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.

87 replies
« Older Comments
  1. Melissa Breau
    Melissa Breau says:

    P – Brown Nosing’s negative connotation is right there is the name itself – the idea that one gets a brown nose from sticking their nose up someone else’s butt and telling them their shit doesn’t stink.

    Sincerely complimenting someone is an EXCELLENT tactic for learning and strengthening relationships, however offering false compliments (which is what brown-nosing is generally accepted to be) is seen as “false” or “fake” – and is therefore view in a negative light.

  2. Diane
    Diane says:

    I feel uncomfortable with brown-nosing because none of those are things I would say naturally. And because the intention is to be liked, not because you actually mean what you’re saying (*there’s* the moral objection – it’s not authentic).

    Also, you don’t have to have Asperger’s to be self-conscious and highly awkward in social situations. I do envy those who are naturally extroverted, though. I’m sure there are many rewards, both socially and in business. I probably should try to ingratiate more, but need to do so in a way that feels right for me. Or make you fake it til you make it, I don’t know.

  3. G Merlo
    G Merlo says:

    I think the issue is not that people don’t want to brown-nose, but rather that people do not want to appear like they are brown-nosing because it is low status behaviour.

  4. Danny
    Danny says:

    I am not saying brown nosing does not happen because it does. However, not as often as one would think. I believe it is usually perception of a person that is unsuccessful in any kind of advancement or personal achievement due to an unlimited number of possible reasons. The problem is, they don’t see what is wrong with themselves. “Ah gee, people just don’t like me, whaaaaaah, I guess you gotta brown nose around here to get a promotion.” The fact is, there are usually good valid reasons for those that don’t advance but they are usually never to see their own shortcomings. Rather then truly trying to identify what it is about yourself that prevents you from achieving your goals, it is much easier to belittle the efforts of those that do advance and call it brown nosing. Come on people, stop worrying about what is being awarded to those around you and do what you need to do to achieve your own goals.

  5. Leslie
    Leslie says:

    My favorite experience with brown nosing occurred after I moved from the city to the suburbs. One of my co-workers made disparaging remarks about my house being in a boring suburb while we were at a company party and I mentioned I had just moved. A few minutes later the new boss came over and in conversation with a group of us we found out he had just bought a house in my new suburb. The same co-worker congratulated him on his new home and said, "oh, I hear that is a great place to live"! Hilarious.

  6. HB Ford
    HB Ford says:

    I have terrible social skills and wouldn’t be able to do any of these; I’m just not a sociable person. I think as long as you care competent at your job and perform it well, that should be enough. Do we really have to resort to trickery and foolishness like complimenting to someone’s friend or acquaintance so it will get back to them?

    I’m so not a game player. I don’t have the tolerance or patience or deal with this stuff.

  7. Renee
    Renee says:

    Great new spin on an old topic, plus I saw almost all these principles executed by a VP the same day I read this post. Why do we fight it? I won’t any longer, time to embrace the fact that people like to be surrounded (ie hire and promote) by people who are pleasant to be around.

  8. Sarah
    Sarah says:

    Personally, I have no problem with giving a compliment if it is truly warranted, or someone needs an emotional boost, but I just cannot bring myself to embellish how I feel about someone to advance at work. I’ve felt a little piece of my soul being sucked out my nose every time I’ve done it and it just makes me feel cheap and dirty.

  9. Mike
    Mike says:

    Brown nosers are good because they are good bullshit artists. They can make up facts on the fly and make them sound very true. It’s an art.

  10. Belinda Gomez
    Belinda Gomez says:

    As someone who supervises a pretty good sized fleet of support staff, I can say that I hate brown-nosing. If you can’t tell a genuine compliment from sucking up, you don’t deserve to be a manager. Sucking up, flattery, brown-nosing, imitating Eddie Haskell is fake. Only a complete moron would mistake it for an actual appreciation of abilities.

    PT hasn’t actually had this experience=-=leading a team of subordinates towards a common goal. It’s rather different than hanging around with others.

  11. Valencia Ray MD
    Valencia Ray MD says:

    I like this line: “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”.

    In the meantime MYOB would help make the world a better place also, as judging other people based on our own often narrow “moral compass” creates much drama in the world. If one is congruent within themselves, who is to say someone is “brown nosing” or just focusing on supporting others in feeling better about themselves or just plan wanting to get along better.

  12. Kaiti
    Kaiti says:

    Hi Penelope!

    I’m a recent discoverer of your blog, and it is just fantastic! I’ve been reading post after post after post, and each tip and story is more interesting than the last! Thanks for being such an inspiring career resource!

    Wrt this particular post, I suspect people disapprove of flattery because they don’t beleive that the flattery one gives to his/her manager is genuine, ie, one is being deceitful. And therein lies the problem: most people have difficulty in recognizing other’s successes, hence find it impossible for others to do so as well. This is a direct result of a lack of confidence. Those who are more confident in themselves+their skills will more readily accept it in others, and hence ‘brown-nose’.

  13. David
    David says:

    “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.”

    –The study was not about dating.—

    “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.”

    –The authors of the study conclude that “brown-nosing” is dysfunctional for the world in one important area that affects all of society.—

    “Westphal and Stern conclude that the current convention, by which many board members receive appointments on the recommendation of current board members, must change. Otherwise, corporate boards will not provide the kind of oversight that could enable them to be effective watchdogs for shareholders.”

    My anecdotal observation is that corporations that have a culture that puts a premium on “ingratiating behavior” exhibit the same dysfunctional behavior as observed by the authors relative to corporate boards. Such corporations may be less than successful, experiencing declining growth and market failure.

    My career advice is to avoid this type of corporate culture since it is an organization prone to the type of failure that may damage your career progress beyond recovery.

    If you are lucky enough to work in a better place, merit can be your goal to success. Additionally, for those with Asperger’s (as I understand the condition from this blog) a concentration on politeness as an interactive skill (I can see that this is a tall order but not as bad as learning to “brown-nose”.)

  14. Kimberly
    Kimberly says:

    You are SUCH an inspiring writer! I love reading this blog…and you ironically always seem to say things just in the time in my life that I need to hear it. Telling people they’re awesome is UBER good for the world.

    But I think people affiliate brown-nosing with “butt-kissing” or being affectionate with someone even though they stink. Haha…telling people they’re great when they need improvement isn’t always best either, but I think its still important to dote on the strengths people have rather than harping on weaknesses. We all have both and for either to develop the way they should, we need to temper our critiques with a little love. EXCELLENT advice. If you ran for president, I’d vote for you.

    Kim P. – Phoenix, AZ

  15. Jon
    Jon says:

    One reason that this one-on-one behaviour between a manager and a person managed can be so (for lack a more poetic term) ‘wrong’ is that being a manger is, by definition (if truely applied), being a person who takes multiple viewpoints into account and who will, by the very nature of being single person, never be able to provide the kind of ‘management’ that is ‘good’ for all managed by relying on their own ideas alone… ‘yes-persons’ provide no constructive opposition to bad habits and narrow-mindedness.

  16. Eightmoms
    Eightmoms says:

    This is excellent advice for securing a job in which you’ll be surrounded by people you don’t actually like. One can only hope the job duties are fulfilling enough to make up for the years of empty small talk one would need to endure.

« Older Comments

Comments are closed.