The Subtle Art of Flattery in The Workplace

The Subtle Art of Flattery in The Workplace

Does flattery have a place in the office? Does it motivate people to improve their performance? Is someone more likely to provide favors to someone who has used flattery? Or, does flattery simply lead to derisive thoughts and eye-rolling?

That’s a bit bucket of questions we are about to answer in this post. Despite the common belief, flattery can be more effective and constructive than many people might imagine. However, there are risks involved in using this technique, and in some cases, it can become a bit problematic. So let’s dive into this!

What is Flattery?

The simplest definition of flattery is this one:

“Flattery is giving excessive compliments to ingratiate yourself to someone”.

That’s not exactly a positive take, right? Pop-culture doesn’t treat flatterers much better. Fictional characters who engage in flattery are often shown as weak, sniveling, manipulative sycophants. Think Wormtongue from “The Lord of The Rings” or even Wayland Smithers from the Simpsons who was a bit of a flatterer too.

On the other hand, despite some negative ring to it, flattery exists for a reason. For example, during the Renaissance period, writers and artists frequently flattered royalty and members of the nobility in their works. Perhaps this was because they realized that flattery, in spite of its negative associations, can be an effective method to command more attention to their persona and win over more patrons.

Is Flattery the Same Thing as Praise?

Simply put, no. Praise is often intended to benefit the recipient. Flattery nearly always is motivated by the desire to get something out of the person on the receiving end of the flattering remarks.

Also, in most instances, people praise people they respect and care about. On the other hand, people tend to use flattery whether they like or dislike the other person, as long as they believe it is a means to an end.

However, nothing is mandating that flattery must be untrue. It is quite possible to be very honest when flattering someone, but, at the same time, wish that their flattery produce some desired results.

So Why is Flattery So Persuasive

It’s a no brainer: flattery works. In fact, it even works when people know they are the target of a blatant suck-up attempt.

Scientific American published the findings of an experiment on flattery. Two scientists at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology conducted a study where they asked people to review advertising materials for a new department store. The advertisements flattered audiences with remarks about their impeccable sense of style and understanding of high fashion.

The subjects of the study recognized this as flattery right away. Their reactions were as expected. However, in spite of dismissing the ads as insincere and meaningless, the implicit results were a bit different. Most of the subjects developed positive associations with the store.

To some extent, such a reaction could be caused by the “above average effect”. This is the tendency of people to overinflate their estimations of their abilities and personality traits. So, consciously someone might dismiss a compliment as meaningless flattery, while deep down internalizing the statement and agreeing with it. They even create a positive association with that person.

In general, saying positive things to people yields positive results. It can be effective in influencing behavior in the long run, and it can make the flatterer more likable.

When is it Appropriate to Flatter (in the Workplace and Beyond)

Research shows that 51% of people believe that frequently or always have to put on a show at work. Out of that 32% dislike their jobs. That means that people are nearly ⅓ more likely to enjoy their jobs if they don’t feel as if they have to ‘fake it’.

That’s understandable. Putting on a mask like that, and carrying off a rosy disposition day in and day out is exhausting. Rather than doing this, you may feel emotionally better to engage in a dedicated and productive effort to use flattery.

The key is in knowing how to use flattery in a way that is effective, rather than slathering it on in a way that leaves a bad taste.

How to Positively Flatter Others

  • Nonspecific praise isn’t very effective. Remarks such as ‘you are amazing’, often comes off as being meaningless and insincere. Instead, shape any flattery as a form of feedback and encouragement for improvement.
  • Don’t use flattery about things that the recipient knows to be untrue of themselves.
  • What you should do is pick a specific behavior or attribute. For example, rather than stating, ‘You’re a great boss!’, you might say, ‘I really appreciate how you take the time to provide junior employees with detailed instructions rather than leaving us to fend for ourselves.’
  • Talk about results. Telling a coworker that a sales presentation they delivered was influential is good. Telling them that their speech measurably increased sales of a specific product is even better.

This kind of flattery works for a few reasons. First, it’s believable. After all, it’s true. It’s also detailed enough to be meaningful to the other person. That detail also shows that you are someone who notices and appreciates things, often when others may not. And as we well know, regular appreciation is a strong mechanism for retaining and re-engaging employees.

Best of all, this method works in a variety of relationships including boss-to-employee interactions, and peer-to-peer relationships.

When Does Workplace Flattery Become Problematic?

Obviously, flattery is a problem when it is clearly based on untruths, or when it is layered on so thick as to be meaningless. However, these aren’t the only potential issues with flattery at work.

When You are Trying to Flatter Your Superiors

Are you boss who is regularly on the receiving end of flattering, complimentary remarks from one of your employees? Be careful. There could be something quite negative bubbling under the surface. Flatterers who cast their attention upward often harbor significant resentments towards their bosses. This is according to a study published in Quartz magazine.

Why do flattery and resentment tend to go hand in hand when the boss is on the receiving end of it? There are a few reasons for this:

  1. People generally want to get ahead at work based on their abilities and accomplishments. If they feel as if they have to use flattery, they may feel as if their actual contributions are being ignored.
  2. Flattery isn’t always sincere and is often exaggerated. People may resent flattering someone who they don’t really feel is deserving of praise.
  3. Ultimately, flattery is a submissive act.

When Flattery Builds Up Resentment

When overused, flattery can lead up to resentment. For example, a high-level manager with a significant amount of confidence in their own talents and abilities might resent feeling as if they have to flatter a c-level executive. This would be especially true if they feel as if that executive isn’t any more talented than they are.

Worse, this isn’t mere impotent resentment. Managers who experienced these feelings were significantly more likely to say and do things to sabotage their bosses. For example, those experiencing feelings of resentment were much more likely to express negative thoughts about their bosses to journalists.

Sadly, race and gender bias plays a role in all of this as well. White, male managers were significantly more likely to feel resentful if their bosses were women or minorities. They were also more likely to engage in sabotage in those instances.

While the impacts of these resentments may be greater in the upper tiers of an organization, it should be noted that the same effects are often seen at all levels of the management/employee structure.

In fact, findings from another Science Daily article showed that ‘rank and file’ employees who feel obligated to flatter their bosses may behave badly in other ways. Essentially, acts of flattery may deplete a worker’s capacity for self-control. This may cause workplace issues such as incivility towards coworkers, or spending too much time on non-productive activities.

Final Thoughts: Workplace Flattery is a Subtle Art

There are certainly ways to use flattery positively. Sincere and specific flattery used with underlings and peers can motivate people in ways that benefit you. It can also lead others to think positively about you.

On the other hand, insincere praise that is laid on thickly, or is meaninglessly generic can lead others to conclude the giver is a bit of sycophant.

Finally, managers and those in executive positions should be very cautious about flattery. While it may feed the ego, it could be a sign of an employee feeling underappreciated and resentful. Women in minorities, in particular, should be aware that flattery often accompanies deliberate sabotage.

Here are some closing tips for using flattery in the workplace:

  • Flattery, like gift-giving, should flow laterally and downward. The only exception is where cultural norms say otherwise. Upward flattery can make it seem as if a manager is playing favorites, or that they are demanding praise as an ego boost.
  • The sincerest form of flattery is always honest. It should reflect actual attributes and accomplishments.
  • Deliver flattering remarks that are specific, and share the why as well as the what.
  • Women and minorities in particular need to be aware that not all flattery is well-intentioned.

Ultimately, the highest form of flattery works because it is sincere and believable. Rather than seeing it as a technique of manipulation, consider looking at it as a method of making others feel good about their traits and accomplishments.

Photo by Brooke Cagle

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