Living Economics

Yes, Boss.
The prevalence of yes persons is due to the difficulty of objectively assessing the contribution of white-collar work and the bosses’ human desire to hear confirming information.

Most young people fresh out of school soon learn that the safest way to job security and career advancement is to kiss their bosses' asses. The prevalence of yes persons is due to the difficulty of objectively assessing the contribution of white-collar work and the bosses' human desire to hear confirming information.

But the prevalence of yes persons blocks the flow of accurate feedback to bosses. Without accurate feedback, the business will atrophy over time in a competitive environment. The market economy provides such a selective environment. One distinguishing feature of the market economy is the high failure rate of new businesses. The Darwinian process of natural selection and survival of the fittest requires unrestricted entry of competing businesses out of which some will survive. Even though assets of the failed businesses can be re-deployed, most of them would have to be sold at a fraction of the original value. This apparently wasteful process turns out to be the only way to filter out bad business ideas. The firms that accumulate enough yes persons will be eliminated eventually.

An extreme system for the nurturing of yes persons is exemplified by the personality cult under a centrally planned economy. During the Chinese Cultural Revolution (1967 - 1977), everybody wore blue Mao jackets and carried a little red book of Chairman Mao's quotations. Store shelves carried a limited variety of goods if at all. The centrally planned economy in China was a system of highly restricted business entry and zero business exits. The state guaranteed survival no matter how inefficient the business was.

Since the prevalence of yes persons is related to the fear of job loss, sometimes job security has to be protected just to ensure free information flow. Most workers who do not enjoy job security wonder why professors need job tenure. No doubt job tenure also provides shelter for deadwood. But without it, innovative and controversial ideas would have been ruthlessly suppressed. Sometimes, even job tenure does not guarantee free flow of information. Fellow professors who serve on prestigious journals may reject new ideas simply because they are different from the accepted views. To survive professionally, one has to come up with yes papers just to get published.

  • Prendergast, C. "A Theory of "Yes Men "." American Economic Review, 1993, 83(4), pp. 757-70.
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