Flattery will get you everywhere

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If you've long suspected that those who make it to the top of organizations are not necessarily those with the most talent or ability, it seems that your suspicions have been proved right. Because according to new research from the Kellogg School of Management, executives who are skilled at sophisticated forms of flattery are much more likely to win a seat on the board of a large corporation.

According to the study, getting a seat at the top table is all about employing subtle but sophisticated forms of flattery and opinion conformity without appearing to be too political or manipulative.

"Past research has demonstrated the effects of corporate leaders taking part in ingratiation and persuasion tactics," said Ithai Stern, assistant professor of management and organizations at the Kellogg School.

"However, our study is the first to look at the effectiveness of specific tactics in increasing the likelihood of garnering board appointments at other firms, as well as which types of executives are most likely to effectively engage these tactics."

As part of the study, Stern and his co-author James Westphal, strategy professor at the University of Michigan's Ross School of Business, interviewed 42 managers and CEOs of large U.S. industrial and service firms, to identify the sort of tactics that are most likely to lead to a board appointment.

This led to them identifying seven types of interaction that help executives win board seats.

1. Framing flattery as advice seeking: Occurs when a person poses a question seeking advice in a way that actually flatters the subject ("How were you able to close that deal so successfully?").

2. Arguing prior to conforming: Instead of agreeing immediately, a person will appear to change their mind before accepting his/her manager's opinion ("At first, I didn't see your point but it makes total sense now. You've convinced me.").

3. Complimenting manager to his/her friends: Praising manager to his/her friends or social network with hopes that word gets back to manager.

4. Framing flattery as likely to make manager uncomfortable: Positioning a remark as likely to be embarrassing ("I don't want to embarrass you but your presentation was really top-notch. Better than most I've seen.").

5. Engaging in value conformity prior to flattery or opinion conformity: Expressing values or morals which are held by one's manager ("I'm the same way. I believe we should increase the minimum wage.").

6. Conforming to opinions expressed by one's manager to a third party: Covertly learning of manager's opinion(s) from his/her contacts, and then conforming with opinion(s) in conversations with manager.

7. Referencing social affiliations held in common with one's manager prior to flattery or opinion conformity: Mentioning an affiliation, such as a religious organization or political party, shared by both individuals. ("I watched the Republican National Convention last night. The keynote presented some great points.").

Stern and Westphal also discovered that managers and directors who have a background in politics, law, or sales are significantly more likely to engage in sophisticated forms of ingratiation. Similarly, managers and directors who have an upper-class background are more sophisticated in their ingratiatory behavior than individuals with a middle- or working-class background.

The authors argue that this helps to explain why there are so few senior executives with backgrounds in engineering, accounting, or finance as compared to those with backgrounds in politics, law, or sales.

"Lawyers, politicians and salespeople routinely take part in flattery and opinion conformity to complete their jobs, similar to those operating in an upper-class social environment," said Stern.

"Ingratiatory behavior is a form of interpersonal communication that is acceptable and expected in both arenas."

But Stern and Westphal stress that acts of flattery are successful in yielding board appointments at other firms only if the influence target doesn't recognize these acts as a favor-seeking motive.

"To tap into the corporate elite's inner circle, a person cannot be too obvious," Westphal said.

"Being too overt with one's intentions can be interpreted as manipulative or political. The more covert the ingratiation, the more sophisticated the approach and effective the outcome."

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