Business Psychology

Article No. 369
Business Practice Findings, by James Larsen, Ph.D.

Flattery Will Get You . . .

New research discovers a cure for the ingratiator's dilemma.

Flattery was the subject of recent research by James Westphal and Guy Shani from the University of Michigan.

But wait, you say. Flattery is what a young man does when he tells a young lady she's the prettiest girl he's ever seen. She blushes and gives the fellow some attention. What's that got to do with business? Maybe a lot.

Let's define our terms.

Westphal used a broad definition of flattery that includes a variety of behaviors intended to enhance the flatterer's attractiveness to the target of his flattery. Examples include expressions of liking, admiration, respect, and compliments, and non-verbal behaviors such as smiling and attentiveness. When it is successful, the person being flattered changes his/her attitudes about the flatterer.

When flattery succeeds, the target not only finds the flatterer more attractive and gives that person more attention, he/she also feels an obligation to the flatterer.

Flattery feels good. It enhances one's self-image and helps a person feel more competent, and it incurs a subtle debt. The young lady is more likely to allow the young man a kiss. The business executive is more likely to sign the contract. The customer is more likely to buy. More likely, that is, if the flattery succeeds. Sometimes it backfires.

Flattery backfires and reduces the attractiveness of the flatterer when it is recognized as insincere - a lie told to gain the hoped-for favor. The pretty girl now dislikes the flatterer. The business executive finds an alternate supplier. The customer walks out.

The flatterer is betrayed by his facial muscles, tone of voice, and posture. His words say one thing. His manner says he's lying. In the study of interpersonal influence, this is known as the "ingratiator's dilemma," and the prettier the girl, and the more important the executive, the more sensitive they are, and the more likely they are to sniff out an insincere compliment.

The flatterer risks much, and yet flattery persists.

Westphal believed he could find business people who had solved the ingratiator's dilemma in a large group of corporate directors he was studying, so he went looking for them, found them, and discovered how they did it. Here's what he learned.

Successful flatterers anticipate and prepare for meetings with the targets of their flattery. They learn about them and study their backgrounds. They search for qualities and experiences they have in common, and they concentrate their thinking on these qualities and experiences as their attempts to flatter draw close. They also avoid thinking about ways they are dissimilar.

This concentration on similarities takes advantage of a tendency to like and prefer the companionship of people just like us. For example, people from the same hometown, with the same college major, with similar work experiences, who served in the same branch of the armed services, who come from the same generation, and belong to the same social and service groups, and on and on. Westphal discovered that this mental exercise trains the flatterer's affect to match his words so that when he compliments the target of his flattery, he really does feel very kindly disposed toward the person. He really does admire and like him, and his words and his affect match. Now, the attempt at flattery does not seem insincere. It seems genuine, and the subtle feeling of debt follows the pleasurable sensation of being complimented. In Westphal's research, coveted board appointments followed these successful flattery attempts, rewards that demonstrated the benefit of flattery.

Westphal also found that this mental exercise which discovered and focussed on commonalities was most helpful with dissimilar targets, that is, targets quite dissimilar from the flatterer. Differences in race and nationality offered the greatest challenge to find commonalities, yet they proved to be the most valuable when accomplished. Perhaps, the feelings of difference heightened the gratitude felt toward those who found ways to bridge it.

Reference: Westphal, James and Guy Shani (2016) Psyched-Up to Suck-Up: Self-Regulated Cognition, Interpersonal Influence, and Recommendations for Board Appointments in the Corporate Elite. Academy of Management Journal, 59(2), 479-509.

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Keywords: social influence, flattery, ingratiator's dilemma
Consult Subject Index for related research.

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