employee shaking leaders hand after flattering him

Boston College Researcher Outlines The Influence Of Flattery On Leaders And Organizations

Researcher Benjamin Rogers discusses the ramifications of leaders naively falling for flattery and its effective countermeasures.

Mark Travers, Ph.D.

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | February 28, 2024

A recent study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology explored the negative influence of flattery on leaders and their organizations, and the role of contextual factors in mediating this impact.

I recently spoke to Benjamin Rogers of the Department of Management and Organization at Boston College, lead author of the study, to discuss how flattery affects leaders' reputations and suggest strategies to mitigate its influence. Here is a summary of our conversation.

Can you give a brief description of impression management tactics? Can you talk a little bit more about why flattery is a commonly used impression management tactic?

Impression management tactics are the strategies and behaviors that people use to influence how others perceive them. People usually use impression management to improve how they are seen by others, but they also may do it to protect their current image. The tactics people use depend on their goals. Common tactics include:

  • Ingratiation tactics, like flattery or favors, to seem likable
  • Self-promotion tactics to seem competent
  • Appearing busy or hard-working to seem dedicated
  • Making threats to seem intimidating
  • Acting clueless or needy to invoke sympathy

People use flattery–giving compliments and praise to make the other person like them for personal gain–because it is very effective and can easily be disguised as just being nice. Flatterers are conferred more credibility by the flattery recipient, are more likely to be hired, receive higher performance ratings, and are more likely to receive board appointments. Flattery is successful because it is pleasant to hear; it increases a recipient's self-esteem and social status, and people find it difficult not to like those who think highly of them. Flattery also triggers feelings of psychological indebtedness, whereby recipients seek to "repay" compliments to flatterers via favorable treatment, even if they are not consciously doing so.

What are some personality traits in leaders linked to being naive to flattery?

In our study, we found that when leaders are seen as naive to flattery; it's often a reflection of how others interpret their response, rather than specific personality traits. Specifically, if a leader is seen rewarding flattery with some sort of favorable treatment, it might be inferred that they believe the praise to be genuine, even though from the perspective of a third-party the flattery is "obviously" not genuine and is only being used to obtain favorable treatment. A leader being more likely to naively "fall for flattery" and reward flatters could be due to various personality traits, like a high need for approval or a lack of self-awareness.

However, as mentioned previously, many leaders–regardless of their personality–struggle to resist rewarding flatters for a variety of psychological reasons. This was the driving force behind our research. Because rewarding flatterers is so tempting, we wanted to understand what others would implicitly infer from that behavior. We found that leaders who are seen rewarding flatterers appear more naive and less competent, which harms their overall impression and makes their employees not want to work with them anymore.

How can an employee give positive feedback to a leader without it coming across as flattery?

According to previous literature, employees hoping to avoid their feedback coming across as flattery should do a few things:

  • Make sure their feedback is sincere and specific. Genuinely expressed compliments that are not over the top and relate to some specific action that the leader did that benefited the employee are less likely to come across as flattery.
  • Avoid compliments at suspicious times. No matter if praise is delivered well, if it comes right before the leader allocates rewards like bonuses or promotions, it will seem like flattery.
  • Spread the compliments. If an employee only compliments leaders, it is likely to seem like flattery. If they are instead complimentary to the entire work team, it should reflect more positively.

But our studies suggest this is still only likely to help in the margins. In one study, we compared observers' reactions to leaders receiving extremely excessive flattery and compliments that were more measured and that the observer knew were accurate. While the excessive flattery led to the worst outcomes, the measured flattery still led to many of the same negative outcomes when the leader granted the flatterer a favor.

Considering the results of your study, would you consider flattery as a net positive or negative for an organization?

The results of our research suggest that the impact of flattery for an organization largely rests on how leaders respond to the flattery. If leaders can withstand the psychological pull of flattery and refuse to reward it with favorable treatment, they can bolster their own reputation, increase the commitment of their employees, and make their organization look like a fairer place to work.

However, as we know from decades of research, leaders are often not able to reject flatterer's requests for favors. Given this unfortunate reality, flattery appears to have a predominantly negative impact on organizations because it results in leaders rewarding flatterers, which is often noticed by other employees either directly or indirectly. Observers tend to lose respect for leaders who are susceptible to flattery, questioning their decision-making skills and the organization's fairness. This can lead to decreased morale and trust within the organization, making flattery more harmful than beneficial in a workplace.

The only silver lining we found in our own research was that leaders who were seen rewarding flattery seemed a little warmer and kinder to observers. However, this seems to be vastly outweighed by all the other reputational costs for leaders and organizations.

Considering prior research, do you think flattery has a place in an organization? If not, what steps can we take to weed out flattery from an organization?

From our research and prior work, it's evident that flattery is very common in organizations. In one of our studies, almost 70% of employees reported witnessing their leader receive flattery from a coworker. Unfortunately, the research is fairly conclusive that flattery does not have a constructive place in an organization as it undermines trust, notions of fairness, meritocracy, and interpersonal relationships.

The main lesson of our research is that the best thing leaders can do to weed out flattery is to refuse to reward it. In the short-term, refusing to reward flattery helps the leader to maintain a positive reputation and ensure the employees have trust in the organization as a place where they can succeed based on merit and not ingratiation. In the long-term, refusing to reward flatterers will establish a culture that emphasizes success as based on the quality of employees' work and not how effective they are at impression management.

How can leaders identify and safeguard themselves against flattery?

There is likely no simple solution for leaders to safeguard themselves against flattery. Lacking formal control over organizational resources, employees feel like they must use informal means to influence powerful stakeholders and secure favorable positions. While leaders may want to believe that all compliments from employees are authentic, they must accept that some proportion will undoubtedly be aimed at gaining their favor. Thus, leaders must try and maintain a healthy skepticism towards the compliments that come their way.

One tool suggested by our research is that leaders can explicitly express awareness of the instrumental motives of flatterers to observers. When leaders say things like, "I never was treated this kindly before I was in my position," while also refusing to reward flattery, it boosts how competent they look as a manager–even more so than just refusing to grant a favor to a flatterer. Interestingly, if leaders reward flattery, expressing awareness of flattery's motivations had virtually no impact on observers' reactions.

It appears that observers focus primarily on what leaders do in response to flattery rather than what they say.

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