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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