Beware the sycophant

Sycophants are a drain on an organization in so many ways. Organizations must highly value the questioners, the naysayers, the ones who see the world differently than the rest, not the yes men and suck ups.

Beware the sycophant by Nancy Knowlton

As children, many of us learned the story of The Emperor’s New Clothes. Through the years this story has amused many children to hear that adults could be deluded into thinking that the emperor was wearing beautiful new clothes when, in fact, he was not. The deluders had spun a story to everyone, including the emperor, that stupid and unworthy people would be unable to see the beautiful new fabric and clothes. Rather than admit what they couldn’t see, everyone in the emperor’s court told him what they thought he wanted to hear to protect their own positions. Only a young child spoke up and said what everyone saw – that the emperor was naked – and unmasked everyone else as sycophants.

Parsing words

I learned the word sycophant as a young child, and it became a favorite. Not that I used it often, but it was one of those words that sounds like what it means – brownnoser, toady, yes man, suck up. As a child, long before computers and spell check, I spelled the word as psychophant even though I correctly pronounced it. If I think about it, there may be a psycho element to sycophants, but I will leave that to the wordsmiths and psychologists to determine.

Hollow contribution

What amused me about sycophants as a child now frightens me as a business person. These people can be anywhere in an organization, giving a false sense of fulsome examination, discussion and alignment. For those who take a person at his word, the word of a sycophant is useless. A sycophant’s voice adds weight to a position, seeming to align with other thinking people. In reality, the sycophant adds no value to a discussion because that person holds no firmly held position beyond that espoused by a targeted superior.

High-functioning teams are made up of people who speak their firmly held views with conviction, whether or not they align with those of their manager or the CEO. Great team and company performance comes from deep consideration of issues and alternate strategies by all members of the team. Having everyone’s brain engaged on finding the best way forward is critical every day. Add a sycophant into the mix and part of the value of the group is lost.

Sycophants can only exist in an organization with the complicity of the target of the sycophantic behavior. If there is overt or subliminal messaging that this behavior is encouraged or at least not discouraged, then politics will abound.

Discouraging to staff

Coworkers and others recognize sycophants for what they are – useless but dangerous. If sycophants can get ahead because of their behavior, the whole organization suffers. Non-politically oriented staff are discouraged at the thought that their work and contribution alone will not allow them to shine and be recognized.

Encouraging free expression

Organizations must highly value the questioners, the naysayers, the ones who see the world differently than the rest. Their free expression of their hesitations and concerns can save an organization that might otherwise pursue the wrong path. Getting different perspectives on an issue, even considering an alternate way of making things work, has tremendous value.

As a CEO I am always looking for what I don’t see, know or appreciate. Hearing my own position parroted back to me doesn’t give me anything new to ponder. I appreciate dissenting perspectives even if they don’t prevail, because I know that we have given an issue deep and full consideration and that the process for reaching a decision has been good.

Sycophants should be recognized for what they are – manipulators looking to get ahead by flattery and not speaking their minds honestly and directly. There’s no room for them in business, schools or social circles.

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Nancy Knowlton
Nancy Knowlton is co-founder and CEO of Nureva Inc. and previously the co-founder and CEO of SMART Technologies. She writes about education, entrepreneurship, business management, technology, innovation and other passions.