Mastering the art of sucking up

A businessman winks, symbolizing workplace flattery.

Tess Vigeland: Contrary to popular belief, brown-nosing is not a dirty word. Turns out it's an art. And your ability to flatter could be what's standing between you and success. But, of course, overt sucking-up won't work. If you're too obvious it can backfire.

Sally Herships tells us how to master the technique.


Sally Herships: We've all had tough gigs at work. But John Clendenin may have had one of the worst. About 25 years ago he was working for Xerox. The company was downsizing. But Clendenin got a promotion -- overseeing international logistics. There were just a couple of problems.

John Clendenin: So we had no money, we had no people.

Then there was his new job -- trying to save money for the corporation worldwide. Clendenin says regional managers were focused on their own bottom lines. Not the corporation. And there's more. If Clendenin wanted to add to his budget he had to get the local managers to save on theirs. That's where his funding would come from. But he had to persuade them to make changes because Clendenin had no authority.

Clendenin: So in the very beginning I was the person going around asking for money when everybody was having their budget cut.

But Clendenin got results. He saved Xerox $700 million. So how did he do it? In the boardroom, it's called "sophisticated interpersonal influence" or ingratiation. You can also call it "sucking up." We already know it can boost your career. You're more likely to ascend to the corporate elite if you're an expert at flattery.

Ithai Stern: Tactics like flattering you, rendering favors, conforming my opinion to your opinion.

Ithai Stern is a professor of organizational theory and strategy at Northwestern's Kellogg School of Management. He co-authored a new study on how to ingratiate right. He says one of the keys is being subtle.

Stern: Things like framing flattery as advice seeking.

Picture for a moment: the traditional American workplace. Here's how flattery fits in...

Employee in imaginary office: Steve, I'm working on this tough new project for corporate. I was wondering how you were able to pull together the team so successfully.

Boss: Well Collins, let me tell you. It took a lot of late nights but we got that new strategy implemented.

Asking for help instead of pouring on the praise is less likely to be interpreted as flattery.

Stern: Other things would be arguing prior to conforming.

It may seem counterintuitive, but arguing first seems more genuine.

Employee 2 in imaginary office: No John, I just don't think your calculations add up.

After you put on a tough front then you can let someone think, they've actually managed to convince you.

Employee 2: I guess I just didn't see it that way before. Put me down as a yes.

You can also pass along compliments through a third party. But with all of these strategies, you have to be careful.

Stern: If you do it in a very aggressive way -- in a way that would be very obvious, that all you're all trying to do is gain favor -- it's actually going to backfire.

And your chance of climbing the corporate ladder goes down. But some people tend to be really good ingratiaters: lawyers, politicians and marketers.

I asked Batia Wiesenfeld, why? She teaches management at NYU's Stern School of Business.

Batia Wiesenfeld: Classes in social networks and leadership have been part of business schools for absolutely decades.

Wisenfeld says students are taught how to analyze social situations the same way they would a balance sheet.

Wiesenfeld: It might sound like ingratiation, but in fact what you're doing is you are letting people know these are the skills and abilities that I value in you.

And by doing so, you empower them to use those abilities more. So business students study great flatterers, like John Clendenin and what he did at Xerox. I asked him if he had any tips.

Clendenin: A lot of the people in business, once they become the boss, they expect that everybody is going to ingratiate them.

Instead Clendenin says get on your employees' wavelength. They're the people you should be ingratiating -- the ones who get the job done for you. Oh, and hey, I love doing stories for smart listeners like you. So an extra big thanks for listening.

I'm Sally Herships for Marketplace.

About the author

Sally Herships is a regular contributor to Marketplace.

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