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Inside IBH: Delivering Praise Without Sucking Up

Friday, October 14, 2016


Ed note: We ocassionally share articles from the Work/Life Resources section of the Integrated Behavioral Health (IBH) website.

You can access all of the resources from IBH, our Employee Assistance Program provider by following these steps:





By Kym Liebler


It got to be so predictable that employees in one midsize company started joking about how their colleague, Ron, climbs the corporate ladder.

"How do you know when the president is out of the office?"

"Ron's in the vice president's office."


Sucking up—a euphemism for heaping insincere flattery on someone, usually hoping for something in return—has become so endemic in workplace culture that some people believe flattery, false or genuine, doesn't count for much anymore.

Not so fast, says Dr. Andrew DuBrin, an expert on workplace culture who says people shouldn't underestimate the value of a good dose of flattery. If it's done properly, flattery can be an effective career and relationship-building tool.


"As the business world becomes more competitive, we're seeing more rudeness," said DuBrin, a psychologist and professor of management at Rochester Institute of Technology. "So the person who takes the time to flatter people really is at an advantage, because people are so insensitive to human behavior."


While most dictionaries define flattery as insincere or excessive praise, DuBrin says flattery also means showing appreciation. "Flattery is a particularly effective way of winning points if it's not done in a syrupy, phony way," he said.


We all appreciate praise.


One of the reasons flattery can be so effective is that people love to hear good things about themselves. But in a society that tends to dwell on the negative instead of the positive, they rarely do. In this culture, the person adept at flattery shines, DuBrin said.


"It's really part of being charismatic," he said. "People who are charismatic incorporate flattery in their conversation. They make people feel good and there's no doubt that helps them advance professionally."


The ingredient that separates flattery from obsequious butt-kissing is sincerity, said Gregg Ratliff, Vice President of Training for Dale Carnegie Training, based in Garden City, N.Y. "You can sense whether a person is being honest and sincere," Ratliff said. "Those who use flattery and brown-nose, it eventually catches up with them. People become suspicious of them."


In his leadership training classes, Ratliff emphasizes the power of recognition, but cautions people against tossing around hollow compliments. There are three categories of flattery, Ratliff said.

  • The first category is complimenting "things," such as how a person looks or dresses.
  • The second category is recognizing someone for his or her achievements.
  • Finally, the third category is complimenting someone's character.


A brown-noser comments on peoples' things, such as how they look or dress, Ratliff said, while an effective flatterer acknowledges people for their accomplishments or individual characteristics. Which is the most effective?


"People most respond when their individual character is stroked," Ratliff said, and DuBrin agrees. "People crave recognition like plants crave water," DuBrin said. "It's a natural human condition. People want to elevate their self-esteem, and self-esteem is based in large measure on what people think of us."


The Fine Art of Flattery


Even though it might seem easy to flatter someone, very few people are good at it. "Most people don't know how to say something nice. I'd say maybe 5 to 10 percent of the population is good at it," DuBrin said.


But people can learn to flatter effectively. "Many people have never been trained or really know how to do it well," Ratliff said. "Those who have learned to be sincere in giving appreciation do very well in the workplace."


A good way to start is to be consistent with praise or flattery, Ratliff said. People who give praise only when they want something will develop a reputation as a sycophant, while those who regularly acknowledge a person's strengths will be thought of as observant and kind, Ratliff said.


It also doesn't hurt to compliment people in public, or to buttress kind words with specific examples of how that person did something well or showed strength of character. "Supporting compliments with some form of evidence, with a scenario or incident, tends to make it more legitimate and makes the person feel more important," he said. "It's far more powerful to say, 'I was really impressed with the way you handled that meeting, especially the way you responded when the client asked you about deadlines,' than simply saying, 'That was a good meeting.'"


Flattery doesn't work the same way for everyone, DuBrin said. Praising one's boss can be dicey. Subordinates are afraid to compliment their bosses for fear they'll be perceived as a brown-noser, said Ann Chadwell Humphries, President of Eticon, an etiquette consulting business in Columbia, S.C. "We had a situation in our central office last week where an employee said, 'If you want any recognition around here, you have to suck up, and I'm not willing to do that,'" she said. "Flattery is delicate business."


DuBrin said some people, especially technical employees such as Internet specialists, don't respond well to flattery, because they're not - as a rule - touchy-feely workers. "You have to be careful," he said. "Technical people don't like effusive flattery. They don't buy it. It's much more effective to point out that the program they created was effective. Sticking to the facts is their form of flattery."


The power of flattery depends on the source. It will get you nowhere if it's false. But the magnetic appeal of flattery might get you everywhere if it comes from the heart.


Liebler, K. (Reviewed 2016). Fine line between flattery and being a brown-noser. Raleigh, NC: Workplace Options.