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Kellogg Assistant Professor Ithai Stern has found that CEOs who enjoy a high degree of flattery while their organization underperforms are up to 64 percent more likely to be dismissed.

Ithai Stern

Mirror, mirror

Flattery can be dangerous to corporate leaders, Assistant Professor Ithai Stern finds

By Aubrey Henretty

3/9/2012 - Are you a junior manager trying to curry favor with your boss? A CEO who never hears a dissenting opinion? You could be driving your organization into the ground.

Assistant Professor of Management & Organizations Ithai Stern and his co-authors discuss the hazards of professional flattery in their study “Set up for a Fall: The Insidious Effects of Flattery and Opinion Conformity Toward Corporate Leaders.”

You’ve written about flattery in corporate culture before. What got you interested in the subject?

Ithai Stern: It started in the early 2000s when the Enron thing was going on. The question at the time was, where were the boards when all this misconduct was happening? The implicit assumption in many of the articles we read in the popular press was that the problem was that boards were so homogeneous. It was an old boys’ club, and there were all these white males in their 40s and 50s from the same social and educational backgrounds.

Since then, we have seen an increase in the number of women and minorities on boards of directors. But surprisingly, we didn’t see much change in this norm — directors do not really challenge the CEO. On the contrary, there was anecdotal evidence that the norm has actually been strengthened.

So people are even less likely to question the CEO?

IS: Yes. So the big question for us was, how do people get to be directors? The argument from some scholars was that it’s people who can function well as directors, which means, one, that they can supervise the CEO and state the shareholders’ best interests, and two, that they can give good advice and provide social networks and so forth to the CEO and to the executives of the firm. But empirical data about those two assumptions didn’t really support them.

So the people who get board seats aren’t necessarily the ones who would be the best board members.

IS: Exactly. Assuming that we define “doing the job well” as both representing the shareholders’ interests and advising the corporate leaders. So the question was, what can explain that?

In social psychology, there’s a lot of emphasis on interpersonal influence tactics. We started to look at people’s ability on a personal level to ingratiate. There is a lot of research that says, for example, that people who know how to ingratiate in job interviews do much better. People who ingratiate in the workplace usually get promoted more, get higher salary increases and so forth.

That’s a pretty powerful incentive to flatter and conform. But your most recent paper is about how this kind of ingratiation can make leaders — and sometimes entire organizations — fail. How can organizations discourage opportunists from kissing up to the boss?

IS: I’m not sure that we can actually tell people not to. I think when we’re looking at the negative effects, we are looking at how it affects the CEO’s own decisions in the long term. What we need to do is explain this to CEOs — that we are all human, we are all biased by these interpersonal influence tactics.

If you are the boss, should you always assume your admirers might have selfish motives?

It’s not part of the research, but if I need to give one piece of advice, it’s to make sure that high-ranking individuals don’t get advice only from people with whom they have a dependency relationship.

I’ll give you an example: In the White House, there is something called the President’s Forum. The idea is that the current president brings in former presidents and gets their advice and opinions about issues. Those are people who have as much experience — often more — than the current president, and they do not have any kind of dependency on him, so they can tell him what they really think.

Your research seems to give us two conflicting messages. One is that you must ingratiate yourself to get ahead, and the other is that if you do too much ingratiating, it will probably interfere with your boss’s ability to make good decisions and ultimately harm your company. How do you make sense of this contradiction?

It depends on who’s asking. People were asking me a year or so ago, “Are you going to start a course at Kellogg that will teach students how to ingratiate?” And my answer was, “God, no.” We are social scientists who are trying to explain these phenomena. But for a good friend who has a hard time getting ahead in the corporate world, I’ll try to tell her how important her relationship with the boss is. On the other hand, if a high-level executive tells me, “I’m getting all of my information about my decisions and how things are going and how successful we are from the people who surround me,” I would tell him, “If you want to succeed in the long term, you should probably get advice from others as well.”

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