The Buffalo News

Biggest kiss-up could be biggest back­stab­ber

- By Jena McGre­gor

One of the most widely held – if rarely prac­ticed – ideas in man­age­ment is that it’s im­por­tant for chief ex­ec­u­tives to en­cour­age dif­fer­ent opin­ions from the peo­ple who work for them. To find the dis­sent­ing voices who won’t just try to flat­ter or praise, but re­mind lead­ers when they are wrong. Do­ing so, the think­ing goes, will lead to bet­ter pro­fes­sional per­for­mance – stronger de­ci­sion­mak­ing, fewer mis­steps and more in­no­va­tive ideas.

But it could also have a per­sonal upside for chief ex­ec­u­tives: They might have fewer back­stab­bing man­agers bad­mouthing them to the media.

A new study re­cently fea­tured in the Har­vard Busi­ness Re­view and pub­lished on­line in the man­age­ment jour­nal Ad­min­is­tra­tive Sci­ence Quar­terly ex­am­ines the re­la­tion­ship be­tween chief ex­ec­u­tives, the man­agers who work for them, and the psy­chol­ogy of flat­tery and re­sent­ment. The study found that top man­agers who en­gage in “in­gra­ti­at­ing” be­hav­ior – com­pli­ment­ing their boss, re­peat­edly con­form­ing or agree­ing with their views – were sig­nif­i­cantly more likely to ad­mit to mak­ing neg­a­tive com­ments about their CEO to jour­nal­ists.

“Peo­ple find it, at some level, de­mean­ing to en­gage in in­gra­ti­a­tion,” said Jim West­phal, a pro­fes­sor at the Univer­sity of Michi­gan’s Ross School of Busi­ness, in an in­ter­view. “That trig­gers a feeling of re­sent­ment. Peo­ple mis­at­tribute their own be­hav­ior to an­other per­son.”

The study sur­veyed more than 3,800 se­nior man­agers – vice pres­i­dents and above – as well as their chief ex­ec­u­tives at pub­lic com­pa­nies with at least $50 mil­lion in an­nual sales over a pe­riod of three years. West­phal and his co-au­thors, Michi­gan Ph.D. stu­dent Gareth Keeves and Univer­sity of Texas at San An­to­nio pro­fes­sor Michael L. McDon­ald, asked the top man­agers about their in­ter­ac­tions with the chief ex­ec­u­tive, how often they agreed with their boss or made flat­ter­ing com­ments to him, as well as open-ended ques­tions about the kinds of re­marks they had made in con­ver­sa­tions with jour­nal­ists about their chief ex­ec­u­tive, on or off the record.

The chief ex­ec­u­tives were also asked about how often their man­agers in the study com­pli­mented them or agreed with their views.

Their hy­poth­e­sis – that more flat­tery would lead to greater bit­ter­ness and, there­fore, more carp­ing about their chief ex­ec­u­tive to third par­ties – turned out to be true. Writ­ing in HBR, the re­searchers said the size of the ef­fect was “large,” and that an in­crease in com­pli­ments to the chief ex­ec­u­tive was associated with an in­crease in re­sent­ment. In ad­di­tion, higher lev­els of in­dig­na­tion were linked with more re­ported swipes at the chief ex­ec­u­tive when they were talk­ing with re­porters. A two­point in­crease in re­sent­ment, they wrote, was linked with about a dou­bling in the amount of crit­i­cism.

The re­searchers did not look for nasty on-the-record quotes from the man­agers about their bosses in sub­se­quent news ar­ti­cles – some­thing that doesn’t hap­pen often in the care­fully con­trolled world of cor­po­rate com­mu­ni­ca­tions – and West­phal ac­knowl­edges it’s pos­si­ble man­agers mis­re­called some of what they said to re­porters. But the re­searchers did look at the over­all tone and tenor of ar­ti­cles in sub­se­quent months and had coders ex­am­ine each sen­tence for neg­a­tive com­men­tary about the chief ex­ec­u­tive. Af­ter do­ing so, they found that, in­deed, the cov­er­age tended to be more neg­a­tive about chief ex­ec­u­tives who man­agers said they had bad-mouthed.

One un­set­tling find­ing: Though the ef­fect was seen across chief ex­ec­u­tives, the re­searchers showed that fe­male or racial mi­nor­ity chief ex­ec­u­tives were par­tic­u­lar tar­gets of re­sent­ment from white male man­agers who worked for them. West­phal and his col­leagues found that white men whose boss was a woman or racial mi­nor­ity were more likely to dump on her or him with a jour­nal­ist.

“There’s a sense that the flat­tery and in­gra­ti­a­tion is per­haps less de­served than its would be to­ward a sim­i­lar other,” West­phal said.

West­phal said the re­search should be a re­minder that although flat­tery and agree­able sub­or­di­nates might make life eas­ier – or feel good to hear – there is also a down­side. It’s up to the chief ex­ec­u­tive to cul­ti­vate more dis­sent­ing views and cre­ate an en­vi­ron­ment where it’s okay to knock him or her, not only for the ben­e­fit of the or­ga­ni­za­tion but also for them­selves.

Asked whether the find­ing might be repli­cated in less elite set­tings, where the am­bi­tions of top ex­ec­u­tives aren’t as present, West­phal thought they would. While there may be more egos at the top, work­ers lower on the cor­po­rate lad­der who al­ready hold a grudge for their po­si­tion may feel even more re­sent­ful if they’re ex­pected to en­gage in flat­tery.

“My hunch is this ap­plies very broadly,” he said.

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