Monday, October 08, 2012

Flattery Can Lead You Nowhere

Sun Hyun Park, James D. Westphal And Ithai Stern have conducted some interesting research on "flattery" in the workplace.  We all know that some folks like to kiss up to the boss.  We can debate whether it helps the subordinate's career or not, but another interesting question is whether such flattery has any impact on the boss.  These scholars find that it may have a detrimental effect on firm performance, because of the effect it has on the boss' mindset.  In their research, Park, Westphal, and Stern don't find a direct link between flattery and firm performance.  Instead, they found that flattery can boost a CEO's self-confidence (or what they call self-enhancement).  As a result, CEOs can become less likely to change a firm's strategy when performance begins to suffer.

In a strange sort of way then, flattery can make leaders stubborn.  They become more entrenched in their existing positions, because they believe that they can work things out without any major changes in strategy.   Perhaps the finding is not earth shattering, but it is thought-provoking.  Moreover, the rigor of the research should be applauded.

What's the practical implication?  I think the advice for leaders goes beyond "surrounding yourself with people who are not just yes-men."  Leaders need to recognize that they are likely to receive many accolades, even from those who may be willing to challenge them on occasion.  Compliments come with success, formal authority, and status.  I've worked for a number of leaders with whom I've had disagreements at times (and with whom I've felt comfortable expressing dissent), yet I'm quite sure I've also complimented them quite a bit on their successes.  Leaders need to recognize that a steady stream of compliments can begin to affect their decision-making moving forward.  It may make them more reluctant to change.  Therefore, leaders need to always stimulate a robust dialogue about new strategic options, even when the current path seems the right one. 

1 comment:

Andy Kaufman, PMP said...

Great post, Michael (though that may seem that it's only flattery!) :)

This reminded me of some of your points in Know What You Don't Know regarding how to circumvent filters. Though I don't know if flattery is a filter or not, your ideas of seeking different voices, going to the periphery, etc. seem very applicable....