Big-wigs have much to gain from ingratiating themselves with even bigger ones, because having an in with important people sways decisions made in the executive washroom, on the golf course, or over plates of wagyu carpaccio. But ingratiators face a dilemma: no-one likes a suck-up, and people at the top of the food chain have plenty of practice in detecting and dismissing them.
A new article in the Academy of Management Journal finds that company directors get around this dilemma by employing a clever psychological tactic – before meeting up with those they plan on winning over, they think about them in such a way that they come to like them more, making any flattery or ingratiation seem all the more convincing.
Participants in the study were directors at a range of large US companies, each of whom had at least one scheduled meeting with another director who had something they wanted: a say in the board membership at another company. The meetings occurred during the six months running up to the board nominations meeting, so if the participants played their cards right, maybe they would get appointed.
So what’s the best way to play? Researchers James Westphal and Guy Shani suspected that the key to successful ingratiation is to believe it. Detecting unnatural behaviour comes fairly easily, especially if you know what to look for, meaning pretenders are one feigned smile or wavering compliment away from being dismissed as a brown-noser. Acting is hard!
When we really like someone, on the other hand, we don’t need to act, just let our feelings come through. Increasing one’s authentic liking for a person would therefore be very helpful. Westphal and Shani predicted that one way to do this would be for the participants to mentally emphasise to themselves what they have in common with the director they wanted to influence. After all, there is copious evidence showing that we like more those who resemble us, and that we are more likely to credit the achievements of (and therefore respect) people like ourselves, rather than putting their success down to external factors.
In the study, the 278 participants were surveyed at multiple time points prior to their crucial meet-up(s) with other director, on how much they thought about their similarities, or about their differences. For example, a black woman prior to meeting a much older white male might choose to reflect on how they both spent some years in the same industry. The researchers also surveyed the ingratiation behaviours in the meeting itself: compliments and expressions of admiration, together with the amount of non-verbal affirmation like smiling or laughter.
The data showed that the more a participant had turned their thoughts towards what they had in common with the other director, the more their ingratiation behaviours paid off – they were more likely to get an invitation to join the board in the months that followed – presumably because their flattery was more convincing.
Furthermore, participants were more likely to adjust their thinking in this way when their counterpart was more dissimilar to them – where intentionally searching for common ground is going to be particularly important – and in these cases, use of the tactic was even more likely to be rewarded with a nomination. These effects were striking: those following this strategy to its fullest were nearly three times more likely to get a recommendation than those with an average amount of regulation of their thoughts around the meeting.
The psychological strategy uncovered in this research was certainly effective, but what we don’t know is how aware the participants were of what they were doing. Did they deliberately trick themselves into liking the other director, or was it a more automatic and instinctive process?
Either way, these results aren’t only relevant for top dogs trying to bound their way further up the hierarchy. The study provides another demonstration that changing how we think about other people has an important role in smoothing social interactions. Similar processes might help explain why social contact between out-groups is sometimes found to be helpful, and sometimes not: are the different factions looking for what they have in common, or what sets them apart? This approach is about more than a cushy seat in the board room; it’s about how divided people can find a way to sit down together.
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