Flattering your boss: Good for you…but bad for him

Flattering your boss: Good for you…but bad for him

Jérôme Barthélémy, Professor of Management and Strategy at ESSEC Business School, takes a wry look at how to get in your boss’s good books from research carried out by Ithai Stern and James Westphal. 

To succeed in a company, just being competent isn’t enough. You’ve also got to be in your boss’s good books. Ithai Stern and James Westphal have identified seven techniques to reach that goal, from the simplest to the most subtle. 

Seven techniques to get in your boss’s good books

  1. Make him a compliment while excusing yourself in advance: 'I don’t want to make you feel uneasy by saying this, but you’re really a great boss.’
  2.  Pretending to ask him for advice whereas the objective is to make him a compliment: 'How did you manage to wrap up this merger as brilliantly as that?’
  3.  Starting by resisting him before agreeing to his opinion‘In the beginning I didn’t entirely agree, but now it’s really clear. You’ve entirely convinced me.’
  4.  Informing yourself of his opinion before being able to take responsibility for it when the occasion arisesIf you always agree with your boss, he’ll think you’re licking his boots…But if you manage to know his opinion and phrase it before him in a meeting, it will be that much more convincing.
  5.  Complimenting him among his friends while hoping he will learn of itWhen you make someone a compliment, the person will often see it with distrust. If you do it among his friends, he’ll end up learning of it and that will have great impact.
  6.  Showing him you have values in common before making him a compliment or agreeing with himI discovered that a good way to begin a conversation with my boss is to allude to something that is important for me and which is also important for him. He therefore has a greater tendency to trust you.
  7.  Referring to common links (degree from the same business or engineering school, etc.) before making him a compliment or agreeing with himI often start the conversation by mentioning a group or an organization to which we both belong. That contributes to establishing a relationship of trust.

Beneficial consequences for you …

Stern and Westphal have thus tested the link between using these techniques and the probability of obtaining promotion. The results of analyses carried out among 2,000 managers are spectacular. The use of the most subtle techniques very strongly increases the probability that a manager is named on the management board of his firm. The probability increases by 68 % if you make two further compliments to your boss via his friends and by 71 % if you make two further references to commonly shared links. However, on the other hand, the use of unsubtle techniques is to be avoided at all cost. It strongly reduces the probability of obtaining a promotion!

… but harmful to your boss

We therefore have an interest in trying to get in our boss’s good books. But what are the consequences for the person subject to our attention?  To understand this, Sun Hyun Park, James Westphal and Ithai Stern undertook an additional study on more than 3,000 managers and 450 CEOs. They show that the more managers flatter their company CEO (or copnstantly tell him that he is right), the more he will be persuaded that he is brilliant. 

This is particularly bothersome when a company is going through tough times. Convinced that his strategy is right, the CEO refuses to question it… and the performance of the company deteriorates ever-increasingly. Ultimately, the CEO ends up being shown the door. The old adage whereby ‘every flatterer lives at the expense of those who listen’ hasn’t aged in the slightest! 


  •  Park, S. H., Westphal, J. D., & Stern, I. (2011). Set up for a fall the insidious effects of flattery and opinion conformity toward corporate leaders. Administrative Science Quarterly, 56(2), 257-302.
  • Stern, I., & Westphal, J. D. (2010). Stealthy footsteps to the Boardroom: Executives' backgrounds, sophisticated interpersonal influence behavior, and Board appointments. Administrative Science Quarterly, 55(2), 278-319.

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