The Age of Obsequiousness Flattering your way up the corporate ladder

October 24, 1994|By Laura Lippman | Laura Lippman,Sun Staff Writer

The editor called the reporter into her office. "I have a story idea. Why don't you do something about flattery in the workplace? We even have a headline: 'The Age of Obsequiousness.' "

"I believe," the reporter said slowly, searching for the precise words to describe her feelings, "that this is a great idea. I'll get right on it."

Flattery. Kissing up. Call it ingratiation, if you prefer psychological jargon. Or call it by its coarse -- yet far from crudest -- name: sucking up.

But if you have an ounce of honesty or self-awareness, you know you do it. You know you love it when someone does it to you. And you know you are outraged when you see others doing it.

"I've never heard anyone admit to being an ingratiator," says Dr. John Sabini, chairman of the psychology department at the University of Pennsylvania. "I'm sure it's the sort of thing that people disavow."

Not everyone. Some people are proud to be known as kiss-ups. Baltimore lawyer Jim MacAlister, for example, cheerfully acknowledges that he and other savvy attorneys always have a nice word for the judge.

"Even if the judge has a tie that looks like a lobster bib, you say, 'Hey that's a great tie.'

"But I think most judges can see through it," he adds. "They're pretty good. They've been around long enough to have seen it all. Yet we still do it."

Why? Because there's a dirty little secret about flattery: It works. Even when people see through it.

"Even the most successful people like to be flattered," says Dr. Andrew J. DuBrin, an industrial psychologist at the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York, whose books on office politics advise a judicious use of flattery.

"Why did Johnny Carson keep Ed McMahon around?" he asks. "I think Ed McMahon was a world-class laugher at the boss' jokes. Even if it is transparent, people have such strong ego needs, it gets through and still works."

All things being equal, the obsequious toad edges out the sincere naif. One study on how to advance in the upper echelons of Fortune 500 companies pointed out that a company's top employees tend to be equal in performance.

So advancing was based on image (30 percent) and face-time with the boss (50 percent). Flattery can play a big part in both.

"This behavior is the icing on the cake," says Ronald J. Deluga, a psychology professor from Bryant College in Rhode Island, who, in yet another study, surveyed 150 pairs of bosses and subordinates. "From a statistical point of view, it adds 5 percent."

Again, the bosses in Dr. Deluga's study recognized the behavior, yet still had favorable opinions of the kiss-ups. However, the kiss-ups were in serious denial.

"Often the subordinates in particular would write: 'I never use this technique but I know someone who does,' " Dr. Deluga says. "Many people use this, but we don't like others to use it."

Candid thoughts from city's best and brightest

Give credit to Richard Sher, the WJZ anchor and reporter. Asked for his thoughts on flattery, he turns the interview into a comic monologue. interrupting himself to bestow flowery compliments on his interviewer and anyone within earshot.

"Kellye Lynn, our new medical reporter, she's sitting right across from me, I compliment and flatter her as much as I can because she is excellent," he says by telephone from Television Hill. "She's new and terrific, and she's going to be a superstar."

Then he adds: "I've talked to a lot of news people, and I think this is one of the most enriching story ideas I've ever heard."

One has to admire this. The compliment is not only obvious, it's a joke, a riff on the topic at hand. The receiver knows this, yet the receiver almost purrs with pleasure. It could still be true. Right? Right? (Memo to self: Tell boss that Richard Sher thinks her idea is terrific.)

Yet this technique would be lost on Steve Kaiser, president of his own public relations firm, Kaiser Associates, who says he shuns flattery and flatterers.

"To me flattery has absolutely no place in the workplace," he says. "My clients hire me because what they see is what they get. If they hire me to tell them only good news, I'm certainly of no benefit."

He learned to shun flattery while working for then-Mayor William Donald Schaefer and his longtime associate, Marion Pines. "If you went the flattery route with Schaefer or Pines, you were shot down."

In fact, one can argue that Mr. Schaefer has gone the anti-flattery route in his career, alienating some voters. (Think of the woman who gestured to Mr. Schaefer -- obscenely according to him, innocently according to her -- only to be told via letter: "Your action only exceeds the ugliness of your face.")

The elevator to success

Of course, ingratiation -- and its consequences -- have always been with us. Perhaps Cain thought Abel was a suck-up. Sir Thomas More didn't tell Henry VIII what he wanted to hear and lost his head.

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