Flattery will get you far
According to the study, “Stealthy Footsteps to the Boardroom: Executives’ Backgrounds, Sophisticated Interpersonal Influence Behavior and Board Appointments,” corporate leaders are more likely to win board appointments at other firms when employing subtle, but sophisticated, forms of flattery and opinion conformity within their organizations.
“Past research has demonstrated the effects of corporate leaders taking part in ingratiation and persuasion tactics,” said Ithai Stern, assistant professor of management and organizations and co-author of the study. “However, our study is the first to look at the effectiveness of specific tactics in increasing the likelihood of garnering board appointments at other firms, as well as which types of executives are most likely to effectively engage these tactics.”
As part of the study, Stern and his co-author James Westphal, strategy professor at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business, drew from theory and research on interpersonal attraction, as well as interviews with 42 managers and CEOs of large U.S. industrial and service firms, to identify a set of tactics that are less likely to be interpreted as manipulative or political in intent, and are therefore more likely to bring about social influence.
The researchers identified seven effective forms of ingratiation most likely to help executives win board seats:
- Framing flattery as advice seeking: Occurs when a person poses a question seeking advice as a way to flatter the subject (i.e. “How were you able to close that deal so successfully?”).
- Arguing prior to conforming: Instead of agreeing immediately, a person will yield before accepting his/her manager’s opinion (i.e. “At first, I didn’t see your point but it makes total sense now. You’ve convinced me.”).
- Complimenting manager to his/her friends: Praising manager to his/her friends or social network with hopes that word gets back to manager.
- Framing flattery as likely to make manager uncomfortable: Positioning a remark as likely to be embarrassing (i.e. “I don’t want to embarrass you but your presentation was really top-notch. Better than most I’ve seen.”).
- Engaging in value conformity prior to flattery or opinion conformity: Expressing values or morals which are held by one’s manager (i.e. “I’m the same way. I believe we should increase minimum wage.”).
- Conforming to opinions expressed by one’s manager to a third party: Covertly learning of manager's opinion(s) from his/her contacts, and then conforming with opinion(s) in conversations with manager.
- Referencing social affiliations held in common with one’s manager prior to flattery or opinion conformity: Mentioning an affiliation, such as a religious organization or political party, shared by both individuals. (i.e. “I watched the Republican National Convention last night. The keynote presented some great points.”).
“Lawyers, politicians and salespeople routinely take part in flattery and opinion conformity to complete their jobs, similar to those operating in an upper-class social environment,” said Stern. “Ingratiatory behavior is a form of interpersonal communication that is acceptable and expected in both arenas.”
Stern and Westphal note that acts of flattery are successful in yielding board appointments at other firms if the influence target doesn’t recognize these acts as a favor-seeking motive.
“To tap into the corporate elite’s inner circle, a person cannot be too obvious,” Westphal said. “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.”
The study, “Stealthy Footsteps to the Boardroom: Executives’ Backgrounds, Sophisticated Interpersonal Influence Behavior, and Board Appointments,” appears in the current issue of Administrative Science Quarterly.
THE ART OF SUCKING UP
This kind of subtle flattery can also help employees climb up the corporate ladder. The more you disguise the sucking up to bosses and managers, the less likely you will be seen as manipulative and scheming. According to one study quoted here, managers were more likely to come down hard on people they see as sucking up to them, who are not being subtle and who are going over the top. But the study notes that when managers are fooled into believing the compliments are sincere, they are more likely to rate that person’s performance highly.
In other words, you have to do it right. It takes practice and skill the fool the other person.
Writing in the Harvard Business Review, Andrew O’Connell says flattery appeals to people on an unconscious level. When people are gushing all over you, you don’t believe it. But on an unconscious level, he says, you want to believe it. So the trick is getting the person on an unconscious level. “Persuade a customer or colleague on a conscious level, and he or she will retain that conviction only until a better counterargument comes along … Persuade a person on a gut level, and the feeling will last and last. And last.”