The delicate art of strategic sucking up

Flattery can get you everywhere, but the potential pitfalls go beyond your personal career.

Perhaps the most repeated cliche in business is that hard work is the key to success. That may be true. But flattery or, to be blunt, sucking up to superiors appears to be at least as useful in the climb to the top.

Flattery is different from simply complimenting a co-worker or a manager. It is a form of ingratiation, the Machiavellian idea of changing your behaviour in order to convince someone to think more highly of you. Past research has shown that a well-placed compliment, even an insincere one, can help elevate your standing in the eyes of the person you’re flattering. A clumsy attempt, on the other hand, may have no effect or even hurt your image.

For those who don’t possess an innate talent for such deception, a recent study in the journal Administrative Science Quarterly sheds light on how to flatter effectively. Researchers from the Kellogg School of Management and the University of Michigan interviewed 42 executives at large U.S. companies and identified several flattery techniques the executives used successfully on their peers to secure board seats at other firms. “The common ingredient was reducing the likelihood of a skeptical interpretation of the behaviour,” says James Westphal, co-author of the study and a U of M professor.

One method the subjects leaned on was to frame a compliment as likely to make the other party uncomfortable, saying, for example, “I don’t want to embarrass you, but. …” Westphal says the technique disarms the “target,” as the researchers call the flattery recipient, and portrays that person as modest. Cloaking flattery as a quest for advice also works well, such as asking questions that seem motivated by the wish to replicate the target’s success. The other party is likely too busy thinking of a response to scrutinize the questioner’s motives.

The executives didn’t limit themselves to flattering targets personally, but also dropped compliments to the targets’ friends. “Complimenting someone to his face is kind of obvious brown-nosing,” one executive told the researchers, noting that compliments to a third party will eventually reach the intended person and “it will mean a lot more.”

But flattery can backfire if it lacks sophistication. A 2007 study in the Journal of Applied Psychology examined ingratiation techniques during mock performance evaluations. Employees who had succeeded in convincing their supervisors that their compliments were sincere received better reviews. Those who had been obvious about their flattery scored poorly, as the supervisors interpreted the behaviour as manipulative.

The new study goes beyond techniques to explore the effect of flattery on the workplace. Many of the tactics employed by the executives involved agreeing with their targets rather than voicing their own opinions. Some went so far as to pretend to argue about an issue before capitulating, this way appearing to have been persuaded by the target rather than being a mere suck-up. Such opinion conformity can be destructive in corporate settings, and in his next study, Westphal plans to look at the effects of ingratiation on the recipients. “It can lead to overconfidence in their judgment and leadership capabilities,” he says, “and less willingness to make changes in their strategies.”

Westphal isn’t the first to look at the effects of flattery, of course. As far back as 1976, U.S. psychologist David Kipnis showed that flattery was a powerful tool that can reinforce poor decisions or behaviour. Executives Westphal plans to interview may prove even more susceptible to such influence, since they receive it not only from their staff but from journalists and stock analysts as well.

The contradictions around flattery present a dilemma for employees. Research shows that many executives and managers like to have their opinions confirmed rather than challenged, and they reward those who flatter. Yet suppressing dissenting views can ultimately harm the entire organization. “Decisions are complex enough and the [market] competition is difficult enough that most companies are realizing they can’t afford not to have everybody thinking,” says Toronto executive coach Michael Stern. Getting a stubborn boss to welcome other opinions is very difficult, however. In such cases, he says, “The only option you really have is to vote with your feet.”

The executives in Westphal’s study didn’t dwell much on these issues. During the interviews, they portrayed flattery not as manipulation but as a necessary tactic to get ahead. Continuous use appeared to cause no decline in the effectiveness of the techniques, either. “The more they engaged in these sorts of ingratiation,” says Westphal, “the better [they succeeded in] getting prestigious appointments.”