Stuck on Suck-Ups

Talent Management

December 1, 2003

by Marshall Goldsmith

Part of my job involves reviewing and rewriting custom-designed leadership profiles at major corporations.

These documents typically feature boilerplate language to describe the leadership behaviors each company desires. Such chestnuts include “communicates a clear vision,” “helps people develop to their maximum potential” and “avoids playing favorites.”

I’ve never seen a profile that offered “effectively sucks up to management” as a preferred leadership characteristic. Yet, given the dedication to fawning and sucking up that goes on in most corporations, and how often this behavior is awarded, it probably should be included.

Almost every company will say it wants people who “challenge the system,” “are empowered to express their opinions” and “say what they really think.” But there are plenty of employees who go along to get along, and there’s certainly no shortage of outright derriere smoochers.

Most of the leaders I meet say they don’t encourage this kind of conduct in their organizations, and I don’t doubt their sincerity. Most of us are easily irritated, if not disgusted, by shameless suck-ups. This raises an important question: If leaders say they discourage sucking up, then why is it so prevalent in the workplace?

Keep in mind these leaders are generally shrewd judges of character. They’ve spent their careers sizing up people, taking in first impressions and recalibrating them against later impressions. And yet, they still fall for the super-skilled suck-ups way too often.

So why does this happen? The simple answer is we can’t see in ourselves what we see so clearly in others.

You might be thinking, “It’s amazing how leaders send out subtle signals that encourage subordinates to mute their criticism and exaggerate praise of the powers that be. And it is surprising that they can’t see this in themselves. Of course, this doesn’t apply to me. I view interactions with my direct reports entirely without bias.”

Maybe you’re right. But how can you be sure you aren’t in denial? I use a simple 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 spread across the executives’ faces as they wave their hands in the air, and they beam as they tell me the names of their always faithful hounds.

Then, I ask them, “At home, who gets most of your unabashed affection? Is it (a) your spouse or partner, (b) your kids or (c) your dog?” More than 80 percent of the time, they choose (c.) After that, I ask them if they love their dogs more than their family members. The answer is always a resounding “no.” My follow-up question: “Then why does the dog get more of your affection?”

Their replies are usually some variation of, “The dog is always happy to see me” “The dog never talks back” or “The dog loves me no matter what I do.” In other words, the dog is a suck-up.

If we aren’t careful, we can wind up treating people at work like dogs: rewarding those who heap unthinking, unconditional admiration on us. And what do we get in return? A virulent case of the suck-ups.

The net result is obvious. You get behavior that serves you, but not necessarily the best interests of the company. Worse, it tilts the field against honest, principled employees who won’t play along. You’re not only playing favorites – you’re favoring the wrong people!

We can counter this by categorizing our direct reports in three ways:

1. How much do they like me? (I know you can’t be sure. What matters is how much you think they like you.)
2. What is their contribution to the company and its customers? (In other words, are they A, B or C players or worse?)
3. How much positive recognition do I give them?

What we’re looking for is whether the correlation is stronger between the first and the third, or the second and the third. If we’re honest with ourselves, our recognition may be linked to how much they seem to like us rather than how well they perform.

We’re encouraging the kind of behavior we despise in others. Without meaning to, we are basking in hollow praise, which makes us hollow leaders.

This quick analysis won’t solve the problem. But it does identify it, and that’s where change begins.