Abraham Lincoln said “Knavery and flattery are blood relations”, Dante said that their words were the equivalent of excrement, in the 8th Circle of Hell, and Dale Carnegie said that flattery; “is telling the other person precisely what he thinks about himself”.
But the evidence is that flattery can actually work – even when it is obviously flattery.
For example a new department store in Hong Kong sent out flyers to would-be clothing shoppers which said they were receiving them because they were stylish and fashionable. Even though an impersonal approach it created implicit positivity about the store and swayed them into choosing that stores over others.
The Hong Kong experts put the susceptibility to flattery down to our need for self-enhancement and wanting to feel good about ourselves. The fact that we like to get positive feedback, even when we know it’s not sincere, is a human trait.
With your boss however it’s a different matter as that is a personal interaction. Research in America shows that empty flattery can backfire. Successful flattery takes skill and the more politically skilled you are the less obvious it is. If you are not politically skilled it becomes obvious what you are doing and it generates a negative response. If a supervisor sees an employee’s flattery as a ploy to get ahead it tends to result in lower performance ratings. If the supervisor is fooled by the flattery it results in higher performance ratings.
Research from the Kellogg School in the USA found that managers and directors who have a background in politics, sales, or law, are significantly more likely to engage in more sophisticated forms of ingratiation. Those from upper-class backgrounds are also more sophisticated in ingratiatory behaviour than people from middle or lower-class backgrounds.
This might explain why there are fewer top managers with backgrounds in engineering, accounting, or finance as compared to managers with backgrounds in politics, law, or sales (who routinely indulge in flattery and opinion forming as part of their job). So for managers from either upper-class or politics, law, or sales, backgrounds, ingratiatory behaviour is a form of interpersonal communications and is both acceptable and expected.
Flattery can be considered one form of “impression management” – showing respect, smiling, and expressing agreement, even when you’re not feeling it. Researchers in Israel think displaying initiative and dedication is also a form of impression management. They found that employees’ tactics varied according to the type of organisation. In rigid hierarchical workplaces, such as the military, where subordinates are highly dependent on their superior’s goodwill, ingratiation is more prevalent and aimed upwards. In more flexible organisations, such as R&D groups, workers used impression management less and focus it on peers as much as superiors. They also use dedication and commitment rather than flattery.
In an earlier post I wrote about Robert Cialdini, the author of “Influence – science and practice” and the difference between influencing ethically and manipulative behaviour. It seems to me that there are many shades of grey along a continuum from influencing ethically, flattery and ingratiation, to manipulation. No wonder some people find it easy to cross the line.