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Research by Assistant Professor Ithai Stern suggests that corporate leaders are more likely to win board appointments at other firms when they use subtle forms of flattery and conformity within their organizations.

Ithai Stern

Flattery will get you far

New research reveals seven types of ingratiation that increase boardroom prospects for top executives

By Aaron Mays

8/16/2010 - In the corporate world, board appointments are typically perceived as markers of success. However, new research from the Kellogg School suggests boardroom entrance strategies are rarely based on merit alone.

According to the study, “Stealthy Footsteps to the Boardroom: Executives’ Backgrounds, Sophisticated Interpersonal Influence Behavior and Board Appointments,” corporate leaders are more likely to win board appointments at other firms when employing subtle, but sophisticated, forms of flattery and opinion conformity within their organizations.

“Past research has demonstrated the effects of corporate leaders taking part in ingratiation and persuasion tactics,” said Ithai Stern, assistant professor of management and organizations and co-author of the study. “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.”

As part of the study, Stern and his co-author James Westphal, strategy professor at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business, drew from theory and research on interpersonal attraction, as well as interviews with 42 managers and CEOs of large U.S. industrial and service firms, to identify a set of tactics that are less likely to be interpreted as manipulative or political in intent, and are therefore more likely to bring about social influence.

The researchers identified seven effective forms of ingratiation most likely to help executives win board seats: 

  • Framing flattery as advice seeking: Occurs when a person poses a question seeking advice as a way to flatter the subject (i.e. “How were you able to close that deal so successfully?”). 
  • Arguing prior to conforming: Instead of agreeing immediately, a person will yield before accepting his/her manager’s opinion (i.e. “At first, I didn’t see your point but it makes total sense now. You’ve convinced me.”). 
  • Complimenting manager to his/her friends: Praising manager to his/her friends or social network with hopes that word gets back to manager. 
  • Framing flattery as likely to make manager uncomfortable: Positioning a remark as likely to be embarrassing (i.e. “I don’t want to embarrass you but your presentation was really top-notch. Better than most I’ve seen.”). 
  • Engaging in value conformity prior to flattery or opinion conformity: Expressing values or morals which are held by one’s manager (i.e. “I’m the same way. I believe we should increase minimum wage.”). 
  • Conforming to opinions expressed by one’s manager to a third party: Covertly learning of manager's opinion(s) from his/her contacts, and then conforming with opinion(s) in conversations with manager. 
  • Referencing social affiliations held in common with one’s manager prior to flattery or opinion conformity: Mentioning an affiliation, such as a religious organization or political party, shared by both individuals. (i.e. “I watched the Republican National Convention last night. The keynote presented some great points.”).
As part of these findings, the authors also discovered that managers and directors who have a background in politics, law or sales are significantly more likely to engage in sophisticated forms of ingratiation. Similarly, managers and directors who have an upper-class background are more sophisticated in their ingratiatory behavior than individuals with a middle- or working-class background. The authors argue that this proclivity is consistent with social norms in these environments. These findings shed new light on why there are only a few top managers with backgrounds in engineering, accounting or finance, as compared to top managers with backgrounds in politics, law or sales.

“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,” said Stern. “Ingratiatory behavior is a form of interpersonal communication that is acceptable and expected in both arenas.”

Stern and Westphal note that acts of flattery are successful in yielding board appointments at other firms if the influence target doesn’t recognize these acts as a favor-seeking motive.

“To tap into the corporate elite’s inner circle, a person cannot be too obvious,” Westphal said. “Being too overt with one’s intentions can be interpreted as manipulative or political. The more covert the ingratiation, the more sophisticated the approach and effective the outcome.”

The study, “Stealthy Footsteps to the Boardroom: Executives’ Backgrounds, Sophisticated Interpersonal Influence Behavior, and Board Appointments,” appears in the current issue of Administrative Science Quarterly.