CYA is a cute acronym for the term “cover your ass.” CYA just sounds a little less crass, and a little more business friendly than stating the full phrase. The acronym CYA also disguises itself to look like some of its harmless peers like FYI, ASAP, EOD and TBD. Don’t be fooled. CYA is far more sinister than that.

It’s common to hear people talk about how challenging it is to get everything done. We’re in meetings all day and often don’t get to sit down to think and get our work done until either before or after regular hours. Then we have to see about our life and commitments outside of work. The next time you are clarifying your coffee order at the drive-through, while on mute because you are actively participating in an important conference call, while on your way to drop your kids off to school, consider that CYA behavior robs us of valuable time and energy. That energy could be spent on more productive activities, or maybe actually enjoying your weekend rather than catching up on work. It also adds to the stress and anxiety many business people feel each day.

To those of you fortunate enough to have no experience with CYA behavior, it describes the excessive lengths we go to at work—not just to do our job well, but to heavily document and communicate the fact that we are super-competent—for fear that someone will try to undermine us and question our effectiveness.

Incompetent? Me? Impossible. Look at how many meetings I host. Look at how many emails I write. Did you notice how detailed my emails are?

What does CYA behavior look like?

It’s when you need to generate meeting minutes for just about any interaction with colleagues. I’m sending this note to follow up on the brief discussion we had earlier today when I bumped into you on my way back from the town hall where I was recognized for my successful campaign last quarter. We ran into each other around 10:35 AM as you were exiting the washroom, and you committed to facilitating the meeting with our vendor next Thursday at 2PM. I’m just following up to confirm.  

It’s when you then copy your boss and your colleague’s boss on that same email because 1.) you want to make sure they are aware you received recognition, 2.) you want to show that you seize every opportunity to have meaningful business conversations, even in the bathroom and, 3.) to display your diligent follow up.

It’s when you feel the need to keep a secret personal file of every discussion you have with your manager or peers. When you need to document things like when your manager encouraged you to network outside of the department in the larger organization, because you see this as a clear sign she wants you off her team. Capturing the dates and times that your cubicle neighbor rolls his eyes when you mention your cat’s ability to forecast the weather. Perhaps you’re working in a “cat owner intolerant” office environment. You decide it’s prudent to keep this secret file in case at some point you need to share your data with human resources, your employment lawyer, your therapist, or the media.

CYA behavior is a clear indication there is a lack of trust.  

We don’t trust that we will be treated fairly by our manager or peers without copious documentation to prove our competence.  

We don’t trust that our colleagues will follow through on their commitments or even recall they made a commitment.

We don’t trust that our team has our back.

In The Speed of Trust, Stephen M.R. Covey argues that when trust is low, speed goes down and costs go up. If I don’t trust you, I need to take extra steps to document our agreement and put safeguards in place to cover my ass. This wastes time and costs money.  

In the research paper “Whom do you distrust and how much does it cost. An experiment on the measurement of trust”, Professor Bill McEvily and his colleagues confirm that “an individual who feels vulnerable because they don’t trust another person will incur costs to mitigate their vulnerability.”

When we don’t trust our teams we write more emails, read more emails, and attend more meetings than necessary. We include far more people than required to make a decision.  

If you are a leader, you can reduce or eliminate the presence of CYA behavior on your team.

Be alert for the tell-tale signs:

  • Is a team member inviting you to meetings with an invite list as long as your arm? Decline any meetings where you are not clear on why you were invited and let the organizer know that you don’t think you would add value to the discussion. If the organizer is your team member, coach them on the fact that they should limit meetings to just the relevant individuals required to achieve the meeting’s objective.  
  • Are you being copied on unnecessary emails? Respond back to the sender that you only need to be copied if there’s new information, a decision made, or an action required by you. If the sender is your team member, have a discussion around why they feel the need to copy so many people. If they are concerned with an individual being held accountable, then deal with that individual rather than polluting the inbox of numerous people who would love to have zero unread emails in their inbox, even if it only lasts 10 minutes.
  • Are follow up notes and minutes being generated for almost all interactions? Minutes should be captured for decisions, sharing new information, and solidifying action items. If we have a one-on-one conversation with someone, we need to trust that they will follow through without a note being sent that copies their boss.

What if you’re working in an environment where CYA behavior is standard operating procedure? If most people in an organization are behaving as though they can’t trust each other, you should trust that there’s a good reason for that. You can still try to introduce some of the strategies shared above. The main advice I would have, however, is for you to cover your ass until you’re in a situation to move to a different work environment.

CYA Behavior