Does Your Company Have a “Yes” or “No” Culture?


If you had to describe your company’s culture as either a “yes” culture (more inclined to say “yes” to new ideas) or a “no” culture (more inclined to say “no” to new ideas), which would you choose? If you work at a typical large company, you may have likely said a “no” culture. Unfortunately many large companies, in attempting to stay the course and avoid the risk associated with novel ideas and approaches, tend to have closed cultures.

One of the major reasons for this cultural divide is that employees at large companies are often trained to default to “no.” Individual employees are often incentivized less to make a major breakthrough and more to make sure that things do not go wrong – nobody wants to be the iceberg to sink the Titanic. In annual evaluations, employees are incentivized to write solely about their successes—no matter how small—and almost never to write about large gambles that may have resulted in a failure.  Such failures, no matter how well intentioned or strategic, are generally bad on such yearly evaluations – nobody wants to miss out on their promotion due to a strategic gamble.

One of the issues with yearly evaluations as they are typically constructed, is that they tend to promote binary thinking around results. “This was a good result, this was a bad result,” etc. In reality, the quality of an employee is not always reflected in such results. One has to instead think in probabilities. No decision by any employee, no matter the ultimate result, will ever be one-hundred percent certain at the time the decision is made. Simple happenstance, among other factors, prevents certainty.

Think of this scenario: Is a decision that had an 80% chance of success, but ultimately failed, still a good decision by an employee? Is a decision that had a 10% chance of success, but succeeded a good decision by an employee? According to most company yearly evaluations the answer would be no to the first and yes to the second because it is all about what the outcome was.

Moreover, would a decision with a 10% chance of success, but a potential massive payoff that ultimately failed be a bad decision? Again, according to most yearly evaluations the answer would be no. Over time, this conditioning – to go for what is most likely to bring about successful though diminutive results – is far more likely to result in the creation and affirmation of a “no” culture that essentially eliminates any incentive for the type of risk inherent when nurturing innovative ideas. For companies to be successful innovators, they need to first ensure that their own internal processes and culture are not undercutting the types of qualities necessary for innovation to thrive.

Greg VanderPol