CEOs use these stealthy tactics to exert their influence

The art of a well-placed secret.
The art of a well-placed secret.
Image: Reuters/Mike Segar
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This originally appeared on LinkedIn. You can follow Adam Grant here.

Early in life, when people wanted to influence us, they got away with flattery and conformity. By complimenting us and agreeing with our opinions, they buttered us up and got what they wanted. As we gain experience with coworkers and bosses, advertisers and marketers, and friends and family members, we become wiser. We recognize these thinly veiled ingratiation attempts, and they fall flat.

Like a virus that mutates after being neutralized by medicine, many people have responded by developing more sophisticated weapons of influence. These stealth strategies are harder to spot, and if we’re not aware of them, we fall for them.

To learn about these tactics, strategy researchers Ithai Stern and James Westphal surveyed and interviewed thousands of members of the corporate elite. They asked CEOs, top executives, and board members at some of the world’s largest companies how they got away with ingratiating without making others suspicious of their motives. Seven consistent strategies showed up.

1. Framing flattery as likely to make us uncomfortable

Many executives admitted to prefacing compliments with disclaimers:

  • “I don’t want to embarrass you, but…”
  • “I know you won’t want me to say this, but…”
  • “You’re going to hate me for saying this, but…”

People get away with this sneaky tactic for two reasons. First, it disguises the goal: if the aim was to ingratiate, we expect people to focus on making us feel good, not bad. Second, it portrays us in a positive light: we think we’re viewed as modest.

2. Disguising flattery as advice-seeking

Executives reported couching compliments in advice requests. Rather than saying “I really admire your success,” one executive asked an influential colleague, “How were you able to pull off that strategy so successfully?”

This makes it seem as if others are trying to learn from us, not ingratiate. As Jack Herbert put it, “We all admire the wisdom of people who come to us for advice.” Let’s face it: they have really good taste.

3. Complimenting us to our friends

When people compliment us directly, one manager noted, it’s “kind of obvious brown-nosing.” Instead, if they say nice things about us to our friends, “we will almost always find out about it eventually, and it will mean a lot more.”

When people speak glowingly about us behind our backs, we’re often pleasantly surprised that they were talking about us, let alone praising us. It also appears more genuine, because they’re putting their reputations on the line by telling others that they think highly of us.


Arguing before conforming

When people immediately agree with us, we start to become skeptical of their intentions. When they argue with us first and then go along, it validates our beliefs that we’re smart and logical. We also walk away with the sense that they’re a discerning, critical audience who can be trusted. As one manager explained, “if you keep saying ‘yes boss, I agree boss’ it looks like sucking up. If you appear to challenge the boss a bit before yielding—‘OK you’ve convinced me, good point’—the agreement seems more genuine.”

5. Conforming to our opinion after learning about it from someone else

Another way that people mask their ingratiation goals is to gather independent information on our opinions and then express agreement. In the words of a manager, “if you find out the boss’ opinion on a policy from talking to his friend and then later in talking to the boss you raise the same opinion… it would come across as more sincere.”

When this happens, we often have no clue that people were already aware of our views. We end up giving them credit for agreeing with us on their own. If they reached the same conclusion as us, they must be pretty bright.

6. Endorsing our values before flattering or conforming

Executives also tucked ingratiation attempts into broader conversations about values. One manager described it this way: “I’ve found that a good way to begin a discussion is to make some reference to something that’s important to me personally and that I have reason to believe is important to the other person—sometimes it’s my religious conviction, sometimes it’s my commitment to environmental protection.”

When people establish that they share our values, we’re less likely to doubt what they say next.

7. Referencing a common group before flattering or conforming

A variation on this theme involves highlighting shared membership in a club or organization. Here’s how one manager summed it up: “If I’m trying to influence someone I might start the conversation by mentioning a group or organization that I know we both belong to… I think it helps build trust so you can be more convincing.”

A plea for self-defense

Stern and Westphal found that these tricky tactics were most widely used by executives with upper-class backgrounds and experience in politics, sales, or law. And they paid off. Executives who camouflaged their ingratiation attempts were more significantly more likely to land seats on boards of directors of major companies.

What if we didn’t let them get away with it? Next time someone uses one of these techniques on you, I hope you’ll be more likely to recognize it, and resist. “For as long as I can recall, I’ve been an easy mark,” writes the psychologist Robert Cialdini in Influence. “I am at war with the exploiters—we all are.”