Why flattering your boss can be a dangerous thing

PUBLISHED : Friday, 04 August, 2017, 10:06am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 08 August, 2017, 4:36pm

Do you like receiving praise for your accomplishments?

This is such an easy question. We all know the answer is yes. In fact, praise is something people in a position of responsibility have experienced often in their lives. It is used to mark good behaviour and accomplishments, point out who are the examples to follow and motivate everyone.

The praise initially comes from parents and teachers. Later it comes from peers, and finally from subordinates.

Flattery is a double-edged sword that can damage those who accept it

It sounds similar regardless of the source, so it is easy to forget one thing: praise from subordinates is also flattery. It is meant to make you feel good and have positive feelings about the person who delivered the flattery. It is part of how people manage up in order to improve their own careers.

Flattery can be honest praise, but it does not have to be honest. Does that mean we should treat it differently?

Flattery is a double-edged sword that can damage those who accept it.

Here is an example of why flattery can indicate a problem. In 2001, the Securities and Exchange Commission sued Albert Dunlap, the chief executive of Sunbeam Corp, for accounting fraud. Dunlap, who was famous for turning around troubled firms and selling them for a profit, was eventually barred from serving as an officer or director in any company.

How he managed things internally in each firm he led is disputed, with much negative information coming out after his downfall, and much was said about his intimidation of other managers who were flattering him while he was at his peak.

Dunlap was also ordered to compensate defrauded investors who won a class-action lawsuit against him. This rarely happens, even in cases of seemingly obvious guilt, because the burden of proof can protect executives against conviction.

An interesting detail of Dunlap’s downfall was that managers around him were quick to provide information that helped the investigation, unlike many other firms that pull out all the stops to deter, confuse and obstruct investigators. We now know from research that his quick downfall may not have been a coincidence, but something that happens systematically.

A recent article in Administrative Science Quarterly by Gareth Keeves, James Westphal and Michael McDonald, looks at what happens when managers ingratiate themselves with their chief executive through flattery and other methods.

Managers who flatter their chief executive quickly grow resentful of that person

First, flattery is not easy to do, and it becomes harder the further up in the firm one goes. Think of the difference between praise and flattery again. We feel good after praising someone for their accomplishments. We feel bad after flattering someone, because it doesn’t ring completely true and upward flattery is a way to admit that this person is above us. As a result, managers who flatter their chief executive quickly grow resentful of that person.

As the authors put it, “by violating prevailing ideals of authenticity, autonomy and meritocracy, the act of ingratiation can pose a threat to the ingratiator’s positive self-regard.”

Because they feel bad about their own behaviour, flatterers blame the recipient of their flattery. In fact, the researchers found that they showed “upward” discrimination because the resentment is multiplied if the flatterer is a white male and the chief executive is a racial minority or a woman.

Even managers who simply witness their peers flattering the chief executive have a tendency to grow resentful, especially if they see their peers being rewarded for it. The blame and anger grows and multiplies.

The next step is more important. Resentful managers may go on to damage their chief executive’s social capital.

Some of this is done easily and with only slight damage. They talk behind the chief executive’s back. In fact, the research showed that executives would make negative comments about a chief executive’s leadership when communicating with journalists. Aside from blunt criticism, managers can subtly use faint praise of the chief executive or make indirect statements that damage the their reputation. The effect of this accumulates. Each type of negative commentary was associated with more negative subsequent coverage of leadership, further damaging the chief executive’s reputation in the business community.

It can also be more serious, as in what happened to Dunlap. His comptroller described how Dunlap had pushed for illegal accounting practices and salespeople were quick to report “channel stuffing”, or the selling of too many goods, too early, a practice that becomes illegal when the sales are accounted for as if they were final.

The SEC (and some investors) suspected such practices were going on at Sunbeam, which meant that the apparent turnaround in sales and profits was actually a fraudulent scheme.

The researchers also identified circumstances in which praise would not be categorised as flattery and so could be safe for the receiver. These include:

• Friendship between the manager and the chief executive.

• Similarity between them.

• The praising manager being confident from receiving praise.

• Everyone being confident in because of the firm’s success.

So now we know that praise should be looked at carefully because it could be flattery and therefore could be costly to receive. The higher you rise in the hierarchy, the more you should keep your ego in check.

Henrich Greve is a professor of entrepreneurship at INSEAD and the John H. Loudon chaired professor of international management. He is also the Editor of Administrative Science Quarterly.