To a shocking degree, mentors and the training folk fail to develop the exceptionally important practice of ingratiation, pejoratively known as “brown-nosing,” for their trainees. A surprising number of people believe you should keep your head down, your nose clean and take what life throws at you. Yet the truth of the matter is that the world is sometimes not a very nice or fair place, and you’ll pay for that naiveté.
In a recent blog on managing up, How to "wow' your boss, I noted that ingratiation was one of the key strategies for managing up. Because of a number of emails regarding my post, I’ve decided to enlarge on the subject of ingratiation.
Indeed, studies show the unwillingness to engage in ingratiation, the term researchers use for flattery, sucking-up, brown-nosing and a host of other expletives as a motivational inducement, often results in career and life failure. Acting like everyone gets what he deserves is liable to mean that you’ll miss out on an awful lot: work satisfaction, gaining more favorable evaluations, better leadership opportunities, personal motivation, and even more tips if you’re a hair stylist or waiter. Of course, there are a number of possible reasons for this failure, the most obvious being sheer ignorance and forgetfulness. The traditional adage has a lot of believers: “He gets paid for this. Why should I compliment him?” Even more look down their nose at ingratiation, viewing it as inappropriate and beneath their dignity, questioning its ethical foundation.
Ingratiation, the ultimate art of emotional intelligence, is to become more attractive and favorable to another by deliberate communication strategies. Surprisingly, the psychological findings are that if you fail to use this interpersonal tool, you are not only limiting your own power base and overall career and life success, but also inhibiting the achievements of its recipients. So brown-nosing is not only good for you, it’s also extremely good for its targets.
Why does ingratiation work?
Research, dating back as far as 1963, has found three explanations for the effectiveness of ingratiation. Ingratiation tends to increase liking. As my readers know, the joint powers of liking and competency are the single most important characteristics in the persuasion toolkit. Likable people who are also competent have a lock on the rewards of career and life.
Ingratiation can also create a strong sense of similarity. Studies show that perceived similarity between people, what rhetoricians call mutual identity, is a door-opener for effective communication and persuasion. Most any effective salesperson, walking into a client’s office, searches immediately for similar interests to grease the conversation. Similarities are not only ice-breakers, but also relationship-builders.
Research reveals that positive labeling of a person, otherwise known as stereotyping, can result in significantly positive consequences. We know that negative stereotypes, like thief, sex deviant, card shark, or cheat, affect the self-concept and behavior of a person. But a study at Yale, by Robert Kraut, was designed to test whether ingratiating with (positive) stereotypes or labels can also lead to a change in self-concept. Specifically, Kraut wanted to find out whether labeling a person as charitable and generous had a stronger impact than negative labeling as a “noncontributory.” He found that positive stereotyping caused more powerful results, even, than the negative. So flattery produces changes in the target’s self-concept that, in turn, lead to changes in the target’s behavior. In short, flatter a person regarding a positive behavior, and the person will not only live up to the flattery, but give you more.
Three categories of ingratiation
The original studies of ingratiation by Edward Jones (1963) identified three basic types or categories of flattery. They are reflected by the psychological research on ingratiation. The first and most obvious category is paying compliments. “I have a lot of admiration for your leadership skills. You really get the job done.” A derivative of this category is having a third party deliver the compliment. “Dan thinks your leadership skills are just what this firm needs.”
The second form of flattery is opinion conformity. This involves agreeing with the target’s statement, ideas, and views. A variation of this technique is to initially disagree, then yield, creating the impression that the target has changed your mind. “You know, although at first I rejected your solution to that problem, I’ve decided you’re really correct.”
The third category involves good, old-fashioned bragging, talking about one’s own expertise or experience to influence another’s evaluation of oneself. The first two categories focus the flattery on the target directly, for the purpose of gaining power with that target. In contrast, the third category increases liking and respect by focusing on oneself. One of my best friends, a well-placed clergyman, commented to me last summer that he didn’t mean to be name-dropping. Ha! But while on vacation in London last Spring, he “spent three hours in a private conversation with Prince Charles.” Now that’s how to push the envelope on gaining personal favor by name-dropping. Though most would not view bragging or name-dropping as a form of brown-nosing, it’s clearly a means of gaining favorable acceptance from the other, the very heart of ingratiation.
So you don’t like to use flattery?
Is ingratiation an unethical influence strategy? Only if the ingratiator believes the flattery or positive social labels used are false. If the ingratiator believes in the praise he is offering, there’s no ethical problem in focusing on the positive side of things. Ingratiation is a highly sophisticated form of street smarts. Yeah, I know. Everyone claims to hate brownnosers--unless the brownnosing is directed at them.
But, a lot more than ordinary business skills are necessary to get ahead in today’s highly competitive workplace. Indeed, it’s often necessary to bend the rules of fair play or ignore them completely if you want to succeed. Complain all you want about the lack of justice, but it’s inevitable that you’re going to have to be vigilant and proactive to ensure your own success.
Indeed, contrary to conventional wisdom, hard work and high performance won’t guarantee a promotion or even career success. In his latest book, Power, Jeff Pfeffer warns of the weak link between job performance and career outcomes. Indeed, systematic research reveals that job performance doesn’t guarantee you a promotion. High performance may actually hurt you because your boss wants to keep you in your high-performing role. Furthermore, high performance may not even be that important for keeping your job. In sum, high performance doesn’t do much for your career or for job security. You’re going to have to do something else. And that something else is to make your bosses feel better about themselves by apple-polishing.
So, ingratiation is an important skill in the toolkit for career success. Although it takes time and practice to become astute in its use, ingratiation is a means of persuasion, a motivational inducement that can significantly modify a person’s feelings, moods and emotions. It can be a highly successful tool for jump starting your boss’ drive to support you and your career. It is performance, coupled with the political skill of ingratiation, which will help you rise through the ranks.
Flickr photo: lyk3 On3 tym3