Wishfulness, yesmanship and the Harper Conservatives

Published on rabble.ca, by Bill Templeman, August 26, 2010.

At the end of World War II, John Godfrey, the former Director of Britain’s Naval Intelligence Division, identified two major weaknesses of the Nazi espionage bureaucracy: ‘wishfulness’ and ‘yesmanship’. Wishfulness and yesmanship are not real words; they are strictly Godfrey’s concoctions. Yet the behaviours behind these terms have changed history. And they are still with us today.

As wishfulness and yesmanship do not appear in any dictionary, I’ll make up my own definitions. Wishfulness seems to be the tendency to believe information that supports preferred views of reality while simultaneously rejecting all contradictory information. Godfrey believed that the Nazi high command, when presented with two pieces of contradictory information, was inclined to believe the option that best fit with their own preconceptions. 

A modern-day example: During the buildup to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the Bush administration maintained that the eponymous weapons of mass destruction should have existed, evidence to the contrary notwithstanding. The fact that these weapons could not be found was viewed as an annoying but trivial inconvenience. Those who presented contradictory information like Hans Blix, former head of the UN Inspection Commission, were dismissed as dupes. Journalists around the world bought into this wishfulness.

Yesmanship is the tendency of those with less positional power to agree with those who have greater power, mainly out of fear. Yesmanship feeds on fear of authority; the greater the fear, the stronger the tendency toward blind yesmanship. Yesmanship is an enabling behaviour for wishfulness. Wishfulness, particularly in organizations in which there are dire consequences for insubordination, can give rise to deadly levels of yesmanship.

Yesmanship appears at family tables and corporate boardrooms. Fearful children learn to deliver the news their harried parents want to hear. Wishing to avoid an argument, husbands and wives will spin information for each other by hiding in yesmanship. Ambitious employees learn to support an executive’s favoured opinions. “Don’t make waves” or “Tell her what she wants to hear and you’ll be fine.”

In the Nazi hierarchy that Godfrey analyzed, lower ranks would deliberately distort information in order to crawl higher in Hitler’s estimation. Yesmanship became integrated into strategic decision making at the highest levels of the Third Reich. Few dared say “no” to the man directly above.

This phenomenon is not proprietary to the military. Yesmanship appears in many civilian organizations around the world, be they non-profit, public or private sector. Or political parties … //

… For example, research from Washington state has shown that every dollar spent on community-based drug treatment saves $18 in taxpayer costs, including prison expenses. In that jurisdiction, community-based drug treatment provides better crime reduction results than prison. But such a long-term approach obviously has little political sex appeal in Ottawa.

The Conservatives are wrong. Throwing more money at prison construction by itself will not make the crime rate go down. Building more prisons will not make future offenders less likely to commit crimes. Investing in education, communities and the social safety net is the smarter and far more fiscally prudent way to go. (full text).

(Bill Templeman is a writer, facilitator, consultant and former closed-custody youth worker based in Peterborough, Ontario).

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