Sometimes you have to kiss up to get ahead in the workplace. Sure, you can get on the boss’s good side just by being good at your job, but sometimes politics and egos demand that you ingratiate yourself with them on a more personal level.
There are two kinds of behavior that fall into this category: Flattering someone and agreeing with them. There are definitely right and wrong ways to execute both. If your boss suspects you’re just being nice to manipulate them or for your own political gain, your attempts probably won’t work, and may even lower their opinion of you. But there are definitely ways to get on your boss’s good side without getting a reputation as the office brown-noser. (Being a brown-noser without having the reputation is a delicate maneuver.)
“Relatively subtle forms of flattery and opinion conformity… are less likely to elicit cynical attributions of motive,” writes Ithai stern, an assistant professor of management and organizations at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management has studies the topic non-academics call “kissing up.”
Here’s how to do it.
Frame flattery as a question. “Frame the admiring remarks as advice seeking,” Stern writes. Ask how they managed to land a new account, or smooth over a client’s ruffled feathers. By referencing their success, you’re delivering a compliment, but this approach makes you seem eager to learn rather than fawning. Plus, since answering the question requires some mental effort on their part, they’re less likely to be analyzing your motives.
Mimic their body language. “I think body language is pretty key to pay attention to,” says Amy Letke, founder of Integrity HR. “If an employee wants to suck up and suck up well, figure out the body language of the boss,” she says. If the boss is sitting in a forward position with their hands open, do the same. Keep eye contact and the volume of your voice to a similar level as theirs. “Using mirroring is a very effective technique.”
Agree with them — but put up a fight first. Your manager isn’t going to think you’re trying to suck up by agreeing with them if you start out by taking the opposing opinion. “The stereotypic ingratiator is a “yes man” who simply agrees with whatever the influence target says,” Stern writes. Arguing, then coming around to their point of view, isn’t really in the playbook, so they’re less likely to think you’re just trying to get on their good side. Plus, your ultimate agreement with the boss’s opinion validates both that opinion as well as their power of persuasion.
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Find out what they think beforehand. Your boss isn’t going to think you’re just agreeing with them to kiss up if you bring up a topic and voice their opinion as if it’s one the two of you share. Once you know your manager’s view on a particular topic, your voicing agreement won’t come across as flattery; instead, the boss just thinks the two of you are like-minded.
Pay them a compliment — to somebody else. “The sophisticated ingratiator knows that ‘word gets around’ in friendship networks and uses the social network to his or her advantage,” Stern writes. Mention to your manager’s colleague that you were impressed with the way they handled a challenge or led a project. They’re bound to hear about it.
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Give a nod to their pet causes or affiliations. “People who suck up well pay attention to things that are important to the boss,” Letke says. Academics call this “value conformity.” If you know the head honcho gives a big donation to the ASPCA every year, mention your rescued pup or the time you volunteered at an animal shelter. To the “big dog,” this seems like the two of you share values. Emphasizing shared values and affiliations builds trust and brings their guard down so they’re less likely to think, “What do they want?” when you say something nice about them.