Flattering The Boss: Path to the Boardroom or the Doghouse?

They say "flattery will get you nowhere," and perhaps in some instances that's true; especially in the workplace.

In fact, that tactic, if ineptly used on the job, has the potential for not only backfiring big-time with an impatient boss, but also alienating fellow employees who won't waste any time derisively labeling the smooth talking co-worker as a major league "brown-noser."

However, in today's competitive job market, some researchers say that flattery, when used effectively, can actually reap some occupational dividends with your superiors. Who knew?

According to a study out of Northwestern University and the University of Michigan, if you learn to kiss up to your boss like a pro, you can potentially move up the corporate ladder and manage to keep your dignity intact. The researchers, Ithai Stern and co-author James Westphal, drew from a previous survey of top echelon corporate executives and interviews with 42 directors at major corporations to reach their conclusions on how to subtly suck up to the boss with panache.

But, the researchers insist that there is an art to properly buttering up the boss. "To tap into the corporate elite's inner circle, a person cannot be too obvious," says Westphal. "Being too overt with one's intentions can be interpreted as manipulative or political. The more covert the ingratiation, the more sophisticated the approach and effective the outcome."

Stern and Westphal offer some key guidelines for being ingratiating, without being grating.

1. Frame flattery as advice seeking

Make your superior feel as if you're seeking to tap into the wealth of their knowledge and experience in order to make you appear to be the eager student. The one that they will be happy to teach. Questions like, "How were you able to close that deal so easily?" plays into their ego and makes them feel effectively complimented, gaining the questioner some dignified brownie points.

2. Pull a subtle bait and switch

Respectfully disagree with a superior's opinion and the gradually warm to their opinion. No one likes a "Yes" man, but most everyone enjoys someone who is open-minded enough to be swayed by a differing point of view, especially if it's their own. That way, you show conviction of beliefs at first, but then, a willingness to see another perspective. Again, stroking the ego of the employer without neglecting to show your own backbone.

3. Tell a friend

The researchers suggest one finds a third party, ideally a close confidant of the flattery target, and lavish praise about that individual to the go-between. Chances are good that the praise will be passed on to your intended target, who will be impressed by your high opinion of them.

4. Make them effectively uncomfortable

Make your flattering comments less obvious and more palatable by playing to the modesty of the target. Try prefacing your compliments with the words, "I don't want to embarrass you... but, that was one of the best presentations I've ever seen."

5. Find common ground

Find a topic that you both seem to share an interest in -- from sports to parenting techniques -- and make unsolicited comments and opinions about the issue that you know is likely to be agreed upon by your target. According to the researchers, shared, positive beliefs will lower suspicions about your future praise.

6. Join the club

Share thoughts and views about social affiliations that you both may have in common. Again, the researchers believe shared viewpoints will make future flattery seem more sincere, and less calculated.

Stern and Westphal also indicate that managers and directors who have a background in politics, law, or sales were far more likely to engage in sophisticated forms of flattery and ingratiating behavior.

"Lawyers, politicians and salespeople routinely take part in flattery, and opinion conformity to complete their jobs," said Stern, "similar to those operating in an upper-class social environment. Ingratiatory behavior is a form of interpersonal communication that is acceptable and expected in both arenas."

However, there are those in the professional world who are skeptical of such advice.

"I think I can tell when an employee is being sincere in their opinion and when they're simply trying to blow smoke", said William Davis, a Boston area manager for a computer software company. "Personally, I welcome compliments, but if I get the sense I'm being taken for a ride, that employee is going to take a nose dive in my personal estimation and opinion. False flattery will get you nowhere with me."

Which brings us to the most obvious of Stern and Westphal's observations. They note acts of flattery are successful in yielding career advancement only if the intended target doesn't recognize the flattery as part of a favor-seeking motive.

The overall moral may be to simply play it safe and be sincere with your opinions.

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