But now we have some good evidence – from research by professors Ithai Stern from Northwestern and Jim Westphal from the University of Michigan – how you can make it work, so pay attention:
1. Frame your flattery as advice seeking. For example, asking someone “how were you able to pull off that strategy so successfully” is more likely to hide your underlying motive than “gosh you’re good”.
2. Pre-warn your target that you are going to flatter him or her. For example, let your sucking up be preceded by statements such as “you are going to hate me for saying this but… [gosh you’re good]” or “I know you won’t want me to say this but… [gosh you’re good]” or “I don’t want to embarrass you but… [gosh you’re good] – you get the picture.
Now you that you have mastered the previous two relatively simple skills, it is time to up your game. It requires a bit of planning, but then it is likely to be highly effective:
3. Repeat the opinion that your target expressed earlier to a colleague. You can’t just keep agreeing to everything your boss says in every meeting, now can you? So what can you do? Well, when you find out your boss’s opinion on a particular matter from a colleague, who had a meeting with him earlier, bring up that same topic and opinion to your boss next time you’re meeting with him, before he has had a chance to do so. He will be duly impressed with the sharpness of your analysis.
4. Compliment your boss to one of his friends. So, saying face-to-face to your boss over and over again “gosh you’re good” is unlikely to do the trick. What might work though is to say to one of his friends “gosh, he’s good”. That friend is likely to, at some point, mention to your boss “he sure thinks highly of you”. And since you did not say this to his face, he might actually think you were trying to avoid brown-nosing him! Expect a friendly smile and sudden pat on the back.
Now that you have gained these more subtle skills of sucking up, you are ready to move to the advanced level. This one is sure to work, and you do not even have to say to your boss (or anyone else) that he is the greatest. All you have to do is make him feel the two of you are birds of a feather.
5. Engage in value conformity. What we mean by this is that you start a discussion with your boss by expressing commitment to a cause, institution, or other code of conduct that you know your boss feels strongly about. For example, if your boss is a family-man, begin your casual talk with how important family is to you. Or refer to your joint religion, or if he is into environmental protection, become green too (at least verbally). When you start of with statements that indicate that you share the same set of values, your boss is going to look at everything you subsequently say in a different light.
6. Refer to common affiliations. Similar to the previous tactic, refer to your joint political party, religious organization, or alumni club. These tactics build on so called in-group out-group biases; all of us humans see people who are in the same groups as we are in a more positive light, and your boss is no exception. So emphasize your joint group affiliation, and he will like the rest of you too.
Do these things really work? Yes they do. Ithai and Jim examined these tactics constructing and using an elaborate database on 1822 top executives, measuring their ingratiation behavior (assessed through questionnaires) and various other variables. Subsequently, they examined a rather important outcome variable to these folks: how likely their CEO (i.e. their boss; the target of their sucking up) was to nominate and appoint them to another board of directors on which he served. Directorships are highly coveted (and highly paid) jobs - that is, they want them! And all 6 aforementioned ingratiation tactics worked getting them.
Ithai and Jim also examined what sort of people were more likely to use these 6 tactics to their advantage. Executives with a background in engineering, accounting, or finance were plain clumsy at it. It is not that they did not try to suck up to their boss; they did, but they did it the coarse way (“gosh, you’re great”) and therefore were unlikely to succeed.
The people most skilled at successfully using the six sucking up tactics were executives with a background in sales, law, or politics. Perhaps not coincidentally, these are the professions we most mistrust (if not despise) to tell the truth: salesmen, lawyers, and politicians. They have had to practice these subtle ingratiation tactics all their lives. And it seems, also in the brown-nosing domain, practice makes perfect. And now they are reaping the benefits.