No matter where I go, or which industry I work in, I seem to meet people playing the same roles over and over. One of my coworkers said it best when he said, “Different actors, same play.” People perform in predictable roles, sometimes to their benefit and often to their loss.

Perhaps the most insidious of these repeating roles is the dreaded “yes-man.” (I know there are also “yes-women,” but for simplicity’s sake, I’ll use the familiar term and its corresponding pronouns.) This person seems like the dream employee. He happily takes on any task. He doesn’t cause problems, stir up trouble, or directly anger the other staff. Unfortunately, he is a ticking time bomb of problems just waiting for the right moment to mess things up.

Identifying the problem
On the surface, the yes-man possesses many of the qualities you’d look for in an employee. He typically is affable, willing to take on challenges and happy to deal with whatever demands you make. He agrees to help his fellow employees just as easily, accepting work that does not fall within his job description. As well, the yes-man rarely confronts other people. When inevitable tensions arise, he seems unaffected by them.

A few months after the yes-man arrives, problems start to emerge. He does not complete three quarters of the tasks he takes on. He agrees to anything, suggested by anyone. If you made the mistake of allowing him to speak to your clients, you now have a stack of work that four people could not accomplish in a year, all promised within the next 30 days.

Over time, his relationship with his coworkers sours. At first, people like that he takes on every task and readily agrees to help them. However, his inability to follow though quickly stirs up resentment. His more perceptive coworkers will also quickly realize that his tendency to say yes to everything lands them more work than they can handle. Worse, it’s work they’ll have to do because the yes-man is off blithely promising the world to someone else.

The yes-man may have a variety of motivations for his behavior. These motivations generally fall into three basic categories:

  1. Deficient in time-management skills: The yes-man may just be a nice person who doesn’t have the faintest idea how to manage his time. This kind of yes-man is most often fairly new to the work force or just back from a very long period of unemployment. He tries hard but can’t keep it together. His agreeability stems from his desire to fit in and help.
  2. Lack of commitment: A yes-man from this category agrees to everything because nothing matters to him. He can safely say yes to any preposterous proposal at work because it has no bearing on his personal goals or identity. Since he takes no pride in his work and feels no coercive force aside from his need for a paycheck, failing to meet nebulous work goals has little impact on his personal satisfaction.
  3. Desire to lead: The yes-man may well desire to be a leader but may lack the personal skills and organizational status to fulfill his wish. He believes that the role of the leader is to take on assignments for his group. However, he lacks the authority or the internal organization to delegate.

How you choose to deal with the yes-man depends on your own approach and what tools you have at your disposal. There will be times when you can’t do anything about him. He may be protected politically from on high. He may be deeply ingrained with an internal or external client. Assuming that you can do something about him, though, you can try two basic approaches: manage him or lead him.

The manager’s solution
As managers, our concern with measuring performance and controlling activity gives us adequate tools to deal with a yes-man. From the manager’s perspective, there is little difference between the three categories I outlined above. Whatever the reason behind their activities, all three types of yes men fail to achieve their established goals. All three overcommit and underperform.

The management solution to the problem attacks both sides of the activity issue. First, it establishes clear weekly, monthly, and quarterly goals within the framework of the individual’s job description. Performance reviews and, if possible, bonuses are then tied to the individual’s ability to meet his goals. Second, it establishes a formal authorization process by which the individual may accept additional work. This process forces the yes-man to verify with someone (usually his immediate superior) new tasks he wishes to take on.

Implementing just one half of this solution can lead to additional problems. Giving clear goals without restraining the inflow of additional tasks leads to the employee failing. Cutting off the source of additional tasks without establishing clear goals leaves the employee lost in a minefield of conflicting purposes.

When you take this approach, you also have to carefully monitor the employee’s activity within the authorization process. Over time, he may start to develop sufficient time-management skills to no longer require such careful shepherding. Indications of this include the development of basic time-boxing techniques, concurrent scheduling of parallel tasks, and intelligent requests for delegation.

The leader’s solution
As a leader, your concern with the individual and aligning his goals with those of the organization leaves few tools for dealing with a yes-man. You have to treat each of the three categories as unique problems with different solutions.

Individuals who have poor time-management skills but who are otherwise motivated to work represent probably the least challenging category. If you don’t have significant time-management skills yourself, you can find someone to teach them. The person is already motivated, so getting him the required training should solve the problem.

Individuals who lack commitment, and therefore willingly pledge anything, represent a direct leadership challenge. This scenario is also one that you might not win. No matter what you do to inspire commitment, if the individual truly doesn’t care, you won’t succeed. Fancy tricks and seminars aside, you have to be able to hook a person by linking his personal goals to your organization’s. If his personal goals are so radically different that he can’t find some kind of link to start with, you’ll be hard pressed to help him.

Individuals who want to be leaders but don’t have the skills represent a conventional leadership challenge. Unfortunately, this may also be a challenge you can’t successfully solve. It might be possible to make this type of yes-man a secondary leader or help him with his basic problems. However, from an organizational and personal standpoint, he may simply not be in the right place at the right time.

In one of the three cases, you have good tools as a leader to deal with the situation. In the other two, you’re limited by the contextual nature of leadership. Management techniques fare somewhat better, since they focus on the workflow aspect of the problem rather than the core personality issues.