Like it or not, 'kissing up' is usually effective

August 10, 1993|By Maida Odom | Maida Odom,Knight-Ridder News Service

Your peers may disdain you.

And your personal integrity may take a beating. But your career could get a boost if you remember that the boss is always right.

"Kissing up" works.

Excessive flattery, expressing attitudes similar to those held by a supervisor and making the most of opportunities to please the boss are the mainstays of workers trying to ingratiate themselves, say the experts. And even though everybody can see through those ploys -- even the boss -- the tactics work just the same.

They work because it's human nature to appreciate compliments, to want reassurance that your attitudes are correct and to like the people who admire you. So even when the boss knows you are kissing up, it still pays off -- literally -- in positive job evaluations, promotions and higher pay.

Everybody intuitively seems to know that kissing up works. This summer, however, two professors from Bryant College in Smithfield, R.I., have released a study that measures just how well it does work. According to their study, based on 1991 data, kissing up gives a worker a 4 percent to 5 percent advantage over someone who relies simply on job performance to achieve success.

Gaining an edge

"Performance is important; you've got to perform. But ingratiation does something more. It gives you an edge," says Ronald Deluga, an associate professor of psychology at Bryant College, who, along with J. T. Perry, a management department instructor, conducted the research and co-authored the study.

Formally called "The Role of Subordinate Performance and Ingratiation in Leader Member Exchanges,"the 40-page study examined the responses of 152 pairs of supervisors and subordinates working in communities surrounding Bryant College. Participants were asked how they felt about certain examples of ingratiation and whether the examples were reflected in their work behavior. For study purposes, methods of kissing up were divided into three categories:

* Opinion uniformity: Agreeing with the boss.

* Self presentation: Acting the way the boss likes.

* Other enhancement: Flattering the boss.

Although all three methods led to improved employee-supervisor relations, opinion uniformity (agreeing with the boss) was the most popularly used method and the most effective, according to the survey.

Second in popularity and effectiveness was self presentation (behaving in a way the supervisor will like). The third category, other enhancement (flattery), was the least popular and was ranked least effective.

Fewer workers admitted using flattery and fewer supervisors admitted being susceptible to it, according to Mr. Deluga, "because it's a little obvious."

"We all want our egos stroked," says management consultant Richard Lewine, who's headed Achievement Alliance Corp. in Willow Grove, Pa., for 16 years. "If someone is stroking us all the time, we're happy. Astute bosses know when they're getting stroked -- even though they know, they still love it."

Although kissing up is widely practiced and generally rewarded, the study does note a downside. The tactic may benefit the practitioner, but it may not be in the best interest of the higher-up being flattered -- or the company.

The ascendancy of "yes people" can undermine critical thinking and allow top managers to ignore problems, according to the study and management consultants. Also, these days when team building is a popular method of getting work done, disingenuous ingratiation can cause tensions and distrust that hurt group efforts.

Mr. Lewine says the issue comes up frequently when he's called in to help a corporation deal with problems. Often, he says, "People in certain jobs don't do the things that in their judgment should be done because they're into not offending the boss. This creates problems because the boss is not always right."

Jean Bender, head of her own management consultant firm for 23 years in Newtown Square, Pa., agrees. "Peers and subordinates of the person brown-nosing find it very distasteful," she says. "They aren't trusted because you know when something goes wrong, they'll be the first one to say, 'Well, it was really John's fault.'

"It's not effective or productive even though some people manage to keep their position and move up by doing it," she

says. "When people are kissing up, they are not generally enuine about what they're putting forward. They're saying what the boss would like to hear, not what the boss needs to hear.

Challenge management

"A lot of senior management want to be challenged," Ms. Bender says, and ingratiation is often "not effective long-term."

The Bryant College study urges companies to guard against allowing ingratiators to run things, says Mr. Deluga.

If "kiss-ups" come to be seen as an "in group" and gain success, and there's a distinct "out group" of people who express genuine opinions, the more candid workers may become second-class citizens. This kind of divisiveness can endanger the company's well-being, he says.

To counter the all-too-human tendency to reward "yes people," the study suggests that supervisors make a practice of encouraging open inquiry and meticulous evaluation. Suggestions include requirements that workers criticize new projects and present worst-case scenarios.

Of course, for someone who kisses up, the worst-case scenario is when you've flattered the boss, agreed with the boss and adjusted yourself to fit the image of the ideal subordinate -- and the boss still doesn't like you.

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