Kissing Up Makes Toady a Prince

NOTE TO MY EDITOR: Hi. This was really a fantastic idea for a story ... but then most of your ideas are genius. Any suggestions (always astute) for improving this would be appreciated. I'd be happy to stay late to rework it. P.S. Cool haircut.

If such oozing punches your gag reflex faster than you can say, "Nice tie,'' consider yourself normal. The consummate boss oiler is universally despised by peers, who rally at the water cooler, hissing: "What a brown-noser!''

We may loathe suck-ups but -- admit it or not -- we all do it, psychologists say. And rare is the person who isn't charmed by a little gratuitous stroking.

Even Shakespeare's Julius Caesar was a sap for it: "But when I tell him that he hates flatterers ... ,'' Decius says, "he says he does, being then most flattered.''

Now comes a review of 40 years of studies on "strategic ingratiation'' (defined as tactical moves to increase likability or to get a raise, promotion or positive evaluation). The review confirms our worst fears: Kissing up to the boss, who often sees through it, pays off.

"It is not so much just being a good political animal ... but ingratiation shrewdly employed will get you ahead,'' says Randall A. Gordon, a University of Minnesota psychologist who recently reviewed 69 studies on ingratiation.

"If you have two people who are both competent at what they do, but one is really good at schmoozing ... the one likely to get the raise is the schmoozer. It gives you the edge.''

How much of an edge?

Ronald Deluga, a psychology professor at Bryant College in Rhode Island, studied 152 sets of supervisors and employees, who admitted trying to make the boss feel important by noting that he or she has brains, talent and experience; by looking for opportunities to show respect; by expressing values the boss holds; and by acting humble. Deluga concluded that suck-ups gained a five percent edge over nonsuck-ups in getting positive evaluations and high marks for future promise.

Why are we such suckers for suck-ups? Because few of us can resist flattery or refrain from liking someone who likes us (a powerful dynamic called social reciprocity).

"Even if people see through it, they are momentarily blinded by it,'' says Andrew DuBrin, a professor of management at Rochester Institute of Technology. "Take a 70-year-old man sitting at a bar. A beautiful young woman comes in and says, `You are really stylish... I like distinguished-looking men.' He is taken in by her, even if it is clear she has an ulterior motive.''

Of course, there's a downside. Plagued by the "ingratiator's dilemma,'' or what might be called Eddie Haskell Syndrome, the apple polisher's conundrum is to avoid revealing insincerity. After all, June Cleaver was never taken in by Haskell's gee-you-sure-look-pretty compliments -- in part because of his smarmy smile.

"If it is too blatant, the person will actually think less of you,'' Deluga says. That could lead to distrust and repulsion, qualities not likely to lead to career advancement or lunch invitations.

Worse, perhaps, is almost universal disdain evoked by suck-ups.

"It runs against what we all believe, that in the workplace you should be judged on how well you do the job ... not how well you kiss up to the boss,'' Deluga says. "It doesn't seem fair that this is in the equation. But it works even when the boss knows it is happening, because it raises [bosses'] self-esteem and makes them feel good about themselves. Basically, everyone loves to be flattered.''

Well, not everyone, says Warren Bennis, a University of Southern California distinguished professor of business administration and author of several books on leadership. Ingratiation, he warns, has even more egregious implications than just taxing a person's integrity and, potentially, backfiring.

"It is dangerous,'' he says. "T.S. Eliot wrote about it in his play, 'Murder in the Cathedral.' Henry II said, 'I wish he were out of the way,' referring to Sir Thomas Becket. Four of his loyal barons, with a kind of destructive obedience, went out and murdered him without asking if the king meant it.''

Organizationally, Bennis says, businesses that reward ingratiators suffer from a dearth of creative ideas, scrutiny and constructive criticism. The best businesses are led by people who ignore fatuous flattery for "the single most important quality of a follower, which is to tell the truth.''

But for many who work in fields where high ideals don't prevail, it is simple: Those who don't schmooze, lose.