Sucking up to your Boss… Does it Really Work?

Love it, or hate it, it’s time to face up to it – sucking up to your boss works. 

We all want to believe that the cream rises naturally to the top. We take solace from the idea that at some point talent and hard work propelled the partners and senior executives of your company into their prestigious glass-case offices. There are, of course, many variables as to why the cream of the crop are sitting at the top – ambition, impeccable timing, becoming an expert or indispensable in a certain area but the most effective method is to acquire the skill of sucking up. No doubt the high-ranking professionals in your office have polished their brown-nosing skills with political precision.

If the idea of fawning over your superiors slightly conflicts with your work ethic, it’s time to suck it up and start learning the skills of sucking up with grace and dignity. Luckily, two business school professors – Ithai Stern of Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management and James Westphal of the University of Michigan – have done the research so that we can be guided through our sucking up strategies.

A few years ago, they studied how executives gained coveted seats on corporate boards. And guess what? The good old apple polish got them there! They surveyed 350 companies and over 1,000 managers, concluded, “that ingratiating behavior was the strongest single predictive factor for obtaining board appointments.”

The Kellogg School published a synopsis Corporate Sweet Talk of Stern and Westphal’s latest findings on the subject, which include pointers for effective boss worship:

1. Pretend you’re seeking advice.

Example: “How were you able to close that deal so successfully?”  Mentoring is very in – so deflect from your self and let your superior believe that they can teach you something (which also implies that you want to learn something from them).

2. Argue a bit with your senior’s opinion or approach.

Do not agree immediately. However, needless to say, ultimately agree. Remember, executives love a good argument – especially if they think they’ve won.

3. Spread the word in the office: I heart my boss. 

Just pray that word ultimately graces the ears of the glass office.

4. Flatter them by pretending that you’re actually a reluctant flatterer.

Example: “I don’t want to embarrass you, but your presentation was really top-notch. Better than most I’ve seen.”

5. Agree with your first in command’s values before agreeing with her opinions. 

The goal here is to convey how you both share the same big picture – you are both big thinkers looking in the same direction.

6. Tell people in your head honcho’s social network that you really share those values. 

Again, you are counting on word getting back to the chief that you two are kindred spirits.

7. Finally, hint that you are part of the same circle, such as a football team, political party, yoga practice, gourmet food aficionados.

Whatever it may be, find your social connection and with your highest nonchalance, bring it to their attention.

Interestingly, the research puts lawyers in the league of sophisticated brown-nosers, like politicians and salespeople. These professions, Stern says, “routinely take part in flattery and opinion conformity to complete their jobs, similar to those operating in an upper-class social environment. Ingratiatory behavior is a form of interpersonal communication that is acceptable and expected in both arenas.”

Thank you Stern and Westphal, these lessons, while uncomplicated, need consistent practice. If you want to advance to the next level, slowly but surely focus on kissing the feet of those immediately above you. To get ahead in the long term, you’ll need to extend your haute-praise skills beyond your immediate circle. So, get a head start and start brown-nosing clients and your management team now. Do it early and do it often.

Soon, these skills will become second nature and you have successfully adapted yourself as a leader with political grace in the office. Your pleasing demeanor will exude qualities of managerial excellence and soon you will be taking your seat as the crème de la crème.

Ladies and Gentlemen, pucker up!