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Is flattering your boss a good career strategy?

May 11, 2009 Business Daily, Leadership

“Whether it’s called buttering up the boss, brown-nosing, sucking up or managing up, experts say ingratiating behaviour is bound to be on the rise in the workplace as workers fret about keeping their jobs in tough economic times.
But such behaviour can be bad for business, they said.
“People who tend to ‘manage up’ anyway are managing up more. They really want to make sure people are noticing what they’re doing,” said Max Caldwell, an expert in workforce effectiveness at Towers Perrin management consultants.
“It’s a mentality of ‘I not only want to do a good job, but I want to be seen as doing a good job,'” he said.”

ELLEN WULFHORST, Reuters (April 14, 2009)

As the world wallows in its economic downturn, sucking up to the boss is on the upturn. Not surprising: when your job security is shaky, you do what you have to to stay in meaningful employment.

Such antics may be bad for business, however. Obsequious behaviour increases when stakes are high, says Jennifer Chatman, professor of organizational behaviour at the University of California at Berkeley. “It’s what we do when we feel ourselves vulnerable or susceptible to the decisions of others,” she notes. “I would have every expectation that if we went out and tried to collect data right now, that it was going on in a big way because people are feeling more vulnerable.” What’s wrong with this? Just that in such an environment, underlings may be more likely to lavish praise on bad decisions or poor judgement by a boss and avoid being candid or bearing bad news.

Other experts, however, note that a strategy of sycophancy can pay dividends. A University of Texas study found that challenging a chief executive less, complimenting the CEO more and doing the CEO a personal favour increased the likelihood of being appointed to a corporate board by 64 percent. In a separate study, Professor Chatman noticed that job-seekers using ingratiating behaviour were 20 percent more likely to land a job.

She puts this down to simple human nature. “People who bring positive information, that stroke the boss, that make the boss feel good about the decisions he or she has made, that build up the boss’ confidence, those people are going to do better,” she said to Reuters.

So, is sucking up a good strategy for you? Should you ensure you have the boss’s personal agenda high up on your list of priorities, should you laugh extra-loud at his jokes, lavish praise on all her ideas, agree with and support everything that comes out of the boss’s mouth?

Well you could, and research shows you would probably win more promotions and get more plum appointments. But should you do it? I can only recount personal experience. I was once working in a large multinational professional firm in London. In the early 1990s, a downturn came and fee income started drying up. My manager took me aside and asked me to make sure I came in extra early in the mornings, and was seen working late at night. He advised me to befriend all the project managers and offer myself on their projects in any capacity. He recommended that I attend all social functions and make sure all the big bosses know me.

What did I do? I started looking for another job immediately, and left the firm shortly after.

My point: sycophancy is for losers. If your path to success lies in insincerity and fakery, good luck to you. You may win a promotion or two, but you aren’t ever going to be a true leader. True leadership is about character and spine. If you want to be a genuine success in life, greasy behaviour will never build the character you need to get you there. Success comes from authenticity: being true to what you are, and saying it like it is.

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