Business Psychology - Latest Findings




Article No. 298
Business Practice Findings, by James Larsen, Ph.D.

To Be Well-liked

Researcher gains valuable insights into ingratiation as a social influence tactic.

If you consider all the people you know, relatives, co-workers, neighbors, business associates, and social acquaintances, you’ll recognize a few of them as genuinely likeable. You like them, and if you compare lists, you’ll probably find that others like them, too.

To be well-liked . . . my-oh-my, what a blessing that would be.

What do you suppose being well-liked can that do for a person in business? People become loyal customers because they like you. Customers forgive mistakes because they like you. Employees stay with you because they like you. Bankers lend you money because they like you. Vendors extend you credit because they like you. Being well-liked can do a lot for you.

Would it surprise you to learn that well-liked people intend to be well-liked? They work at it. Would it also surprise you to learn that not everyone who works at it is successful? Some people are positively horrid at it. Try as they might, their efforts backfire, and the more they try to be well-liked, the more poorly people think of them. Such people gain a reputation for being obsequious.

Darren Treadway, from the University of Mississippi, is interested in this question, and he recognized an ideal setting in which to study it: the relationship between supervisor and subordinate.

At work, employees want their bosses to like them. Bosses hold the keys to their success, such as raises, promotions, job assignments, recommendations, lay offs, and so on. If we assume that nearly all employees try to be well-liked by their supervisors, then the difference between the many who try and the few who succeed must lie either in the skill of their efforts, the perceptions of the supervisors, or both . . . probably both. Treadway realized that comparing the efforts of successful and unsuccessful people would yield valuable insights into how well-liked people accomplish the feat, so he conducted a study to explore it.

Treadway studied 150 retail employees and 37 supervisors. The employees completed self-report measures of ingratiation (efforts to get others to like them) and political skill. Supervisors supplied recent performance review documents, and they completed measures of employees’ ingratiation attempts toward them and employees’ performance in the area of interpersonal facilitation (supporting and encouraging co-workers and helping others “get along”). Treadway found a most interesting pattern of results.

For employees who scored low on political skill, the rest of the findings weren’t very good. As they increased their ingratiation efforts, supervisors noticed the increase, and it backfired. Supervisors rated them lower on interpersonal facilitation.

For employees who scored high on political skill, the rest of the findings were much better. As they increased their ingratiation efforts, supervisors did not notice the increase. In fact, supervisors didn’t notice any ingratiation efforts at all. Instead, supervisors recognized these efforts as increased interpersonal facilitation – a good thing. They were trying to help everyone “get along.” The difference was political skill, and Treadway explains it this way.

Political skill exerts a powerful influence on the perception of ingratiation. It effectively masks the intent of the person. Instead of trying to be well-liked, people appear to be trying to help others get along, an altruistic intent. Supervisors had a high regard for such employees. They liked them, and political skill was the key.

“Politically skilled individuals convey a sense of personal security and calm self-confidence that attracts others and gives them a feeling of comfort,” says Treadway. It is comprised of four components: 1) Social astuteness – Politically skilled people are keen and insightful observers of others and of themselves. They accurately interpret their own behavior as well as others in social situations.

2) Interpersonal influence - Politically skilled people are flexible, adapting their own behaviors as situations change, and as they do so, they try to influence the thoughts and actions of others. They strike bargains, negotiate, and offer quid pro quos. Because of this, other people experience politically skilled people as very influential.

3) Networking – Politically skilled people develop networks of people . . . friendships, alliances, and coalitions. They typically network with people possessing valuable assets, like organizational rank, decision authority, expertise, or resources.

4) Apparent sincerity – Politically skilled people possess high levels of authenticity, sincerity, and genuineness. They appear to be honest, open, and forthright. “This dimension of political skill strikes at the heart of whether ingratiation efforts will be successful because it focuses attention on the perceived intentions of the person,” says Treadway. Forming perceptions of intent is a labeling process carried out by the target of the ingratiation attempt, and it is crucial to the outcome.

Treadway believes that apparent sincerity is the most important component of ingratiation success, and he believes people can increase their skills in this area. So the next time you compliment someone, smile at someone, openly support the ideas and/or values of someone, or appear modest, you should mean it. Any self-serving intent should be invisible. If you don’t really mean it, then you’d better appear as if you do. Treadway’s study demonstrated the fine line between appearing obsequious and interpersonal facilitation. Make sure you are on the right side of this line.

Reference: Treadway, Darren, Gerald Ferris, Allison Duke, Garry Adams, and Jason Thatcher (2007) The Moderating Role of Subordinate Political Skill on Supervisors’ Impressions of Subordinate Ingratiation and Ratings of Subordinate Interpersonal Facilitation. Journal of Applied Psychology, 92(3), 848-855. www.businesspsych.org

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