Where Sycophancy Thrives, Innovation Dies

  • Ezra
  • June 8th, 2021

Nothing kills innovation and motivation within a team like allowing sycophancy and narcissism to become the everyday norm for the interactions between employees and managers. Ezra discusses the dangers of this leadership dynamic and how to avoid it taking root in an organization.

Sycophancy Kills Innovation

At one time or another, we all find ourselves on the wrong end of the sycophant syndrome.

We’ve found ourselves part of a team run by a leader who is making all the wrong decisions. Leaders emboldened by a majority of our teammates who can only nod and smile and celebrate every decision with great enthusiasm.

These teammates are correctly labelled “sycophants” although you may know them by a variety of other names: toadies, teacher’s pet, minions, parasite, fawners, flatterers, flunkeys, lickspittles, bootlickers, ass-kissers, suck-ups and brown-nosers.

Whatever the colourful label, these are the people who demonstrate blind loyalty above all else, and who are chronically obsequious to anyone in an authority position. And because of all that, sycophants help to perpetuate toxic and unaccountable leadership simply by being willing to go along with it.

How does sycophant syndrome impact organizational performance?

It seems pretty obvious that a team largely comprised of sycophants would be dysfunctional. But the consequences of the sycophant syndrome for a business organization go much deeper and the costs are much greater.

Innovation certainly suffers. Although there is a very wide spectrum of attributes assigned to truly innovative organizations, in general they rely very heavily on core values. These include strong employee engagement, a deep reliance on collaboration and the sharing of ideas, an unwavering focus on customer needs and experience, and a clear commitment from leaders to a fail-fast culture where mistakes are not portrayed as setbacks, but rather as a step on the path to innovation.

However, the erosion of innovation is only one of the costs of the sycophant syndrome. If it is allowed to run rampant through an organization, it can ultimately lead to the creation of an unhealthy, even toxic culture.

An organization that has been infected is likely to suffer higher rates of turnover, as top talent flees from teams that have been dragged down by sycophantic behavior. The frustration stems from the clear evidence that people who constantly flatter or endorse a leader’s ideas are treated more favourably than those who may offer contrary views. This frustration can manifest in depression, despondency and – ultimately – the decision to escape.

As that talent leaves, it becomes harder and harder for the organization to attract other top performers, many of whom may have learned through their networks or social media that only blind loyalty and compliance will allow you to get ahead.

The sycophant syndrome is also viewed as a key ingredient in promoting corporate corruption. Author and consultant Max McKeown argued that organizations “stuffed with sycophants (are) prepared to overlook anything shady, illegal or unethical as long as they are getting to hang around and share some power.”

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Sycophants and narcissists – a symbiotic relationship

It’s hard to talk about sycophants and ignore the people who crave their company and inexhaustible capacity for fawning and flattery: the narcissistic leader.

Narcissist leaders crave constant attention and applause. They often take more credit than they are due. And they are more likely to recruit and promote sycophants to continue feeding their chronic need for approval.

So, it all starts to make sense. Narcissist leaders crave approval and flattery, and to ensure that they get all the attention they need, they surround themselves with people who are committed to applauding the leader’s every word and action to gain their own advantages within an organization.

But that one definition of this syndrome – the toady employee looking for an edge by flattering a leader – does not completely capture all of the motivations that go into sycophantic behavior.

Sycophants can share some of the very same qualities that motivate their narcissistic leaders. In particular, an addiction to praise, which many sycophants believe will come if they constantly defer to their leaders.

Brad Bushman, a professor of psychology and communication at Ohio State University, said his research has showed that some like narcissists, sycophants “would rather have a boost in self-esteem than get money or eat their favorite food or see their favorite friends. They just can’t stop seeking praise. It has this addictive quality.”

And even that does not explain all of the possible motivations behind sycophantic behavior.

This is your brain on sycophantic behavior

Many people assume sycophants do what they do to get a leg up on their careers. It is true that people who constantly flatter their leaders, or agree with every decision they make, are more likely to get promotions and other fringe benefits.

Psychologists and neuroscientists have struggled to find the exact causes of the sycophantic behavior. What is it about some people that makes them so driven to flatter and agree with the people who are leading them that they never offer any critical thinking or feedback?

Increasingly, science is finding evidence that sycophants are driven just as much by a pathological fear of disagreeing with someone as they are by the need for praise, or the strategic belief that constant obsequious behavior will give them a career advantage.

In a 2016 study, Australian researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging to map the areas of the brain that reacted most when someone is compelled to disagree with an idea or a statement. The study found that when subjects who were predisposed to avoid disagreement were confronted by statements that compelled them to disagree, it triggered activity in the same areas of the brain as those experienced during cognitive dissonance.

For the uninitiated, cognitive dissonance is acute mental distress caused when someone is torn between two different or contradictory beliefs at the same time, or does something that is completely contrary to what they think or believe. “Having a lot of trouble disagreeing due to a heightened cognitive dissonance response may be indicative of an array of emotional, attitudinal or social issues compromising an individual’s capacity to make autonomous choices,” the study’s authors argued. “This can potentially lead to poor decision-making, anxiety, or difficulties in interpersonal relationships.”

In other words, some of us are wired to seek agreement and to avoid conflict because we do not have the psychological fortitude to process conflict or disagreement. So, while some people engage in sycophantic behavior to gain and advantages, others may do it simply because they really, really don’t like the feeling of being in conflict with team members or leaders.

The (narcissist) chicken and the (sycophant) egg: how to stop a toxic relationship from developing

It’s hard to know where to start addressing the sycophant syndrome. There is such a strong co-dependence between narcissistic leader and sycophantic follower that it’s pointless to address just one side of the equation.

However, that being said, any effort to rid an organization of sycophants must inevitably start with a focus on discouraging narcissistic behavior among leaders. The promotion of leadership best practices should not only alert leaders who may have unwittingly developed a dependence on the affirmation that comes from being surrounded by sycophants, but also teach leaders how to spot and discourage sycophantic behavior.

A good place to start is by looking at development programs to see what kind of leadership style is being promoted within an organization. What leadership style will help immunize your organization from the scourge of the sycophant? This is where leadership best practices come in.

In short, leaders who adopt what psychologists have defined as styles on the more collaborative, consultative or “democratic” side of the spectrum of leadership styles are less likely to need sycophants because they don’t expect to be the sole source of ideas or decisions on their teams. And they really don’t need yes-men and yes-women without any ideas of their own to share.

However, leaders who lean towards the more authoritarian or coercive style of leadership may well find that a critical mass of sycophants provides valuable comfort as they dictate to their teams.

The question remains – how do you promote leadership styles and behaviors that discourage narcissism and the creation of teams driven by sycophants? This is where a coaching mindset comes in.

The coaching mindset: kryptonite for sycophants

The International Coaching Federation, the pre-eminent certification body for professional executive coaches, has done a lot of work around describing the mindset that coaches must employ to help their clients reach their goals. But coaching mindset can also be applied to leadership.

When we say ‘coaching mindset’ we are talking about leaders who are accountable, who embrace the importance of ongoing learning and development, who do not dictate solutions to the people around them but rather encourage everyone to be part of the solution, and who generally demonstrate the core values of emotional intelligence: compassion, empathy and self-awareness.

Herminia Ibarra, a professor of organizational behavior at the London Business School, and Anne Scoular, an associate scholar at the University of Oxford, may have put it best in a recent article in the Harvard Business Review:

“No longer can managers simply command and control. Nor will they succeed by rewarding team members mainly for executing flawlessly on things they already know how to do,” they wrote. “Instead, with full institutional support, they need to reinvent themselves as coaches whose job it is to draw energy, creativity, and learning out of the people with whom they work.”

It’s hardly a reach to see how an accountable, emotionally mature leader with a coaching mindset can help inoculate organizations against the creeping influence of narcissists and sycophants.

A coaching mindset not only deters the styles of leadership which become breeding grounds for sycophants, it serves as an antidote for leaders who have discovered sycophants on their teams. And perhaps most importantly, coaching helps both leader and follower deal with their fear of criticism, and their endless appetite for positive re-enforcement.

Leaders can develop a coaching mindset from their own work with an executive coach, or by seeking out specific training as a coach from a variety of sources. Whatever the source, the imperative is to build better leaders who are able to demonstrate the best practices of effective leadership, including a coaching mindset.

The destructive potential of the narcissist-sycophant syndrome is very difficult to excise once it has become fully ingrained in organizational culture. But it can be prevented from ever taking root by building better leaders and supporting them through tools like coaching.

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