Excel at the Job Nov 08 2010

Kissing up Like a Pro: A New Study Says How to Do It Right

Buttering up your boss is like painting a house; you don't want to lay it on too thick.

According to new research out of Northwestern University and the University of Michigan, overt ingratiation can backfire. Thankfully, the pair of professors behind the study were determined to find out how to kiss up correctly.

Drawing from previous research, a survey of Fortune 1000 executives and interviews with 42 directors at major corporations, the duet penned a primer on how to be a subtle and effective sycophant. Specifically, they looked at those who successfully talked their way into a board seat.

Here's what worked, straight from the ivory tower:

-- Make it uncomfortable: Preface compliments with a phrase like "I don't want to embarrass you, but..."

-- Frame it as a question: Asking for advice can be just as flattering as a compliment. And it's a lot easier for all parties involved to stomach.

-- Bait and switch: Disagree with your target and then gradually warm to their opinion. No one likes a "Yes" man, but everyone likes a "'No,' then 'Yes'" man.

-- Play the angles: Find a third-party, ideally a close confidant of your subject, and gush like a schoolgirl. Odds are, the praise will be passed on to its intended target.

-- Claim common ground: Pick a topic -- anything from religion to parenting techniques -- and make unsolicited statements and opinions about the matter that you think are also held by your target. Positive impressions will lower the red-flags on future praise.

-- Get clubby: Bring up social affiliations that you may have in common.

So who does it best? According to the study, those in law, politics and sales are much better and more practiced brownnosers than finance pros. There was a common thread, however. Sycophants who hailed from the upper-class were notably more skilled. Nothing groundbreaking there.

Write to Kyle Stock

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