List of social skills a solid career requires

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I’m always shocked to hear that people don't like brown-nosing. If I could do it, I definitely would. But as someone who has Asperger’s, brown-nosing always looks very difficult. So I have been looking for someone to teach me how to be better at brown-nosing, and finally, I found it.

First, here is research from James Westphal and Ithai Stern at Kellogg School of Management. They found that being adept at ingratiating behavior was the number-one factor for getting positions at the top of the corporate ladder.

This is not surprising to me. What is surprising is that the research comes with a how-to provided (perhaps inadvertently) by the American Bar Association Journal.

According to the study, here are the traits that are most likely to be rewarded.

1) Frame flattery as advice-seeking. For example, you can ask, “How were you able to close that deal so successfully?”

2) Argue before accepting a manager's opinion.

3) Compliment the manager to friends in his or her social network.

4) Act as if you realize that flattery will make the manager uncomfortable. For example, you can say, “I don't want to embarrass you but your presentation was really top-notch.”

5) Agree with the manager's values before agreeing with his or her opinions.

6) Tell the manager's friends how much you agree with his or her values.

7) Bring up affiliations you think you may have in common with the manager, such as a religious group or political party.

To me, this list is incredibly handy. I think maybe people don't like brown-nosing behavior because they think anyone could do it if they put aside their moral compass.

But this is not true. For many people, brown-nosing is very hard not because it's immoral per se, but because it’s so hard to think of what to say. The nuances required for successful brown-nosing behavior are like trigonometry for your emotions—too complicated to be done on the fly.

I can memorize this list. Or maybe just one or two from the list, and then I can try to say something like this when I want to make someone feel good.

And this is why I don't understand why people think brown-nosing is compromising their integrity. Brown-nosing is just making someone feel good. Isn't this always a nice thing to do? How could it ever hurt anyone? What's the moral objection? I don't get it.

Also, the American Bar Association essentially defines brown-nosing as “ingratiating behavior.” I looked up ingratiating in the dictionary. The first definition I found was: “To bring (oneself, for example) into the favor or good graces of another, especially by deliberate effort.”

I absolutely don't understand why this is bad. In fact, I am pretty sure that the reason everyone told me I was terrible at dating was because I was not able to be ingratiatory. You are supposed to be that, right?

So can everyone please shut up about how they are not going to brown-nose? The world would be a better place if we would all do that, all the time. I am not able to do it without extreme coaching, but for those of you who can do it easily, you should feel blessed. And, you're probably in line for a promotion.

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  1. Dena
    Dena says:

    “…but for those of you who can do it easily, you should feel blessed. And, you're probably in line for a promotion.”

    I am one of the lucky ones, Penelope. ;) I’ve been a brown-noser, teacher’s pet, and boss’s favourite all my life. Strangely, though, I’ve never tried to be. It is in my nature to be kind, hard-working, and successful. I do consider myself lucky, but I also consider myself GOOD.

    I should also note that along with this “gift” comes a curse. Being the favourite always means high expectations — not only from your boss, teacher, etc. — but also from yourself. I demand greatness from myself, even when I am tired, sick, and sad. My blood pressure is always through the roof. My doctor has been trying to get me on medication for it for years.

    But for me, right now, it’s the price I pay for being a brown-noser… I guess.

    • Alice
      Alice says:

      There is plenty of scientific evidence that high blood pressure is bad for your health. What is more surprising to a layman is what constitutes high blood pressure – you don’t have to be very far above the “normal” range to have pretty severe long term effects, including cutting a decade or two of your life expectancy. The medicine doesn’t have a lot of risks either.

      Just follow the doctors orders and take the pills, dammit.

  2. S. Miller
    S. Miller says:

    Making bad managers feel good about their ideas or their management style can be harmful to the other people being managed. It can also be harmful to projects when another idea would work better or more efficiently.

    • Scrollwork
      Scrollwork says:

      This was true at my last job. I was appalled to hear a co-worker describe what she did as “job security.” What exactly did she do? Waited outside the boss’s office like a dog begging for a crumb. (People feel important when other people wait for them.) Asked maddeningly minute questions that implied she couldn’t trust her own judgment, only the boss’s. Accepted any and all changes in instructions, many last minute and arbitrary. We looked mutinous in comparison. She still works there, so she must’ve been right. She understood what the boss wanted. As soon as I did, I left.

  3. Erika
    Erika says:

    I guess one of the reasons brown-nosing can feel “icky” is because if you don’t like your boss, it definitely feels fake to flatter & fawn. As a younger employee, I always felt a sense of entitlement, that I wanted to “make it on my own,” without having to resort to that kind of thing. And I was definitely wrong.

    Later, when I got over myself, I learned another technique by accident that was more natural to me – asking questions of upper-upper management (“How do you calculate that and how is it different from this?” “How do you manage to be so chatty with clients that are so hard to hold a conversation with?”) A lot of this turned out to be flattery as well as conversation starters, so the exec had a chance to show his/her expertise.

  4. DAVE
    DAVE says:

    Brown-nosing is different than simply paying honest compliments to someone important, something which is both wise and nice to do.

    The word implies that you are:
    a) seeking favor from someone who is already seen as distasteful (for whatever reason(s), and
    b) that you are also doing so by telling a lie: e.g. “I love that necktie!” when you know it is actually hideous and does the wearer no favors.

    So yes, we ought to seek any and all new opportunities by honestly and successfully “managing up”, but let’s please leave brown-nosing out of it.

    What’s next, tips on how to successfully sleep your way to the top P? Bet that’d get you lots of click-through. ;-)

  5. Helen
    Helen says:

    It all comes down to wanting to be liked, and approval seeking. Most young people fall into this group because they lack confidence and need constant reassurance that they are accepted. I used to be this type of person, but find that as I get older and more confident in my abilities and competence, I just can’t be bothered to brown nose anymore. I will give a compliment when I am truly compelled to do so and when it is deserved whether it be a higher up, an equal, or of lesser position at work.

    I’ve been on the other end. You are right that it has to be done in a certain way or it is so glaringly obvious. Brown nosing without the performance to back it up is grating, trust me! Don’t even bother if you are trying to make up for something you lack. Just give honest compliments when the opportunities present themselves, and that should be enough and keep you in the proper moral ground.

    • Erika
      Erika says:

      Helen – I find the opposite. As I get older/more confident, I’m more inclined to compliment. It’s easier for me to get specific and to think on the fly. I don’t feel as “fake” doing it as I did when I was younger.

      I do agree though – when I get a ton of compliments from someone, especially from someone that isn’t that good at what they do, it starts to feel creepy and un-genuine.

  6. Sam
    Sam says:

    The reason people tend to pan ingratiating behavior is that they believe it is overwhelmingly dishonest. Perhaps due to their own inability to identify positive qualities in people, they assume that any compliments must be fabricated. Of course this is not the case, and if you are trying to flatter people it is important to sincerely flatter them, otherwise your flattery will backfire.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Love this comment, Sam. The world rewards people who can find true goodness in other people. This seems fair and just and who can complain about this? So everyone who cannot brown-nose should be concerned that they are not able to see goodness in everyone.

      On the other hand, I really, truly believe that there is good in everyone. And sometimes I cannot figure out what to say…


  7. Beth
    Beth says:

    If you brown-nose just to get on someone’s good side (whether you agree with them or not), it feels icky. It probably wouldn’t feel weird or conflicted if you were complimenting or flattering your boss b/c you agreed or liked what they did. I think it comes down to intentions (as it usually does). Having the list from this post is handy, like you said, for those of us with some social awkwardness. But the decision to flatter at all starts with intentions.

    I think the world *would* be a better place if we were intentionally seeking ways to make other people feel good on a regular basis. But not at the expense of honesty and sincerity.

    Thanks for the thought-provoking post, Penelope!

  8. joseph
    joseph says:

    If the statements to a person or people in thier circles regarding thier values and/or behaviors and traits are true then the so called brown nosing doesn’t pose a moral dilema for me.
    I hate when people are saying things to stroke people’s egos knowing that it’s what they want to hear but not believing a word of in themselves. It is this behavior that gives brown nosing a bad rap.

  9. Stormy
    Stormy says:

    You should do everything you can to work for someone you respect and want to learn from. Then asking how they do it and relating to their values will be natural and help create a beneficial relationship.

  10. April Choulat
    April Choulat says:

    It’s all about the intent (as is all communication) – if it’s not genuine and there is an ulterior motive, that’s when it feels ‘icky’ or people judge the behavior as ‘immoral’, etc. However if one is genuinely impressed or genuinely seeking advice, that is another thing altogether. Communication involves actually caring for others, caring about their perceptions and joining your mind with theirs. It’s not about making someone feel good just because they will agree with you or have some other ulterior gain involved. (I’m speaking strictly in terms of the function of communication here – politics in the office often does require playing the ‘game’ as opposed to saying what you really think). By the way, I’m speaking as an autism specialist with training in Relationship Development Intervention (RDI), not a career expert by any means :)

    • Irv Podolsky
      Irv Podolsky says:

      April, you’ve stated what I was about to mention in my comment. I’d just like to take it a bit further.

      I don’t think that anyone can argue that we’re all hoping for loyalty and support, in the workplace and at home. This genuine need for protection certainly applies to managers, or in my working arena, film directors (where I work under a different name.) I find that the creative people I service are no more secure than anyone else up and down the line, and that they look for one of two things in a working relationship: honest feedback or affirmations of their own ideas. Honest opinions are easy to communicate but affirmation junkies are people who seek “Yes Men” and this is where I suspect “brown-nosing” plays out. I don’t feel comfortable being dishonest in this regard so I limit my comments to the ones where I don’t have to lie. Additionally, I try to help in situations where I can agree with the director’s point of view. But most of all, I try to find qualities I respect about the person which helps put a positive slant on my attitude.

      And then there are those times when I’m working for a total asshole with no redeeming qualities. Then I just do the job as thoroughly as I can because no matter how much I may dislike a manager, my own rules demand I execute superior work. This is for ME, not my boss. This is how I sleep at night.


  11. Danny
    Danny says:

    Come on Penelope, Asperger’s again? Could it be that if you have this (if it really exists, sorry for the sarcasm), that your boss really doesn’t like you and therefore, you see positive comments of others as “brown-nosing?” Back to Asperger’s, there is a great book out called, “The Hypochondriac’s Pocket Guide to Horrible Diseases You Probably Already Have.” The reality is, some people do actually work their way into a situation where they have high regards for their management. If you don't feel this way about your manager, it is your responsibility to get out of such an unhealthy situation. When you do find the right situation, you will find yourself working harder, feeling rewarded for what you do and inevitably get the promotion without that being your only goal. This might result in you saying positive things about your manager but hopefully this is just you stating fact, rather then “brown-nosing.” Brown-nosing never pays off especially if the manager has a reasonable level of intelligence because they can see right though it. Again, I apologize in advance for my cynicism towards Asperger’s, but I know too many people in my life that just lack basic social skills or are just plain “mean,” and then blame this diagnosis for their lack of common kindness. Thus, they find it hard to believe that one could actually like their manger when the fact is, it is likely that their manger just doesn’t like them.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Danny, this post is not actually about Asperger’s. It’s about everyone.

      You can tell when a post is only about Asperger’s because there are so few comments. For exmaple, the sex with Asperger’s post (a few days ago) is one of the most popular posts I’ve ever had. Yet there are many posts on my blog with 300, 400, 500 comments, and that particular one has only about 80 comments. I think the reason there are so few comments on the sex with Asperger’s post is that it’s about Asperger’s — so it’s interesting, but people can’t actually relate to it.

      This post has 35 comments in just two hours because people can relate to it. Because brown-nosing is complicated for many people, not just those with Asperger’s.


      • Erika
        Erika says:

        I had a ton of thoughts on that sex post, but really could not bring myself to post any of them. Too personal. That’s why I didn’t comment – not sure if it was the same for others.

  12. contrarian
    contrarian says:

    Tell me, what exactly is “brazen” about butt kissing?

    I think the bigger question is… what do you personally loose by brown-nosing your way through life? You may gain a promotion and a lil’ more money, but you pay a steep price! Your apple polishing will likely cost you your self respect, self-esteem, and self-image. For me, I’d rather live my life independent of the good opinions of others, rather than living a life that depends on them…

    Just a thought :-) Appreciate your blog Penelope!

  13. lynne whiteside
    lynne whiteside says:

    Nothing wrong with brown nosing if it comes from an authentic place. I would never give compliments, or brown nose for any other reason than it was true, made my comfort level better with an aspiring client or ‘I can’t think of anything to say, so, let’s start with a positive statement’ and move on.

  14. hlcs
    hlcs says:

    Brown nosing has a negative connotation and is different than paying an honest compliment to someone. I found this definition on “Brown-nose: from the implication that servility is tantamount to having one’s nose in the anus of the person from whom advancement is sought”. It implies that the person doing the brown-nosing would say or do just about anything to get to the top.

  15. Ken
    Ken says:

    “And this is why I don't understand why people think brown-nosing is compromising their integrity. Brown-nosing is just making someone feel good. Isn't this always a nice thing to do? How could it ever hurt anyone? What's the moral objection? I don't get it.”

    I wonder if brown-nosing is just making someone feel good.

    I wonder if making someone feel good is always a nice thing to do.

    I wonder if anyone ever gets hurt doing nice things for others.

    If brown-nosing is more than just making someone else feel good, and making someone feel good isn’t always nice, and if people sometimes get hurt by people doing nice things for others….then any one of those things could feel like compromising integrity.

  16. Stephanie
    Stephanie says:

    The idea of losing your self respect because of brown nosing isn’t really the bigger picture issue. If you feel like lying to your manager will get you ahead, and you don’t feel personal repercussions or your coworkers rolling their eyes every time they pass your cubicle, more power to you. The harm in brown-nosing is when dishonest flattery leads your manager to think they’re doing a better job than they are. Complimenting your manager about a long, pointless meeting leads to more long, pointless meetings. Congratulating them on a business transaction that was questionable or below-board does not help them perform better and doesn’t forward the interests of the company or its members–yourself included. We all tell little white lies, but they become a problem if they’re pointing others in detrimental directions for themselves and everyone they manage.

  17. April Choulat
    April Choulat says:

    Danny, I don’t know Penelope (I actually came across this blog by accident and did not know there were references to Asperger’s until recently) or whether she has AS, but I can tell you there are very high-functioning people with Asperger’s or High-Functioning Autism who struggle with social skills partly because of the difficulties they often have with basic nonverbal communication. Nonverbal communication is an extremely important foundation to communication (some estimate between 70-90% of information we receive in social situations is nonverbal). The autistic brain has difficulty managing information efficiently, and research shows that there is ‘underconnectivity’ between the different centers of the brain. What this looks like on a behavioral level is different for each person, but with individuals with AS often there are symptoms of missing nonverbal communication and having what feels like one-sided interactions. Of course symptoms can also change over time so that through relationships a person improves in their communication skills.

    I have no idea if Penelope has AS, and it’s not relevant to me. I have worked with adults and teenagers with Asperger’s who experience significant difficulty in basic independence, problem-solving, coping with stress, maintaining and sustaining relationships, holding a job or taking care of themselves on a day to day basis. Just because a person is literate and verbal doesn’t mean they don’t have legitimate difficulties in the world. And contrary to what some may believe, AS/ASD is not a ‘social skills’ problem – the social skills difficulties stem from challenges in processing and encoding information on various levels – relationships with others, as well as flexible thinking, episodic memory, self-awareness, and creative problem-solving. Too much information, I am sure, but just want to make it known that people with Asperger’s have genuine difficulties, and it’s not just a matter of being a rude person. Just as with any other neurological condition, one can be diagnosed with X AND be a rude person, but the nature of Asperger’s in particular can make people think one is being rude when really the social nuances and cues are being missed. Behavior that is perceived as being outside the ‘norm’ may be viewed as intentional and deliberate if the person doesn’t have obvious neurological differences. Also keep in mind that blogging is a “mono-channel” form of communication, which is easier for people on the autism spectrum (i.e. not having to simultaneously process speech, physical proximity, gestures, facial expressions, voice volume, tone of voice, intent of communication, etc. all at one time). Our perceptions of the person through their written expression may be very different than our perceptions of them if we are sitting face to face.

    Have you ever read anything written by a nonverbal person with autism? If you were sitting face to face with a nonverbal person with autism, you might assume the person has lower intelligence because they can’t move or speak. If you didn’t know what they looked like and maintained an entirely online interaction with them, you likely would create a different mental picture of what they looked like. With Penelope, it may be that she genuinely does have Asperger’s and because of her appearance it is assumed she does not have legitimate challenges.

    • Danny
      Danny says:


      Thanks for taking the time to try and set me straight. You are clearly an intelligent person who does have actual facts on the matter. You have successfully opened my eyes a little bit on the subject. :-) That being said, I still can’t help but be suspicious. After your words of wisdom, I do agree that it exists, but you have to admit that it is easy for one to claim this diagnosis without actually having it. We still have to realize that there are many aspects that contribute to the people we become as we grow. All I am saying is, Asperger’s is not the culprit for all people that are socially “non-conforming” for lack of a better term. Some of them just grew up that way, not necessarily thought fault of their own, but still – not always Asperger’s. Again, thanks for your intelligent response on the matter rather then just yelling at me for being closed minded.

      • April Choulat
        April Choulat says:

        Danny, I agree we are multi-faceted individuals and that there are various factors that contribute to how we ‘show up’ in life. I don’t believe that Asperger’s is the culprit for all social challenges or eccentric behavior – and though there are criteria for AS, some people who have it can compensate well enough that in brief diagnostic testing situations it’s very very subtle. I was made acutely aware of this several years ago working with children and young adults who were unable to function in school environments or independent living where life is unpredictable and not highly structured or controlled. When things are highly controlled the person might look *really good*, but life doesn’t always stay predictable or routine. Thank you Dan for not yelling at me:) I have a soft spot in my heart for people on the spectrum and what’s shown on public service announcements isn’t often sufficient for conveying the complexity of living with Autism or Asperger’s.

  18. Lisa Cach
    Lisa Cach says:

    A little bit of sincere flattery is a social oil that helps the wheels go ’round, both in business and in private life. It also helps people hear anything negative you might need to say, if you first lay out several (sincere) positive things.

    It’s the dose that makes the poison: what in a small degree is good medicine, in a large degree is harmful. A little bit is ‘people skills,’ while too much is ‘manipulation.’

    The tips in that list of brown-nosing advice sound like they’re meant to help you navigate that gray area between ‘just enough’ and ‘too much’. We’re all repulsed when we see someone err on the side of ‘too much,’ not least because their self-serving motivations become so transparent. And, too, we hate to see people rewarded for an ability to flatter, rather than an ability to do their job well.

    Even worse is the sense that an overt flatterer is preying upon someone’s psychological vulnerability. We don’t like people preying upon the weaknesses of others, whatever those weaknesses may be: greed, fear, envy, or, yes, pride.

    But a little bit of sincere praise or question-asking? It’s good for us all, both giver and receiver.

  19. Izzy
    Izzy says:

    I think Danny’s comment about Asperger’s is rude and ignorant. And I agree with April’s comments totally. My son has Asperger’s (yes Danny it REALLY DOES EXIST!!) My son looks totally normal so you’d never know, but deal with him in various situations (and he’s 16) and you’d see it. He also has an 85 average in his marks. Enough – please don’t talk about what you don’t know…. Pen, I see what I would call “brown-nosing” in my office environment. One colleague in particular seems to get boosted up the ladder thru his activities yet the rest of the team is contributing to his successes through their hard work. He gets pardoned for being “disorganized and unfocussed” yet others are chastized severely for this same fault. He gets parking where folks who have been on waiting lists for 7 yrs still wait. It infuriates the rest of the team and just rings of ICK! I can’t ingratiate myself (and when I see that word I just have the negative connotation)so I just go about my work, ask questions when I need to and are a generally nice person to everybody. Maybe what you are describing shouldn’t be referred to as brown-nosing. Maybe it’s promoting yourself in a positive way, not on your knees licking boots. Thanks once again…..

    • Danny
      Danny says:

      Hi Izzy, sorry if I offended you, and I’m not going to argue my knowledge (or lack thereof) on the subject. However, would you be kind enough to answer a question for me just for my own research? Are you more of an introvert? Or are you more of a social butterfly that enjoys the company of friends and family?

      Thanks, Danny

  20. Harriet May
    Harriet May says:

    I’m not sure I know how to brown nose, but I do know how to flirt. I think this is why I could hand in every single tenth grade English essay in a week late and never have a word said about it, but my friend James was reprimanded immediately if his was not willingly offered up within five minutes of class (he had never done his, either). Own your power, I say.

  21. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    “…I was not able to be ingratiatory. You are supposed to be that, right?”
    I would say yes, at least to some degree, as you see fit and are comfortable with doing. It is a fine line and can be difficult for even neurotypicals. I think an ingratiating statement or act has to come from the heart in an authentic and true fashion to be truly effective and meaningful.
    So when you say – “I can memorize this list. Or maybe just one or two from the list, and then I can try to say something like this when I want to make someone feel good.” – I believe you and will try to be ingratiating by letting you know if I come across any other articles or books that cover the subject of this post that may help out.

  22. JM Blevins
    JM Blevins says:

    In “Outliers,” Malcolm Gladwell explains why more accidents occur when the captain is piloting the plane: it’s very difficult for subordinates to correct superiors. When your survival, or at least rent, is dependent on how well you brown-nose, your focus isn’t going to be on averting accidents.

  23. Jo
    Jo says:

    Brown-nosing only works on managers with frail egos and need that sort of reinforcement because they know they don’t belong in that job. A truly confident person does not need their subordinates or anyone else for that matter to tell them how ‘good’ they are at their job, how ‘sharp’ their negotiating skills are, they already know. That’s how they got their job (at least in a logical world).
    I agree with most of the advice you give Penelope (even the controversial one about not reporting sexual harassment at the workplace because then ‘you’ become the problem not the creep in your office), but this one is way off. My experience is that truly confident managers do not like, in fact, despise brown-nosers and they can smell you a mile away, even if you think you are being smooth about it. Brown-nosers are desperate. Your work and your abilities should speak for itself and if your managers don’t see it, you are in the wrong job or they are in the wrong job and it’s time that you advance yourself by taking credit for your own work and not by the good graces of the person you are brown-nosing. And brown-nosing is not easy, it’s exhausting and nauseating.

  24. Cat Rocketship
    Cat Rocketship says:

    This list is helpful and seems to make sense because it’s about what makes “brown-nosing” genuine – or at least seem that way.

    I had a conversation about this just this morning: I hate being flattered. It makes me feel like the flatterer thinks I must be stupid. If you think I think that’s a genuine compliment and not a means to end, you’ve got to think I’m dumb, right?

    But if you frame compliments in the manner listed here, you ARE genuine – or at least seem to be. The compliments come from somewhere beyond an acknowledgement that making me feel good will get you somewhere. Does that make sense?

  25. Jessica Leigh
    Jessica Leigh says:

    These are great tips, especially #1. I have a hard time telling people things that aren’t true (ie, that was a really interesting powerpoint!), but almost everyone has some skill or ability that I can admire. These tips seem like a good way to give sincere feedback while making the person more likely to return the favor or share his/her knowledge.

  26. Rachel
    Rachel says:

    Wow, I love this blog, but I think this time you may have missed something. First, I don’t understand why you are writing a column about something you admittedly don’t understand?
    Anyway, I think learning to deliver appropriate compliments to skillful, talented people is a wonderful idea. But I think that “brown-nosing” suggests the kind of insincere fakery that most people hate.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      I think all the best blog posts are about topics the blogger does not understand. If you write about something you know really well, you are lecturing. That’s boring. If you write about what you’re learning about then you’re learning right alongside the reader — that is collaborative and fun.

      So, hopefully this is not the first post you’ve read here where I’m writing about something I’m still learning about.


  27. Dan
    Dan says:

    How I see it, the moral objection is that someone may get a promotion not by strength of merit. As in someone who is more qualified, and would be more effective in the higher position, is passed up, and the position given to someone simply because he/she is better at flattery. Wouldn’t the company benefit more if the better person is promoted?

  28. spleeness
    spleeness says:

    The problem with this is the notion of “brown nosing” is the connotation that someone is ONLY doing this in order to be received by the good graces of another. What if someone genuinely LIKES the leadership skills they see demonstrated? We learn so much from those around us; what if we want to emulate them and improve our own work behavior? If I compliment someone, it’s genuine. I don’t care what rank they have. I grew up in a family of entrepreneurs and don’t easily feel intimidated by status.

    Also, I feel it’s important to manage myself and not just *be* managed so I’m often looking at things from my boss’s point of view. Their criticism and feedback usually makes sense.

    I’ve had the good fortune of having a string of fantastic supervisors throughout my career and though I’ve seen different styles, I notice and appreciate their strengths. And not because I have an ulterior motive. This is a good post and it mentions lots of great points but I wanted to mention this additional perspective (which you may have recognized anyway, just wasn’t clear).


  29. Amy
    Amy says:

    This is an example of brown nosing:

    Penelope, I love your blog.
    Penelope, you are really good at change.
    Penleope, I really value your opinion – and so do others – so will you read my new ebook about reinventing yourself and write a testimonial?

    All these things are nice, and true. But doesn’t it seem as though there’s something wrong with it??

    YES! It seems as though there’s an ulterior motive..and there is…

    What most brown-nosers are really saying is ‘I really want you to like me’.

    Hmm. Nothing wrong with that. Penelope, looks like you’re right again!


    Amy Parmenter

  30. Steven Pofcher
    Steven Pofcher says:

    Hi Penelope –
    First of all, I hope that it is not too cold at night sleeping on the porch.

    Secondly, Brown-nosing: It all depends on your definition of the term. These techniques can be used on anybody: upper management, direct reports and peers. These rules are designed to make the other person feel good — nothing wrong with that. However, one should not be concilliatory with the compliments. Brown-nosing is best if it is really true. There is a danger of becoming a yes-person.

  31. Karen
    Karen says:

    There is nothing wrong with giving compliments to your long as you are actually genuine about it. If you really do like your boss, nothing wrong with a little flattery here and there, especially if they did accomplish something. Brown nosing is when you are being fake and ungenuine about it and are interested in your own interest. Also, paying flattery just for the sake of it even though your boss is awful and incompetent, well I think thats what people think when they hear the term brown nosing.

  32. Chris Yeh
    Chris Yeh says:

    The greatest guide to social skills ever written is Dale Carnegie’s “How To Win Friends And Influence People.”

    Before I picked it up, I was considered a disruptive influence that had a hard time relating to other people. The fact that I believed I was smarted than everyone else probably had something to do with that. Ah, youth.

    Reading that book really opened my eyes. People who only knew me before I read the book would have a hard time believing that I am now considered a people person and soothing influence!

    As usual, full outline of the book here:

  33. Summer
    Summer says:

    Actually, there’s also nothing wrong with less than genuine compliments to your boss either although it’s true that a sharp person will see through a flimsy one. Almost everyone appreciates even a less than successful effort by a peer to make a connection, unless it’s by someone smarmy in a sexually harassing way.

  34. Anne
    Anne says:

    I am sure that it is correct that brown-nosing is required in order furthers ones’ career. As a person who both hates the idea of brown-nosing AND doesn’t have a talent for it, it is news I don’t like to hear, but good article.

    Anyway, the effects of brown-nosing goes much deeper that personal like/dislike and career progress, it affects the long term performance of organisations. As concluded in the Westphal and Ithai Stern study:

    “Westphal and Stern explain that according to previous research, the culture of deferral to management has been a factor in corporate decisions that have resulted in many negative outcomes for shareholders, including poor corporate performance, accounting scandals, and white-collar crime."

    Above quote is about appointing insiders (people of similar background) to boards, but the study goes on to show why despite pressure to appoint board members from more diverse backgrounds, the culture doesn’t change. It is because of ingratiation.

    Just think about it… how many scandals and disaster decisions could have been stopped, had anyone on the board had the guts to say “I know you guys haven’t thought that way, but the path we are on is a disaster in the making. I’ll show you why”.
    Instead these guys padded each other on the backs and continued their course for disaster, being a brotherhood of brown-nosers.

  35. Jim C.
    Jim C. says:

    What’s the difference between giving people compliments and brown-nosing? That’s easy.
    Are you just as nice to your co-workers and to the janitor, or do you just kiss up to people above you in the chain of command? In the first case, there is no harm and much good done. In the second case, you are just trying to get a leg up on the competition by flattering the boss.
    Read Dante’s “Inferno” to see where he placed the flatterers in Hell: in a pit, up to their necks in shit. Why? Because they buttered up the boss and thereby displaced better people from positions of power.

  36. Tamara Rasberry
    Tamara Rasberry says:

    I agree that there shouldn’t be anything wrong with ingratiating yourself with your employer in order to climb the career ladder. My problem with brown-nosing is that it tends to be disingenuous and I have a huge problem with that. If I really think you did a great job on a presentation or that I can learn XYZ from you, then I have no problem with saying that. I wouldn’t consider that brown-nosing if it is sincere. People that usually get tagged as brown-nosers are typically viewed as being insincere and just saying or doing whatever they think will put them in a better light to their employer, sometimes to the detriment of their colleagues. As an employer, I would not appreciate disingenuous sentiments, but I’ve seen many that do because it reinforces their belief in how great they are. I guess it can be said that there’s a right and a wrong way to brown-nose, though I’d say that if you’re doing it the right way, it’s not brown-nosing.

  37. Jane Witmer
    Jane Witmer says:

    Question: What is the difference between brown-nosing and ass-kissing?

    Answer: Depth perception.

    Sincere positive comments can be relationship building and lead to better working relations. Most people appreciate being recognized for a job well done. True brown-nosing is not sincere and includes ulterior motives – where do you think the “brown” comes from?

    Good post, Penelope!

  38. Howie at Sky Pulse Media
    Howie at Sky Pulse Media says:

    I see this as the wrong discussion. If you do not promote best qualified every time you hurt the company, the other employees, the owners (shareholders), and the customers. Best in class company will always promote best in class people for the proper positions. I am not saying punish brown nosers. I am just saying if that is why you promote someone you are doing a huge disservice to the organization and yourself.

  39. Howie at Sky Pulse Media
    Howie at Sky Pulse Media says:

    I wished to add something here. I agree do not hate brown nosers. I did direct sales many years. If all is equal between brands you will buy from who you like best. But when people bought from competitors because they were bribed, that to me showed a broken organization. Just like I won’t be upset if a colleague is a brown noser. If they get a job over someone more qualified I will question the organization…but I will never hate someone for working things to get ahead.

  40. Varun
    Varun says:

    I dont have the experience that y’all do. (Yes, “y’all”. I’m a Texan. The kind that aims to succeed, not secede. Yeah, we exist). I’m 24 years young: bold enough to leave port & sail the seas of life, not sure which way to go (either my compass doesnt work or I’m in the doldrums, feels like both really)…here’s what I’ve learned so far:

    1. To repeat what others before me have said, “be genuine”. People on both sides of an exchange can smell bullshit a mile away. Don’t be a shady bastard or a stage-A clinger. It’s a lot like getting laid: Whether it happens (the genuine attraction, rapport & momentum are there) or not (not with this person), no one worth their salt will hate you for not leading them on.

    2. Everything is primal. No matter how you dress it up(words, norms, society), everything is primal. I’ve learned that from my lacrosse & fraternity days. The biggest mistake I’ve ever made was being a ‘nice guy'(pushover/asskisser/desperate-approval-seeker). Makes me sick just to think about it. Don’t be a nice person, be a good person: be good, do good, stay smart, always improve, know when to build or burn bridges, stand your ground & dont take shit from anybody. All that equals respect. You show others, though you might work with them or for them, you’re an Alpha just like them. (I never liked the younger lacrosse guys & pledges who put me on a pedestal, nor the ones who thought they knew it all. The guys who talked to me like an equal while respecting my higher status with honest thoughts/questions/actions? I took those guys under my wing). If you dont respect yourself, no one will: thus whatever you say will be considered irrelevant/dishonest/bullshit/weak/brown-nosing. Get primal. Be Alpha. Speak the (body) language of (self) respect.

    3. When people know that you are 1. genuine and 2. a good person, they know that your comments/questions/whatever are honest, thus they’ll reciprocate (for the most part). When people ask you about your co-worker, boss, or boss’s boss and your no-bullshit answer is, “yeah, she’s a damn good person. I’d go to hell & back for her”, the (good) word gets around. Flattery & fluffing fly faster & sputter out quickly, but honest compliments from honest people go further & hit harder.

    Even though the content of my response might betray my lack of experience, I feel like my points reiterate Penelope’s great points and those of others who’ve commented…in my own roundabout way. I think the mistake being made is associating these positive attributes with the negative term of “brown-nosing”, and then defending the resulting paradigm. Don’t brown-nose, be a good & genuine person. Don’t kiss up or kiss ass, show up & kick ass. Purposeful presence is power.

    That’s my two cents. And if you, reader, took the time to read this blurb…hey, I appreciate you.

    P.S. Penelope, thanks for dropping all your knowledge bombs. I’m learning a lot & applying it. Keep doing what you’re doing.

  41. Mairzy
    Mairzy says:

    Hmmm…I think the folks who commented on “intention” are on the right track. Brown-nosing is obnoxious when it results in the promotion of someone who…

    …is incompetent
    …is lazy
    …does a crappy job (or no work at all other than brown-nosing)
    …has not earned the promotion
    …bad-mouths more qualified peers in order to advance

    I was going to add “is a bad team player” but then I knew that P would know that I’m a boomer and kick me off the team. :-)

  42. denise
    denise says:

    I think the whole issue comes down to honesty. “Brown nose” and it’s derogatory physical reference implies dishonesty. It’s something else entirely to express sincere compliments (coming from a sincere wish to make someone feel good and/or honest admiration and respect). When that someone else is a superior, there’s way too much room for dishonesty and self-interest. Compliments made out of dishonesty or dishonest intent? Not ethical.

  43. Ash
    Ash says:

    I always enjoy your posts, this is no other. But I think brown nosing has different connations. My husband is well liked at work, but a little help doesn’t hurt :) I’m showing him this post!

  44. Michael LaRocca
    Michael LaRocca says:

    I really could’ve used this list a few years ago. Nowadays I own the company and am its sole employee, so there ain’t much use in brown-nosing myself. Besides which, I’d have to be a contortionist.

  45. tiger
    tiger says:

    i think what i don’t like about brown-nosing is that it’s *calculated* flattery, administered not for its own sake, but with a goal in mind. which is dishonest behavior, and therefore, to me at least, distasteful. just the fact that this was put forth in the American Bar Association Journal should tell you plenty. this list can easily be seen as advocating precisely the slimy, dishonest, calculating, integrity-free behavior of which lawyers are regularly accused.

  46. Jonha |
    Jonha | says:

    4) Act as if you realize that flattery will make the manager uncomfortable. For example, you can say, "I don't want to embarrass you but your presentation was really top-notch."

    I think it’s something I could always try, haha. But then again, it is very important that we are sincere with what we’re saying because unless your boss is dumb, they’d be able to tell if you’re just faking it.

  47. Elaine
    Elaine says:

    This is so true.

    It’s like being a modern day courtier or courtesan:

    The office is your court, your boss is Louis XIV, and flattering gracefully is an art that can land you that coveted role.

  48. Aspie
    Aspie says:

    Got it…
    A solid career advice based on personal long term success and vividly illustrated by personal example.
    If I follow the suggestions and try really hard I will end up on a farm too.

  49. Master of None
    Master of None says:

    “I absolutely don't understand why this is bad.” Well, here I’ll try to respond for some reasons why it is bad/immoral.

    1) Frame flattery as advice-seeking. For example, you can ask, "How were you able to close that deal so successfully?"
    Not immoral, but in general if flattery is necessary to win approval it indicates a highly tiered work environment where teammates are treated as subordinates, rather than peers. Again, it’s not bad per se, but it reinforces the low status of the majority of workers, which can make for a less happy workforce compared to “flat” organizations.

    2) Argue before accepting a manager's opinion.
    This implies that one should accept the managers opinion even if you don’t really agree with it (or, in other words, lie). That’s immoral, and it could undermine your career at the organization if your true feeling are found out. Same goes for numbers 3,5,6 and potentially 7.

    4) Act as if you realize that flattery will make the manager uncomfortable. For example, you can say, "I don't want to embarrass you but your presentation was really top-notch."
    This is just a “high status” version of flattery that works better in work environments that are supposed to be “flat”. Nothing wrong here if you believe what you’re saying.

    7) Bring up affiliations you think you may have in common with the manager, such as a religious group or political party.
    It’s well-known that people like to hire/promote people who are like themselves, but this is generally recognized as bias that undermines the goals of the organization, which is better-served through a diverse work-force.

    So, pandering to this bias may work for some, but good managers and organizations will have filters/systems in place to discourage rewarding this type of behavior, which would be tantamount to religious/political/sexual discrimination.

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