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Is Sucking Up To Your Boss the Way to Get Ahead? What Would Machiavelli Think?

May 5, 2019

The perennial question of what’s the best way to get ahead at work continues to be discussed and studied. One study by two academics revealed some interesting but not necessarily surprising findings. Professors Ithai Stern (Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University) and James Westphal (University of Michigan) studied the appointments of board members and how they achieved these positions.

The study involved 1,000 senior level American managers in the manufacturing and services sectors: 134 CEOs and 765 board directors. “Entitled Stealthy Footsteps to the Boardroom: Executives’ Backgrounds, Sophisticated Interpersonal Influence Behavior and Board Appointments,” the professors found that corporate leaders were successful in being named to boards of directors when they used subtle forms of flattery and indicated agreement on issues with those involved in the selection process. In essence, implied conformity was the modus operandi for these corporate appointees. As Professor Stern explains:

“Past research has demonstrated the effects of corporate leaders taking part in ingratiation and persuasion tactics. However, our study is the first to look at the effectiveness of specific tactics in increasing the likelihood of garnering board appointments at other firms, as well as which types of executives are most likely to effectively engage these tactics.” 

Some of the findings were quite intriguing, such as the most effective flatterers (ingratiators as the authors call them) came from upper class backgrounds and had backgrounds in such areas as law, sales and politics. As a sidebar, it’s coincidental to see that these three occupational areas typically rank very low in public opinion surveys on trust and respect.

Stern adds: “Lawyers, politicians and salespeople 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.” 

During the study, the participants were asked to describe their most effective approaches in massaging the egos of co-workers without them being aware of the motives. The most popular method was to ask a co-worker for advice, such as posing the question: “How were you able to secure that account so well?”

A second popular technique was to compliment the executives in the presence of their friends, with the sole purpose of hoping they would tell the executives later on. Combining flattery methods significantly boosted the individual’s chances of being appointed to a board of directors.

Buttering up your boss, or potential boss, appears to have big payoffs, provided you know how to spread it in the just the oh-so-right proportions. In particular, the abilities to engage actively in social networking and to build relationships are key to advancing one’s career. This needs to be qualified with you know what you’re doing. There’s nothing worse than a suck-up (brown-noser as is commonly expressed), whether at a senior managerial level or down in the ranks.

As much as a study such as this one is somewhat revealing there are no real surprises, except for validating certain tactics and how to employ them effectively. It’s unfortunate that the principle of merit continues to get shortchanged, whether in business or government. This issue may be viewed through both a leadership lens and a competitiveness lens. In years past, America and Canada were successful economically due to protectionist barriers and the submissive state of developing countries; the ball game, however, has been changing rapidly.

There’s far too much at stake for North American organizations to continue accepting such manipulative behaviours when it comes to career advancement and appointments to boards, etc. Merit is the new game in town. The Chinese, Indians, Brazilians, South Koreans, etc., who are indeed human, also understand the need for competence when it comes to management and leadership.

What should those in positions of power and authority do, whether you’re the President, Prime Minister, CEO of a multinational, president of a regionally-based telecommunications firm, assistant deputy minister in government, under-secretary of state, or just a Joe-Blow general manager of a manufacturing plant?

Do you, for a moment, believe that those subordinates sucking up to you have the best interests of the organization in their cross-hairs, whether it involves shareholders or citizen taxpayers?

So what would the infamous Niccolo Machiavelli (1469-1527) think of all this fuss? Machiavelli, civil servant and philosopher, became an influential power broker during the short-lived Florentine Republic and was later imprisoned and tortured when the Medici dynasty returned to power, only to write his renown The Prince in 1513, but which wasn’t made public until 1532. This widely interpreted treatise speaks to how “princes” (those individuals in positions of power) should build and maintain power.

Machiavelli may not the best role model to follow. Maybe he is for people such as like Donald Trump and hard-ass Oracle CEO Larry Ellis. Machiavelli, at his core, was about the amoral pursuit of power: how to build and maintain it. And in his immortal words if one has to make a forced choice, “it is better to be feared than loved.”

So does this infer that Machiavelli would in the end detest suck-ups? That he’d rather get on with business? To get done what needs to be done?


But in today’s corporate environment, let’s be clear that those who know how to manipulate and smooze, based on some recent research, have the leg up on the majority of us.


There’s too much at stake.

Here’s the last word to Machiavelli on how flatterers should be avoided:
“…of flatterers, of whom courts are full, because men are so self-complacent in their own affairs, and in a way so deceived in them, that they are preserved with difficulty from this pest, and if they wish to defend themselves they run the danger of falling into contempt. Because there is no other way of guarding oneself from flatterers except letting men understand that to tell you the truth does not offend you; but when everyone may tell you the truth, respect for you abates.

Therefore, a wise prince ought to hold a third course by choosing the wise men in his state, and giving to them only the liberty of speaking the truth to him, and then only of those things of which he inquires, and none of the others; but he ought to question them upon everything, and listen to their opinions, and afterwards form his own conclusions.”

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