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August 18, 2016

Does flattering your boss work? Kind of.

Daily Briefing

Editor's note: This popular story from the Daily Briefing's archives was republished on Sept. 27, 2018.

Flattering a supervisor may help you gain favor, but it can negatively affect how your co-workers view you, University of Florida doctoral researcher Trevor Foulk writes for The Conversation.

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Employees are often dependent upon supervisors for promotions, compensation, job assignments, and more. It's no surprise, then, that many practice ingratiation—also known as "kissing up," "flattery," and all sorts of other names—to curry favor with their boss.

Research suggests it works. According to a small study from the American Psychological Association (APA), ingratiation targets often enjoy the flattery and form positive opinions about the person offering it.

But while ingratiation may flatter your boss, third-party observers—such as co-workers—tend to dislike the behavior, according to a separate APA study.

Foulk and colleagues sought to take this concept one step further: They conducted a series of role-playing exercises to study how flattery changed observers' perceptions of both the co-worker and the supervisor.

Context matters

The researchers found that the third party's perception of an ingratiation interaction depended on that party's role. For example, when a co-worker flattered a supervisor, a new hire was more likely to see the interaction as genuine and to form a positive opinion of the supervisor. According to Foulk, new workers wanted the supervisor to have those positive traits, so they were more likely to believe the praise.

However, that effect disappeared when the participants assumed the role of contractors. Since the supervisor had no control over contractors' work outcomes, flattery did not affect their impressions, regardless of tenure.

Untangling flattery's effects

One challenge in researching flattery is that flattering comments rarely stand alone. Rather, they're one gambit in a complex, ongoing social interaction, Foulk notes.

Imagine, for instance, that you see a co-worker flatter his supervisor ("That was a really great idea, boss!"), and the supervisor reacts warmly ("You're a good guy, Tim. We work well together"). You're likely to think well of the supervisor—but is that because you believe your co-worker's praise, or is it because you appreciate the supervisor's gracious response?

To untangle these effects, the researchers conducted a series of roleplays in which supervisors responded positively or neutrally to praise. Their finding: The supervisor's reactions mattered much more than the flattery itself.

Foulk explains, "When the supervisor signaled that he or she had good qualities by" responding in a positive way, "onlookers automatically felt positively about him or her."

Foulk writes that the study's results "sho[w] both the preference for direct information when forming impressions of others"—that is, firsthand observation of a supervisor's good qualities—and how people will form those impressions "in the absence of direct information."

The findings "suggest that impression management behaviors are actually much more complicated than we realize," Foulk adds, because they influence third-party perceptions. Not only can flattery convince a person to like you, but in certain situations it can even get other people to like that person.

But it can also hurt your reputation around the office: "Remember—we don't like ingratiators," Foulk writes (Foulk, The Conversation, 8/17).

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