Workers '"sucking up" bad for business: experts

NEW YORK Tue Apr 14, 2009 3:08pm EDT

An office meeting in a boardroom in a file photo. REUTERS/File

An office meeting in a boardroom in a file photo.

Credit: Reuters/File

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NEW YORK (Reuters) - If there's a bit more false flattery and loud enthusiasm at the office than usual, don't be surprised.

Whether it's called buttering up the boss, brown-nosing, sucking up or managing up, experts say ingratiating behavior is bound to be on the rise in the workplace as workers fret about keeping their jobs in tough economic times.

But such behavior can be bad for business, they said.

"People who tend to 'manage up' anyway are managing up more. They really want to make sure people are noticing what they're doing," said Max Caldwell, an expert in workforce effectiveness at Towers Perrin management consultants.

"It's a mentality of 'I not only want to do a good job, but I want to be seen as doing a good job,'" he said.

That behavior increases when stakes are high, said Jennifer Chatman, professor of organizational behavior at the University of California at Berkeley.

"It's what we do when we feel ourselves vulnerable or susceptible to the decisions of others," she said. "I would have every expectation that if we went out and tried to collect data right now, that it was going on in a big way because people are feeling more vulnerable."

In such an environment, underlings may be more likely to lavish praise on bad decisions or poor judgment by a boss and avoid being candid or bearing bad news, she said.

"It can be bad for business, keeping the yea-sayers around," Chatman said.

But according to some researchers, sucking up works.

Challenging a chief executive less, complimenting the CEO more and doing the CEO a personal favor increased the likelihood of being appointed to a corporate board by 64 percent, a University of Texas study found.

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In a separate study that Chatman conducted, job-seekers using ingratiating behavior were 20 percent more likely to land a job.

It's human nature, she said. "People who bring positive information, that stroke the boss, that make the boss feel good about the decisions he or she has made, that build up the boss' confidence, those people are going to do better," she said.

It's nothing to be ashamed of, said Frances Cole Jones, a professional coach and author of "How to Wow." In tough times, she said, go to work early, stay late, attend meetings and volunteer for extra work.

"In times like these, the smart thing to do is to 'suck up' -- or, perhaps, 're-commit,'" she said. "These days employees need to be flexible, ambidextrous, creative and committed."

Stephen Viscusi, author of "Bulletproof Your Job," suggested a simple change in work habits. "If you come in five minutes earlier than the boss and stay five minutes later, the boss doesn't know how long you're there. He just knows that you're always working," he said.

Francie Dalton, who runs Dalton Alliances Inc. management consultants, said criticizing a colleague as a way to suck-up may signal envy.

"If you think somebody is sucking up, consider whether you might be jealous. Consider whether you're getting nervous because that person is outpacing, outshining and outdoing you," she said.

Others like author Bill Hanover rule out ingratiating behavior altogether.

"If you value self-respect, the respect of your peers and leaders, then sucking-up or faking your way to a promotion will leave you ashamed and wanting," writes Hanover, the author of "No Sucking Up."

"Don't do it. And like the old drunk driving ad campaign states, 'Friends don't let friends suck-up,'" he wrote.

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