Recently, I received an interesting email from my friend Kathy that referred to the issue of kissing up. Actually the article calls it “sucking up”. I’m sure there are plenty of other names for it. The article mentioned is called “The Favoritism Test” by Marshall Goldsmith.
I wasn’t expecting any revelations in this article since I’ve seen plenty of TV reports about it and it is a common theme in movies as well. Usually the person doing the kissing up is shown as a “Yes” man (or woman) that adores the boss. In the movies this very same person suffers some terrible fate (like getting fired) once the boss catches on to the fact that the employee has no backbone of their own. In the TV stories, the reporter always condemns it.
However, there is one important fact missing. Kissing up works. Kissing up works so well that it has become a world-wide behavior. I didn’t say that it was considered acceptable however. Most companies publicly condemn the act of “sucking up” within their ranks. The article points out that on paper it is the most common position taken. In practice, something else is going on.
This is where the article surprised me.
“Not only do companies say they abhor such comically servile behavior, but so do individual leaders. Almost all the leaders I have met say that they would never encourage such a thing in their organizations. I have no doubt that they are sincere. Most of us are easily irritated, if not disgusted, by derrière kissers. Which raises a question: If leaders say they discourage sucking up, why does it dominate the workplace? Keep in mind that these leaders are generally very shrewd judges of character. They spend their lives sizing people up: taking in first impressions and recalibrating them against later impressions. And yet, they still fall for the super-skilled suck-up. They still play favorites.”
And it gets even better. Marshall Goldsmith gives a test to the subject to see where they really stand.
Then we have a contest. I ask them, “At home, who gets most of your unabashed affection? Is it (a) your husband, wife, or partner; (b) your kids; or (c) your dog?” More than 80 percent of the time, the winner is the dog.
I then ask the executives if they love their dogs more than their family members. The answer is always a resounding no. My follow-up: “So why does the dog get most of your attention?”
Their replies all sound the same: “The dog is always happy to see me.” “The dog never talks back.” “The dog gives me unconditional love.” In other words, the dog is a suck-up.
This idea makes so many things that much clearer. Even when a leader wants to have employees that are open and creative, it is hard to resist having the lap dog that obeys without question and gives without condition. The part that makes this so nasty is that most people wouldn’t even be aware that it is happening.
My favorite part of the article is when Marshall confesses his own sin.
I can’t say that I am any better. I love my dog, Beau. I travel at least 180 days a year, and Beau goes bonkers when I return home from a trip. I pull into the driveway, and my first inclination is to open the front door, go straight to Beau, and exclaim, “Daddy’s home!” Invariably, Beau jumps up and down, and I hug and pat him and make a huge fuss. One day my daughter, Kelly, was home from college. She watched my typical lovefest with Beau. She then looked at me, held her hands in the air like little paws, and barked, “Woof woof.”
To some degree, we are all guilty of this. It is hard not to play favorites based on how people treat us.
The reason why it is so important to change how we look at this problem is that when you only want to see reflections of yourself in others (agreeing with opinions, etc) you are really missing out. It is conflict/disagreement that leads to better ideas. A leader is meant to lead a group but also be wise enough to let employees think for themselves. Without this insight, it is easy to make mistakes and even easier to destroy any hope of true teamwork.
Okay, now that I have re-iterated the original reporter way of looking at this issue, it is time to leave this post with a semi-controversial statement.
The easiest way to get ahead is to kiss up. If you can shallow your pride and be willing to drop anything on a moment’s notice, perhaps this is the right way to go.
It does work. The really smart people learned this a long time ago. I just haven’t learned yet. I’m just too stubborn.