Flattery not only gets you nowhere, it can also cause you to lose your job.
That’s especially the case, report researchers from the University of Michigan and Northwestern University, if you’re a CEO who is on the receiving end of the flattery. The researchers — James Westphal, Ithai Stern and Sun Hyun Park — found that in poorly performing firms where much ingratiation takes place, the likelihood of a CEO’s dismissal can increase by as much as 64 percent.
The paper, “Set up for a Fall: The Insidious Effects of Flattery and Opinion Conformity toward Corporate Leaders,” was recently published in the journal Administrative Science Quarterly, and gives some intellectual heft to an idea most of us have already witnessed in the workplace. A leader gets praise and seemingly universal agreement about the direction he or she is taking the organization. Even when performance starts to go south, all that ego-stroking and conformity continues. Because the leader respects the opinion of all those kiss-ups on his or her staff, he or she stays the course. The next thing you know, the board pulls out the hook, and the CEO exits stage left.
The study, which compared surveys and interviews with top executives and various corporate performance measures, may seem like it came to an obvious conclusion. If you’re a leader and blindly following the wisdom of the people around you — especially if they’re dependent on you for a paycheck — it’s your own fault if you expect to get candid feedback and tough advice. One of the cardinal rules of good leadership is to seek out the opinions of people who disagree with you.
Yet such opinions, of course, are increasingly difficult to find. Supposedly “outside” consultants suck up to get more business out of the firm. Purportedly independent directors, fearful of losing their cushy board seats, don’t want to speak out against company strategy. And in a tough economy that has everyone worried about their jobs, even those courageous insiders who were once good at telling you when you were wrong now clam up when you ask for critical views.
To me, the takeaway of this study is aimed more at those giving the flattery, and less at the CEOs who receive it. After all, try as one might, it’s hard to separate ingratiating compliments from truly kind comments. It’s human nature to believe them.
Rather, the study reminds us that while much research tells us that kissing up often helps—the same researchers studied seven types of flattery that help CEOs win board seats, and Stern points to other research that shows how much ingratiation can help you in job interviews—it has plenty of potential to hurt, too. That goes for the CEO who might lose his job, of course, but also for the ego strokers within the firm who are likely to face slower growth, smaller bonuses and bigger layoffs if the company continues performing poorly on the whole. Flattering your boss may reap some individual rewards, but the larger harm it does to the organization’s performance can come back to bite you.
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