Tue, 02 Aug 1994

Leaving `yes-man' phenomenon to be able to say `no'

By Rohmad Hadiwijoyo

ARLINGTON, Virginia, U.S.A. (JP): Before delegates sit down at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Jakarta later this year we must answer a pressing question: how can small business and technology transfer be successful if Indonesians haven't yet established strong human resources.

The common problem Indonesians have these days, especially government employees, is being unable to say "no".

Asserting our position or opinion to others becomes extremely difficult when disagreement arises between business partners. More often than not we will simply smile and go along with the decision, knowing full well that something is wrong. Most of the time we even enthusiastically become "yes-men" which is reflected in the famous local catchword "asal bapak senang" or shortened to "ABS!" (as long as sir is happy).

We are our own worse enemies. Our habit is lethal, especially during technology transfer where information is vital and where we undermine the decision making process. The recent Bapindo case also shows the effects because the branch manager was unable to assert his position to stop others from using his power to lend the bank into bankruptcy.

When we say "yes-sir," we avoid the responsibility of decision making. The future of our market is too precious for us to continue this practice.

According to experts this apathetic trend is characteristic of people who want to be included in the flow of a group. If we go a step further and apply this to business managers, we can assume they would be more concerned with a happy and harmonious work force and try to find ways to stop production from pressuring people.

The `yes-man' syndrome can also happen when the peer pressure is so strong in a group that no one wants to play the devil's advocate. As a result, they immediately agree to anything that is put forth -- even at the expense of the organization.

All aside, we must determine how we can limit ourselves from being harmed by "yes men" in the competitive 1990s. First, what are the environmental factors that influence people who revert to this? And secondly, how does it affect organizational development?

Culture is a culprit of the "yes-man" syndrome, and unfortunately everyone and their brother has a different definition of it.

Another possibility is a lack of managerial and leadership qualities. If the manager isn't sensitive to the needs of his workers or doesn't have an understanding of cultural diversity, the employees will be pressured into being more passive.

For sure, APEC must consider this environment when dealing with human resource issues because of the rapid interdependence of economies. As more companies invest in foreign lands, the management of each must make the effort to adapt rather than use their personal management styles which prove so useful "back home."

Another culprit leading us into relying on "yes- men" is the lack of communication skills. Since nothing can be completed by an organization without communication, the whole exercise is undermined.

Many times, the 'yes-man' will not honestly speak his mind so as to make his partner happy. Friendship and loyalty are more important to him, so good relationships will result.

Pragmatic managers need feedback to weed out bad decisions from the good. And in the end, the fence sitters simply confuse the situation and destroy the production of the organization.

In traditional management, the "yes man" syndrome is an appropriate tool in order to find a resolution because in their eyes, the decision no longer becomes the issue to be resolved, but the conflict. And that itself deepens the entire problem.

We are nearing the 21th century and already changes are being felt from everything from the so-called "Generation X" to interactive television. Multinational corporations have already spent the last two decades "testing the water" and now it is time for them to make up their minds on a game plan.

They must have realized that the key factor for dealing with competition is information. How can managers keep one step ahead of the game with a team that sits rather than works? For one, he will have to make judgments and decisions on intuition and with irrelevant information.

But the result will be unstable, and most likely he will be counting the days until he finds himself out of a job.

The "yes men" undermine the utilities of human resources and therefore ruins the possible success of technology transfer. And they can also bring a small business to an early grave.

The value of the decision of the manager is worth only what his employees put in, and if they are apathetic, then the entire exercise will fail.

"Yes-men" cannot be stopped but managers do have many tools to make quality decisions, says Linda J. Martin in her article in the Journal of Portfolio Management of Spring 1985. They are `representativeness', `availability' and `anchoring'.

Each describes how managers can categorize the problem so as to resolves it quickly and with better chances for success.

Under `representativeness', they can compare similar characteristics of the pressing issue with a previously resolved one to stereotype certain outcomes. In addition, they could utilize the second tool, `availability,' to use previous solutions to solve the problem of dishonest information. Lastly, they can use `anchoring' to base his decision on predictions.

What is important is how we, as people and managers, handle the "yes-man" syndrome. Edward C. Bursk in his book, The Word of Business laid out four useful concepts which should always be considered to maintain good human resources.

1. That the forces in business are nurtured by the existence of differences between individuals and a group.

2. That these forces are kept in control and balance by the process of individuals understanding each other.

3. That a creative society depends on its survival upon the belief that rights must be matched by obligations.

4. That the directing force in a creative society is the faith of its members in individual growth.

Today's global managers must learn new traits of flexibility, adaptability, openness and trust. Throughout the business process, pathways must be pruned constantly to reduce the bureaucracy and friction in groups. One must also broadly define for himself cultural diversity, conflict and communication as parts of management dynamism and also as a tool to improve decision making, not to hinder it.

The APEC participants, especially Indonesia, should make every effort to deal with the problem of human resources for the next century. Our country has come a long way from being a Dutch colony to the leader of the Non-Aligned Movement. Our president can only take us so far until the problems we have inside ourselves get in the way. It is time for us as workers, managers and civil servants to step away from the fence and say "no, sir" instead of saying "yes"!

The writer is a graduate student at the School of Business and Public Management, George Washington University, Washington, D.C.