Beware the office flatterer

What are they really thinking?
What are they really thinking?
Image: Reuters/Jim Lo Scalzo
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Josh Billings, the 19th century American humor writer, wrote that “Flattery is like cologne water, to be smelt, not swallowed.” New research suggests that business leaders—especially if they’re women or minorities—ought to heed Billings’ advice.

Underlings tend to flatter bosses, and that makes sense—given basic psychology (we like to be liked), and research showing that close employee-boss relationships increase promotions. But quite often, those compliments come from a place of resentment. This is the subject of a new study published in Administrative Science Quarterly.

Flattery comes hand-in-hand with resentment for three reasons, says Gareth Keeves, the study’s co-author and a doctoral candidate in strategy at Ross School of Business: It typically involves deceit or exaggeration; it’s submissive; and most people want to succeed because of their talent or hard work (not because they sucked up to the boss). Researchers hypothesized that ingratiating oneself with the CEO feels particularly demeaning for top managers, who think highly of their own abilities.

Over a three-year period, they surveyed 3,895 CEO-top manager relationships at large and midsize public US companies, and up to four journalists with whom each executive spoke.

Ingratiation induced resentment and backstabbing in nearly all managers, they found. The impact was substantial: A 1-point standard deviation increase in CEO ingratiation correlated with a 1.5- to 2-point increase (on a 5-point scale) in resentment. This increase in resentment nearly doubled the manager’s criticism of their CEO when talking to journalists—whether by direct insults or subtle slights.

Results also showed that white male managers particularly resent complimenting CEOs who are women or racial minorities, and were significantly more likely to badmouth these minority CEOs in the press than their counterparts who were working for white male CEOs. That should be a warning to women and minority leaders at all corporate levels, especially given the anonymity of press leaks, says Kreeves.

The ingratiation-induced resentment is not psychologically unique to top managers, which means that these results likely extend to employee-boss relations throughout organizations, says Kreeves. The researchers noted, however, that this effect may be less pronounced in cultures such as India and China, that consider flattery a common courtesy rather than an attempt to get ahead.

These results ought to concern insincere employees just as much as leaders—especially if the cycle of flattery and resentment drives them toward potentially career-ending critiques of their bosses. As Edmund Burke said, “Flattery corrupts both the receiver and giver.”