Are You Training People to Suck Up to You?

Last Updated Sep 9, 2010 3:59 PM EDT

Almost every company -- and every leader -- claims to want employees to honestly express their opinions. Almost everyone claims to hate "suck-ups" who just provide hollow praise to their bosses.

It's a puzzling situation. If everyone hates suck-ups so much, why does so much sucking-up go on? The simple answer is that people tend to create an environment where others learn to suck up to them.

You're probably thinking, "The Goldsmiths are making a good point. I see other leaders encouraging suck-ups all the time. Of course I find this to be disgusting!" It's incredibly easy to see other leaders encouraging suck-ups. And it's incredibly difficult to realize that you (without meaning to) may be doing the same thing.

In teaching classes, we've often ask leaders, "How many of you own a dog that you love?" Invariably these leaders smile, wave their hands in the air, and share the names of their ever-faithful mutts. Next we ask, "What family member gets the most unqualified positive recognition at home?" The possible answers are: A.) my husband, wife or partner; B.) my kids; or C.) my dog. More than 80 percent of the time the clear winner is ... the dog!

We then ask these same leaders if they actually love their dogs more than the other members of their families. The invariably say no (although some appear to be lying). The next question is, "Then why is the dog the family member who gets the most unqualified positive recognition?" The answers always sound the same: "The dog never talks back!" "The dog never criticizes me!" "The dog is always happy to see me!" "The dog gives me unconditional love!"

In other words, the dog is a suck-up.

Here is a simple test that may help you avoid encouraging suck-ups in your own work environment. Rank-order your direct reports (or, if you don't have direct reports, use co-workers) in three ways:

  1. How much does this person like me? (You may not know the real answer, but it doesn't matter. How much do you think this person likes you?)
  2. What is this person's contribution to our company and our customers?
  3. How much positive personal recognition do I give to this person?
If you're honest with yourself, in some cases you may find that your recognition is more highly correlated with No. 1 (liking) than No. 2 (contribution). You may be falling into a trap that you despise in others: creating an environment where people learn to suck up to you.

Think of your own experience in observing suck-ups. The ones that we all hate are obvious or embarrassing about it. These people's problem is not that they suck up -- it's that they're bad at it. Subtle suck-ups who don't obviously look like they are sucking up do much better. They're much more skilled in their tactics.

Challenge yourself as a leader or co-worker. Make sure that when you give recognition, you're giving it for the right reason. Don't assume that you're too enlightened to fall into the "encouraging suck-ups" trap. Anyone can make this mistake.

What's your experience in observing employees who suck-up and leaders who encourage this behavior?

  • Kelly and

    Kelly Goldsmith is a recent Ph.D. graduate from the Yale School of Management and a member of the faculty at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management. Her specialty is research in consumer decision making.
    Marshall Goldsmith is an executive educator, coach and author. His books include What Got You Here Won't Get You There and Mojo. His specialty is helping successful leaders achieve positive, lasting change in behavior.