Can I just say, I absolutely adore that outfit you’re wearing today, is it new? Oh, and that story you told me yesterday, it was hysterical, I haven’t laughed so much in ages! That was just a little attempt at flattery, what experts Chan and Sengupta say is the art of offering pleasing compliments and one of the oldest forms of persuasion there is.
But why, how do you go from a seemingly off-the-cuff pleasant comment to persuasion? And if it’s so useful, how do you do it right?
In a nutshell, flattery works because we want to believe nice things about ourselves. Researchers like Vonk found that this basic desire means that we react positively to the flatterer because it reinforces what we want to believe, that we have impeccable dress sense or a fabulous sense of humour for example. At the far end of the flattery spectrum comes ingratiation which includes not only flattery but acts of opinion and favour conformity.
So as well as the pleasing compliment, you might show or say that you too have the same opinions and offer some form of favour.
We’ve seen that flattery can be a means of persuasion and Park also suggests that it can be used in the workplace as a way of developing social exchange relationships with those in positions of power who are able to aid our careers and who ‘control access to valued resources’.
Similarly, Park cites studies showing that ingratiation tactics were linked to professional advancement such as positive performance evaluations and higher compensation. Why? Because the benefits of ingratiation are said to be two-fold: positive affect and reciprocity. So much so in fact that one study from Stern and Westphal even showed that an ingratiating manager was more likely to be put forward by the CEO for board appointment.
Should we all go forth then and flatter and ingratiate at will? Of course, things are never that simple. In the same Stern and Westphal study, there were in/out group biases at play. The name of the study ‘flattery will get you everywhere (especially if you are male Caucasian) tells you pretty much what these biases are.
Ingratiation tactics were linked to professional advancement such as positive performance evaluations and higher compensation.
What about insincere flattery?
If you don’t genuinely admire your boss’ taste in shirts can you get away with pretending you do? The answer is probably. In their article Insincere Flattery Actually Works [PDF], Chan and Sengupta revealed that when it comes to flattery there are dual attitudes at play.
There will be an original implicit reaction (you like my shirt, how kind, yes I am rather on-trend) and a discounted explicit reaction that can relate to them sussing out there may be an ulterior motive at play (hmm, do they really like my shirt, or do they just want to leave early?).
What is interesting about the study though is that even when the recipient thinks there is an ulterior motive and that the flattery might not be 100% genuine, the power of that original implicit reaction is not extinguished entirely by the explicit reaction. That initial pleasure at hearing something nice just seems to stick in the mind more than any negatives evaluations the brain may do afterwards. Wilson, Lindsey and Schooler attribute this effect to cognitive retrieval; when capacity is constrained the implicit attitude might automatically be reported.
Another consideration is the perception that others will have of you dispensing this flattery. Say, they overhear you compliment a colleague’s presentation, what are they likely to think?
Like all communication, flattery is an art form and needs practice to perfect.
In a further study on the topic, Chan and Sengupta found that when others observe flattery at play it can invoke envy (they never said my presentation was good) and even make the observer dislike the flatterer. However, if the person being flattered is dissimilar to the observer (perhaps they hadn’t also delivered a presentation) then their implicit attitudes on overhearing this flattery will be better. Further, even if envy is the by-product, it can also be a ‘goad to action’ which can be a positive in time.
Finally, what about the person receiving the flattery? Surely it’s a win-win for them as everyone wants to hear nice things about themselves? A possible negative comes from Park who suggests that high levels of flattery and opinion conformity can lead to overconfidence which can mean a leader would be less inclined to change their strategies if they were not working- all that flattery making them feel invincible!
Flattery can make others feel great, it could even help our careers but if not done correctly it can make others feel bad and even harm our or their careers. Like all communication, flattery is an art form and needs practice to perfect.