I have reviewed custom-designed leadership profiles at more than 100 major corporations. These documents typically feature boilerplate language that describes the leadership behavior each company desires. Such chestnuts include “communicates a clear vision,” “helps people develop to their maximum potential,” “strives to see the value of differing opinions,” and “avoids playing favorites.”
Not one profile has ever included a desired behavior that reads “effectively sucks up to management.” Although given the dedication to fawning and sucking up in most corporations — and how often such behavior is rewarded — it probably should. Almost every company says it wants people to “challenge the system,” “be empowered to express their opinion,” and “say what they really think,” but there sure are a lot of companies that are stuck on sucking up.
Not only do companies say they abhor such comically servile behavior, but so do individual leaders. Almost all the leaders I have met say that they would never encourage such a thing in their organizations. I have no doubt that they are sincere. Most of us are easily irritated, if not disgusted, by derriere kissers. Which raises a question: If leaders say they discourage sucking up, why does it dominate the workplace? Keep in mind that these leaders are generally very shrewd judges of character. They spend their lives sizing people up: taking in first impressions and recalibrating them against later impressions. And yet, they still fall for the super-skilled suck-up. They still play favorites.
The simple answer is: We can’t see in ourselves what we can see so clearly in others.
Perhaps you are now thinking, “It’s amazing how leaders send out subtle signals that encourage subordinates to mute their criticisms and exaggerate their praise of the powers that be. And it is surprising how they cannot see it in themselves. Of course, this doesn’t apply to me.”
Maybe you’re right. But how can you be so sure that you’re not in denial?
I use an irrefutable test with my clients to show how we all unknowingly encourage sucking up. I ask a group of leaders: “How many of you own a dog that you love?” Big smiles cross the executives’ faces as they wave their hands in the air. They beam as they tell me the names of their faithful hounds.
Then we have a contest. I ask them, “At home, who gets most of your unabashed affection? Is it (a) your husband, wife, or partner; (b) your kids; or (c) your dog?” More than 80 percent of the time, the winner is the dog.
I then ask the executives if they love their dogs more than their family members. The answer is always a resounding no. My follow-up: “So why does the dog get most of your attention?”
Their replies all sound the same: “The dog is always happy to see me.” “The dog never talks back.” “The dog gives me unconditional love.” In other words, the dog is a suck-up.
I can’t say that I am any better. I love my dog, Beau. I travel at least 180 days a year, and Beau goes bonkers when I return home from a trip. I pull into the driveway, and my first inclination is to open the front door, go straight to Beau, and exclaim, “Daddy’s home!” Invariably, Beau jumps up and down, and I hug and pat him and make a huge fuss. One day my daughter, Kelly, was home from college. She watched my typical lovefest with Beau. She then looked at me, held her hands in the air like little paws, and barked, “Woof woof.”
If we aren’t careful, we can wind up treating people at work like dogs: continually rewarding those who heap unthinking, unconditional admiration upon us. What behavior do we get in return? A virulent case of the suck-ups.
The net result is obvious. You’re encouraging behavior that serves you but not necessarily the best interests of the company. If everyone is fawning over the boss, who’s getting work done? Worse, it tilts the field against the honest, principled employees who won’t play along. This is a double dose of bad news. You’re not only playing favorites, but also favoring the wrong people!
Leaders can stop encouraging this behavior by admitting that we all have a tendency to favor those who favor us, even if we don’t mean to.
We should then compare our direct reports on three measures.
First, how much do they like me? (I know you can’t be sure. What matters is how much you think they like you. Fawning is acting, and effective suck-ups are good actors.)
Second, what is their contribution to the company and its customers? (In other words, are they A players, B, C, or worse?)
Third, how much positive personal recognition do I give them?
What we’re looking for is whether the correlation is stronger between measures one and three or measures two and three. If we’re honest with ourselves, our recognition of people may be linked to how much they seem to like us rather than how well they perform. That’s the definition of playing favorites.
And the fault is all our own. We’re encouraging the kind of behavior that we despise in others. Without meaning to, we are basking in hollow praise, which makes us hollow leaders.
This quick self-analysis won’t solve the problem. But it identifies it, which is where change begins.
Marshall Goldsmith (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a leadership development trainer whose emphasis is on helping executives and their teams achieve positive change in behavior. He is the author of What Got You Here Won’t Get You There (Hyperion, 2007), from which this article is adapted.