The Art of Sucking Up, and Why It Works

Last Updated Feb 2, 2011 2:49 PM EST

Mae West is not remembered for her business management smarts, but she was as insightful as Peter Drucker when she observed, "Flattery will get you everywhere."

It turns out this is perfectly true. Flattery, even over-the-top, obvious sucking up will often make the receiver feel predisposed toward you and more willing to work in your favor.

Unconscious ideas, such as those generated by flattery, seem impervious to contradictory information, we learn from HBR editor Andrew O'Connell in Why Flattery is Effective.

"Persuade a customer or colleague on a conscious level, and he or she will retain that conviction only until a better counterargument comes along. Persuade a person on a gut level, and the feeling will last and last. And last."
Used effectively, flattery can create lasting feelings that could positively affect any number of business encounters, from board presentations to job interviews. Read his post for the scientific explanation on why flattery works.

I wouldn't invest too much personal stock in the notion that even over-the-top a** kissing works -- could an "insincere sycophant" such as Eddie Haskell fool anyone for long? But clearly a touch of the old blarney has its place in your Effective Communications Toolkit.

Maybe George Bernard Shaw was the most perceptive on this issue.

"What really flatters a man is that you think him worth flattering."
Has flattery helped your career? How do you use it? Have I told you how beautiful you look in blue?

(Flattery image by Paris Bueller, CC 3.0)

  • Sean Silverthorne

    Sean Silverthorne is the editor of HBS Working Knowledge, which provides a first look at the research and ideas of Harvard Business School faculty. Working Knowledge, which won a Webby award in 2007, currently records 4 million unique visitors a year. He has been with HBS since 2001.

    Silverthorne has 28 years experience in print and online journalism. Before arriving at HBS, he was a senior editor at CNET and executive editor of ZDNET News. While at At Ziff-Davis, Silverthorne also worked on the daily technology TV show The Site, and was a senior editor at PC Week Inside, which chronicled the business of the technology industry. He has held several reporting and editing roles on a variety of newspapers, and was Investor Business Daily's first journalist based in Silicon Valley.