Fourteenth-century poet Dante Alighieri hated suck ups so much that he damned them to one of the deeper rings of hell in his famous poem, Inferno. Now, a study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology suggests that Dante was on to something. Brown-nosers, the authors show, actually walk a very fine line between self-promotion and self-destruction.
Every suck-up, write authors Anthony Klotz and Lawrence Houston III both assistant professors of management at Oregon State University, is faced with a big challenge called the “ingratiator’s dilemma.” Defined in 1990 by social psychologist Edward E. Jones, the dilemma is a bona fide psychological theory stating that people in positions of power are more likely to perceive your attempts at flattery as self-serving and duplicitous.
“Ingratiation at work tends to make employees appear more likable unless their boss senses that the employee is doing it for agentic reasons,” Klotz tells Inverse. “As such, insincere ingratiation is risky!”
Klotz and Houston investigated how the mental toll of constantly having to pretend that you sincerely like your boss might manifest in 75 mid-level managers at a Chinese software company. They split the managers into two groups that took two different approaches to “impression management” — the psychological term for manipulating your behavior to make others like you. One group engaged in self-promotion (read: bragging), and the other pursued a more traditional brown-nosing approach — ingratiating themselves to the boss.
Over the course of two weeks, these workers completed tests to measure their levels of political skill and also kept diaries in which they noted their behavior and how mentally depleted they felt at the end of the day. When the researchers analyzed these results, they found that the ingratiators actually reported higher levels of mental depletion at the end of the day compared with the self-promoters. This happens, Klotz suggests, because the only way to beat the ingratiator’s dilemma is to appear outwardly sincere, when deep inside, you know you’re faking it.
“We argue that ingratiation towards one’s boss is depleting, because it requires employees’ to spend their cognitive and emotional resources to make sure that when they kiss up, their boss views it as authentic,” Klotz summarizes.
This finding aside, there were other patterns in the results that presented more bad news for brown-nosers. Notably, they participated in more types of “workplace deviance,” like surfing the internet or skipping meetings. However, the brown-nosers who had higher levels of “political skill” actually displayed less deviant behavior than those with low political skill scores. This suggests that having good political skills makes it less exhausting to deceive everyone around you. As the authors write:
The effort required to pull off acts of favor doing, conformity and flattery may leave employees feeling drained and increase their deviance. Our results further suggest that this may be particularly true for politically unskilled employees.
These results suggest that faking sincere flattery works a bit like a muscle. People with strong bullshit muscles tend to be less tired at the end of the work day than those with weaker ones, and therefore tend to engage in less workplace deviance as a consequence.
But either way, even the smallest slip indicating insincerity can send you spiraling back into the depths of the ingratiator’s dilemma. Unless you happen to be a master manipulator of Petyr Baelish-like proportions, you’re best steering clear of insincere flattery. But if Dante is even halfway accurate, that too might be a risky move when it comes to your eternal soul.