Flattery will not get you everywhere, and especially not to the corner office.
That’s what the researchers found out when they designed the rather dark study “Those Closest Wield the Sharpest Knife: How Ingratiation Leads to Resentment and Social Undermining of the CEO.”
The researchers originally defined ingratiation as “a fundamental means of building and maintaining one’s social capital,” but to their surprise, they found that people-pleasing to build your social capital can also backfire spectacularly. It turns out that most people can see through flattery, and it makes you feel empty and dirty to give out fake compliments.
Sucking up to your boss makes you feel bad and lash out later
Surveying almost 4,000 relationships between top managers and their CEOs, researchers concluded that flattery bred resentment among managers who did it to kiss the ring of their CEO. Lovers of Shakespeare may recognize the dynamic from Brutus’s resentment of Caesar, or Iago to Othello, or in history, between wartime aide-de-camp Alexander Hamilton and his boss, General George Washington. Such dynamics are a huge barrier to setting organized succession in a company because they create conflicts between a leader and his right-hand man.
Researchers suggested that top managers felt resentment because sucking up to their boss hurt their self-esteem; they had to swallow their pride in their own abilities and rely on compliments to get ahead. When flattery worked, it showed flatterers that they could not get ahead on their own merits: “[ingratiation] contradict[ed] the ingratiator’s desired self-concept as someone who succeeds on the basis of talent and hard work.”
Gender and race significantly impacted resentment too. White male managers were up to 32% more likely to feel resentful about kissing up to their CEOs when the bosses were racial minorities and up to 36% more likely to feel resentful if the bosses were women.
As Brutus and Iago proved, the private resentment among managers would eventually come out and undermine CEOs in public. By surveying journalists who interacted with top managers and their CEOs, researchers said that the resentment from having to ingratiate would make top managers more likely to talk badly about a CEO’s leadership to the press.
The difference between praise and flattery
Of course, this doesn’t mean that you should never compliment your co-workers or your boss. There is a difference between flattery, which is over-the-top or empty, and praise, which creates positive teams.
Those same anti-flattery researchers acknowledged that top managers who are close with their CEOs — even despite any underlying resentment — are more likely to receive recommendations and opportunities from those bosses. As a result, the answer is not to cut off all ties, but to be more thoughtful about how to make them. There’s a key difference between positivity —being encouraging, showing gratitude and appreciation, praising for positive reinforcements— actions that are sincere, in other words, and flattery, which rings hollow.
So how can people tell the difference?
Here are a few tips on how to be more thoughtful about your praise so it doesn’t come off as insincere flattery.
1) Be specific
Don’t give empty generic compliments. Make them specific and be sure that you can back up why you’re giving them. U.S. News says that a work compliment should be able to articulate “how the behavior positively impacted you, the team and/or the organization.”
2) Be honest
If you’re a manager, make it clear to your underlings that you want your employees to be open to you. It takes away the incentive for them to lie to you with sweet nothings. As Machiavellian logic dictates: “There is no other way to guard yourself against flattery than by making men understand that telling you the truth will not offend you.”
2) Don’t give praise when you’re asking for a favor
The original anti-flatterer and early management guru that fans cited 1800 years ago and now is Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius.
In “Meditations,” he outlines that one of his main rules for good leaders is that they need to shut down people-pleasing panderers because leaders should engage in “no demagoguery, no currying favor, no pandering. Always sober, always steady, and never vulgar or a prey to fads.” Praise becomes pandering when receivers feel like there are underlying manipulations behind it. So the next time you feel the urge to compliment, interrogate why you’re doing it. Are you just using it to butter someone up before you ask for a favor? (Don’t do this.) How you say it may make the difference between an insincere moment of pandering and a compliment that actually makes both sender and receiver feel good about what was said.