Trevor Fouk: Why bosses love a brown-noser

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Sucking up to a boss like The Office's David Brent may distress onlookers.
Sucking up to a boss like The Office's David Brent may distress onlookers.

Trevor Foulk is a doctoral student at the University of Florida.

Few employees would deny that ingratiation is ubiquitous in the workplace.

This behaviour goes by many names - kissing up, sucking up, brown-nosing and ass-kissing.

Ingratiation is defined as the use of certain positive behaviours such as flattery, doing favours or conforming to another's opinions to get someone else to like you. This behaviour is especially common when employees interact with a supervisor because of the latter's status and control over important work resources, including job assignments, responsibilities, pay and promotions.

So what do we really understand about how these behaviours operate at work?

While social influence behaviours like ingratiation are typically thought of as a dyadic phenomenon (that is, involving two people - the ingratiator and the ingratiated), these behaviours are actually embedded in a much more complex and dynamic work environment, which includes many other people.

So how do observers of sucking up to a boss process it?

Ass-kissing works

We know that these behaviours are effective. Targets of ingratiation tend to like to be sucked up to, and they tend to form more positive opinions of those doing the sucking up.

We also know that observers of this behaviour tend to dislike the ingratiator.

What is not clear, was how observers of ingratiation felt about the target. In other words, if we see someone sucking up to our supervisor at work, does that affect our opinion of that supervisor?

Ingratiation: Social or unsavoury?

Ingratiation represents a challenging phenomenon from a social influence perspective, because the cues it sends are technically positive, but unsavoury and negative aspects accompany the activity.

That is, when a co-worker sucks up to a supervisor, he or she is saying positive things about that person and sending positive signals about him or her.

"I really like your tie", "Wow, that was a really great idea" and "That's exactly how I would have done it, great job, boss" are all examples.

However, when we know a behaviour is false or feigned, we tend to discount it. Since ingratiation is specifically performed to earn another's liking, it isn't genuine. That means we have a challenging phenomenon for observers - they are getting positive signals about the boss but in a way that suggests these signals may not be real.

So how will other employees interpret these signals?

Newcomers are more susceptible

What we find in this study is that it depends on the employee. Specifically, we find that newcomers are in a unique position when it comes to observing ingratiation, and they are much more likely to interpret it as a positive signal about the supervisor. Newcomers, who know very little about the supervisor, are motivated to learn about the boss any way they can. And thus they are more likely to disregard the aspects of ingratiation that suggest that it's fake.

We found that when participants were in the role of newcomers, they regularly formed more positive impressions of supervisors whom they saw being ingratiated. Even when these participants knew a little bit about the supervisor before observing the ingratiation, they still formed more positive impressions.

However, when participants took the role of contractors who had no need to learn about the supervisor because he had no control over their work outcomes this effect disappeared. Observing ingratiation had no effect on non-newcomers' impressions of the supervisor.

Lessons for supervisors

In another study, we examined what role supervisor behaviour could play in this phenomenon.

Some participants ("newcomers" to the job) saw an interaction in which a supervisor was kissed up to by an employee and some witnessed the same interaction minus the ingratiation. Then some participants saw a supervisor react by behaving positively toward the ingratiating employee, and others saw the supervisor react in a neutral way.

What we found was that when the supervisor behaved positively, suggesting that they worked well together, the influence of the ingratiation had almost no effect on observers' impressions. In other words, when the supervisor signalled that he or she had good qualities by acting in ways suggesting he or she genuinely liked the co-worker, onlookers automatically felt positively about him or her, and the observed ingratiation had no influence. The impact of the ingratiation was overridden by the supervisor's own genuinely positive behaviours.

This suggests that newcomers prefer direct information from the supervisor when forming opinions about the supervisor, but in the absence of this information they will use observed ingratiation as a substitute for direct information.

Putting it all together

The results of our study suggest that impression management behaviours are actually much more complicated than we realise.

Ingratiation is typically thought of as a behaviour that actors use to get others to like them. But what we show here is that this can actually be used as a strategy to get others to like others, as in this case a co-worker is able to make someone new form a favourable impression of the boss.

So if a supervisor wants a new employee to like him or her, a realistic strategy may be for him to have another employee kiss up in front of the newcomer.

This study also shows both the preference for direct information when forming impressions of others and what we'll do in the absence of direct information. When supervisors displayed genuinely positive behaviours, participants preferred to use that information to form their impressions.

However, without that information, we'll take what we can get.

And even though ingratiation isn't perfect, and even though we know it's fake, if we don't have anything better and we want to form an impression of the supervisor, we'll use this imperfect information in the same way we would have used direct signals from the supervisor.

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