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Flatter to Deceive

Optimize Blog - June 15, 2012 - 1 comment

Flattery is an interesting subject and one we witness often within our social environment and in the workplace. An article in The Economist recently argued that the ambitious should master the art of flattery: “Jennifer Chatman, of the University of California, Berkeley, conducted experiments in which she tried to find a point at which flattery became ineffective. It turned out there wasn’t one.”
In a 2010 Hong Kong study, students were given a flyer from a fictional clothing shop with the line “We are contacting you directly because we know that you are a fashionable and stylish person. Your dress sense is not only classy, but also chic…”
They knew the flattery and compliment was impersonal, and the motive was plain – the flyer asked them to shop at the store. But researchers Elaine Chan and Jaideep Sengupta found that participants given the flyer were more favourably disposed towards the store than those who hadn’t received it. They fell victim to the flattery.
It turns out that implicit attitudes towards the store were more positive than explicit attitudes. They were also better predictors of reported likelihood of making future purchases. So it seems that while participants quickly dismissed these ads at the explicit level, the flattery was exerting an important effect outside their awareness.
As an alternative, we can look at research by the University at Buffalo that showed that when dished out in personal interactions, ham-handed flattery generated a negative response. The research demonstrated that if a supervisor perceived a subordinate’s flattery as a ploy to get ahead, he or she would tend to rate the employee lower on job performance (in this study, supervisors rated employees on cooperative workplace behaviour). But when he or she was fooled into thinking the sentiments were sincere, the supervisor rated the person doing the complimenting higher.
Most associations with flattery, however, are negative and most people tend to not appreciate flattery accompanied by obvious ulterior motives, and consider themselves fairly adept at determining whose compliments are sincere and whose are BS. Historians and philosophers have paid attention to flattery as a problem in ethics and politics. And it is not a modern issue. In the Divine Comedy, written around 1320, Dante in the 8th Circle of Hell depicts flatterers wading in human excrement, stating that their words were the equivalent of excrement.
Leaders passionately believe that they can make a difference; they search for opportunities to change the status quo. Through their presence, vision and powers of persuasion, leaders enlist others in their dreams. Flattery has no place in this either through use of flattery to get people to do things for them or to ingratiate themselves to further a career aspiration.
Disingenuous flattery should play no part for the leader. See flattery for what it is from your own team and don’t rely on it to further your own career ambition. Leaders need to act outside of the herd……

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1 comment

  1. agreed. I do see leaders (and followers) use this as a technique and I find it very distasteful. On the other hand specific genuine compliments are important and vital.

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