Office Politics

Flattery Will Get You Everywhere – Or Will It?

Flattery Will Get You Everywhere – Or Will It?
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Skillfully navigating workplace hierarchies and politics is a prerequisite to moving up the ranks, and thus the ability to ingratiate effectively – to get the right people to like and value you through masked influence tactics – is an important strategy for achieving long-term career success.

It can also be a difficult one to master: Ingratiation, which involves behaviors such as flattery, favor-doing and opinion conformity, heavily depends on the ability to conceal any whiff of an ulterior motive. You need to essentially suck-up while appearing totally genuine. Understandably, that's not always easy to do.

So what happens when ingratiation attempts are unskillfully executed, and underlying ulterior motives are easy to spot? That's what Yongmei Liu, an associate professor at Illinois State University, wanted to find out. To tackle the question, she and fellow researchers conducted a study that examined how college interns attempt to ingratiate themselves with their supervisors and whether or not those efforts paid off in terms of their performance ratings. The study is currently in press at the Academy of Management Learning & Education.

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In the study, the researchers had 98 college interns fill out two online surveys -- one during the internship, and a second upon its completion -- on their ingratiation and networking behaviors with their direct supervisors. (Sample statements, which included 'made him or her feel important' and 'acted very humbly to him or her while making my request,' were rated on a scale a scale from 1 (never) to 5 (very frequently). Each intern also filled out an 18-item survey used to assess his or her level of political skill, a trait that enables you to accurately diagnose situations, select or adapt appropriate tactics of influence, and therefore increase your social influence. (Sample statements included 'I spend a lot of time and effort networking with others' and 'It is important that people believe me to be sincere in what I say and do.')

Because college interns are typically on the bottom of the hierarchical chain and have only a contained period of time to prove themselves worthy of a recommendation or job offer, there is a “great motive” for them to impress their supervisors, says Liu. As a result, the interns in the study tended to ingratiate a lot. Unfortunately, it wasn't always the best strategy.

At the end of the internship, each supervisor rated his or her intern on likability as well as job performance. "It turns out that for the interns who ingratiated but did not have political skill, not only were they less well liked by their supervisors, but their performance ratings went down," says Liu.

When interns who did possess political skill chose to ingratiate, they were better liked by their supervisors; however, this liking did not translate into an improvement in their job performance ratings. "The message here is, ingratiation may benefit you, to some extent, but don't do it unless you've got the skillset to sell others on your sincerity," recommends Liu. "Otherwise it may backfire."

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We spoke with Liu to find out what inspired this line of research, and the study's broader implications beyond the world of interns.

Entrepreneur: To start with – how good are we at identifying our own level of political skill?

Liu: Pretty good. The correlation between peoples' self-reports and how their peers rate them is statistically significant, meaning people usually have a good sense of whether they are politically skilled or not.

Entrepreneur: The main takeaway from your research seems to be: If you know you are politically skilled, go ahead and ingratiate to your heart's content. But if you know you aren't politically skilled, maybe hold back.

Liu: Yes, but another piece of advice would be: Practice, practice, practice. While part of political skill has to do with your ability to read people's emotions, which is fairly innate, a lot of it can be improved with practice, including network ability. If you get up there and introduce yourself in 30 seconds, you do better ever time; if you look at the components of political skill there is a huge portion that can be improved through practice.

You need to put yourself out there. A lot of people young people, especially at the early stages of their careers, are shy. But you really have to get out of your comfort zone, get to know people and build up your network.

Entrepreneur: What other aspects of political skill can be improved with practice?

Liu: Interpersonal influence, especially over repeated interactions with a single person. Over time, you can start to tell [the ingratiation techniques] that works with one person, and what doesn't work, so you learn how to best influence that person. For example, some people are most receptive to hard tactics, while others prefer softer tactics. When you practice this with multiple people, over time you'll have a better read on social situations. You'll understand whose emotions to pay more attention to, as well as your own social status within the group. Based on that, you can decide how you should act in any given situation. But again, it takes practice.

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Entrepreneur: How does all this translate into success at work?

Liu: The more you understand where the resources are in any organization -- who are the important people, for example – the more competent you will become.

Entrepreneur: Do your results just apply to interns?

Liu: In some ways what we found in this study is probably different then what we would see with regular employees. Because [with the interns] what we found is, when you are not politically skilled and you ingratiate, your performance suffers. When you are politically skilled, your political skill doesn't help you to improve your performance ratings, just your likeability. That was surprising.

Entrepreneur: What do you think is going on?

Liu: We suspect the interns are generally less politically skilled than regular employees, so they may not have enough political skill to use it a resource. For regular employees, the results may be different: There is one [previous] study that shows when you are highly politically skilled, ingratiation works to improve your performance ratings.

And there is evidence suggesting that political skill improves with position level. So the more experience you get in the workplace, the more you become politically skilled. And that's the time when your political skill becomes an asset you can draw on for your performance and your career.

Editor's note: Answers have been edited for length and clarity.