader in high regard and respect his or her experience and insights. While very good for a leader’s ego, it’s very bad for fostering healthy debate on important issues. A leader may genuinely want all perspectives on the table but, if Sunflower Management is in play, teams quickly develop tunnel vision. We may believe we have held an open and honest discussion, but we are deluded; the decision quality is undermined, hurting profits and ROI.
Concealing the Sun
To foster high quality discussions, here are a few practical steps for leaders to defend against Sunflower Management:
- The Boss Talks Last: Very simply, withhold your thoughts until everyone else has contributed.
- Put On Your Poker Face: One slip, one negative comment or even facial expression, tips your hand. I know one leader so unreadable during meetings that newcomers wonder if he’s paying attention – until the end when it’s clear he took it all in and processed it brilliantly.
- Draw Out The Withdrawn: Take note who hasn’t said much and ask them variations on the question: “Dave, I need to know what you are thinking.” Often those folks are quiet because they don’t agree with the rest of the group.
There’s no obvious moment to tip your hand, but it’s usually worth waiting just a little longer than seems necessary.
We all believe we’re immune from biases and manipulation, but the science says otherwise. The smart bet assumes we’re all human.