‘Yes’ culture: encouraging creative disagreement
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‘Yes’ culture: encouraging creative disagreement

Is a culture of people who always say ‘Yes’ endemic to an industry like (re)insurance and, if so, does it stifle creativity and potentially lead to harm?

Group of business people raise hands up to agree with speaker in the meeting room
Credit:Nattakorn Maneerat/Getty Images/iStockphoto

In a report from Deloitte, published in April 2020, the consultancy firm outlined five leadership qualities that it suggested would help insurance industry CEOs reduce the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on their organisations and help them to emerge stronger into the post-Covid world.

While emphasising the importance of empathy and compassion to resilient leadership, the Deloitte report also argued for an approach that, in some respects, is strongly indicative of encouraging a compliant ‘yes’ culture where rapid, hierarchically-led action takes precedence.

For example, one of the suggested characteristics is to “Aim for speed over elegance”. “Resilient leaders take decisive action - with courage - based on imperfect information, knowing that expediency is essential,” the report said.

At the same time, Deloitte suggested, leaders should: “Embrace the long view: How are you anticipating and responding to the new business models likely to emerge”, which, in encouraging the importance of long-term adaptability, hints at need for responsiveness to alternative, regenerative ideas.

As business leaders seek to lead their organisations through this crisis, some may be at a loss where to place ‘yes’ culture in the current paradigm – wanting whole agreement and speed while theoretically appreciating challenge, but uncertain about how to cultivate richer, manageable alternatives.

Hierarchy and ‘yes’ culture

Hierarchical ‘yes’ culture has long been at the core of the financial services sector and is a part of the insurance industry’s cultural legacy. Agreeability and hierarchy are arguably inextricable; each propagating the other.

Encouraging blanket agreeability towards leadership decisions creates an impression that saying ‘yes’ will not only be rewarded but is aligned with a range of staff motivational factors – career advancement, increased pay or prestige – and so compliant cultures inevitably flourish.

In addition, now more than ever, employees may be searching for security through agreeability. Safety can be experienced in cross-hierarchical agreeability (i.e., knowing that you are doing as directed or suggested) in these uncertain times. However, this overwrites another need – whereby talent wants and needs decision-making autonomy in order to develop in their careers.

Changing times drive the need for adaptivity and creativity, and both leaders and employees feel this stressor. Affordances to change are appearing throughout insurance sector hierarchies in the form of the growing adoption of insurtech tools - from climate risk prediction software, to motor insurance telemetrics and the increasingly intelligent computer modelling informing statistical analysis.

As James Banasik, CEO of MetSwift (the winner of sister company Insurance Insider’s ‘Best Use of Artificial Intelligence in Underwriting’ category at the 2019 Tech & Innovation Awards) states: “Despite appearing as a cultural shift, insurtech adoption can be cited as an example of agreeability, enabling more informed decision-making through lack of resistance to leadership-driven change. As creative adoption of insurtech is typically pitched to and led by an organisation’s leaders, it can exclude staff at other lower levels.”

‘Yes’ cultures can signal a recalcitrance towards change that, in turn, stifles process improvement and can lead to poor decision-making, while preserving a comfortable organisational status quo. Creative, authentic employees may bite their tongue if a repressive ‘yes’ culture is engendered.

Another of the five leadership qualities cited in the Deloitte report states that leaders should “Design from the heart…and the head” and “seek and reinforce solutions that align to your purpose, your societal obligations, and serve the heart of the organisation”.

“How are you demonstrating to your employees, customers, communities and ecosystem that you have their best interests at heart?” the report asks.

This suggest that a more considerate style of leadership is called for - one that allows for demonstrable due care (we might think of this as the new due diligence) and thereby openness to pushback.

We live in heightened times, with the trauma of Covid-19 still redolent and an awareness of contrasting individual experiences of pandemic and emerging societal changes calling for a greater awareness of differences of opinion. Now is the time for leaders to encourage a culture where staff at all levels do not fear vocalising uncertainty, contention or alternate perspectives.

Authentic ‘yes’ culture

With a culture of “psychological safety” in mind, it is important that a space for discerning disagreement does not instead become legitimitised ‘unsafe’ division.

This differentiation – subject to leadership visibility, monitoring and tipping points – is pertinent to our wider cultural climate, making it all the more important for organisations at the heart of our culture to practise safe discourse and disagreement.

Pia Sanchez, senior employment law consultant at law firm CM Murray, describes the way in which ‘yes’ culture creates a problematic space beyond simply repressing corporate creativity. On the question of whether ‘yes’ culture stifles creativity, Sanchez says, “In short, yes it does. A hierarchically imposed ‘yes’ culture quashes anyone who might approach discourse from an alternate angle – lateral thinkers with a minority view.”

“It is relevant, not just to creativity and innovation, but to serious issues of harm,” she says.

As Sanchez notes: “The authentic diversity of workplace culture, alongside safety of employees, is on everybody’s minds. Those employers who offer this security and open space secure [the] best talent – to the benefit of leaders. People are asking to bring their whole selves to work now; the world of insurance lags here. We are facing an opportunity for change.”

Equally, this should not create pressure for employees to be seen as sceptical or performatively “creative”. It is the responsibility of business leaders to allow for non-toxic discourse – positive or negative, yea or nay. It is likely this will create shifts – if subtle – within hierarchies, and readiness for these shifts is also necessary.

From ‘Yes, And’ to ‘Yes, Or’

All forms of organisational behaviour and culture are subject to gloss or chimera. However, Galen Emanuele, a leadership, team culture and emotional intelligence speaker with emphasis on reframing leadership, and author of “The ‘Yes, And’ Manifesto”, describes on his website what a healthy ‘yes’ culture can look like.

Galen identifies “disagree and commit” whereby, “there will be disagreement but responsibility towards organisational achievement prevails”.

“A ‘yes’ culture should encourage openness, feedback and ‘courageous conversations’ – giving people an opportunity to gain clarity, ask questions and share concerns,” he says. This, Emanuele suggests, enables faster decision-making and action.

This raises the pressing question, in the rush to gain (re)insurance market share, how much pushback business leaders can, and should, allow?

Time is of the essence and ‘disagreement’ – or what can be more usefully termed ‘open communication’ – necessitates time and resource with the potential to invite complication. The relationship between gaining market share gain, improving ROI, and enacting a cultural shift could be difficult to manage, initially at least.

If we ask whether organisations can benefit from people arguing against instructions they disagree with, we have to question at what point apposite pushback becomes disagreement and, further, how productive, timely pushback can be facilitated.

In walking this fine line, excellent leadership is needed. As Sanchez states: “People are longing for a different kind of workplace, one in which they are represented and able to challenge endemic compliance."

Leaders must disallow preconceptions and create ‘yes, or…’ cultures to engage and empower employees.