Flattery is like chewing gum. Enjoy it but don’t swallow it.
– Hank Ketchum
It’s almost a cliché but it happens all the time. Your colleague walks in, says something smarmy and ingratiating, and then asks you to do something.
We know from research, people react positively to those who consistently deliver positive news. Flattery, even false flattery, is consistently effective in gaining favor with superiors in the organization. And as researchers demonstrated, consistent false flattery has the added effect of creating an intolerance for bad news.
As managers come to expect only good news, bad news becomes increasingly unwelcome. It creates a cyclical effect in which eventually only good news is tolerated, bad news get swept under the rug, and the real conversations about how people feel about work happen only in the parking lot or over a beer after work.
Flattery can be valuable. In fact, it can motivate people to action. An interesting study from years ago reveals that flattery is most effective when the request is larger and more difficult. In the study, when people were ingratiated with excessive praise and compliments they were more likely to complete harder and longer tasks than an easier one.
But be careful. Consistent false flattery can lead to complacency. If leaders don’t explicitly create an expectation that ideas be tempered with honesty around potential pitfalls, then honest fears won’t be shared, and potential invisible cracks won’t be revealed until they become disastrous chasms.
Consistent good news, even flattery, provides people with a dopamine hit, translating to a positive feeling about the person who provided the flattery. What’s more, even false flattery has been shown to have the same effect. If someone I know says I look thinner, healthier, or younger, despite the truth that I’m really not (and we both know it), I will still have a more positive reaction to their compliment, and think more positively of them.
Compliments are wonderful. Above all, the best compliments are sincere, specific, and come with no strings attached.
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