How to Suck Up Without Being Obvious About It

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Sucking up to the boss is a lot like the early stages of dating: On the one hand, you want to make the other person feel good — and, by extension, good about you. On the other hand, you also want to play it kind of cool, lest you come off as too eager to please (I believe the kids these days call it “thirsty”). Don’t be too effusive with the compliments, but also, for the love of God, do not neg them. Just, you know, be really nice, but also chill. Act natural, but make sure everything you say helps you create the right impression.

There’s a reason that smoothness is such an elusive quality in the wild, especially when the power dynamic in a social interaction is something other than perfectly balanced. There’s even a name for it in psychology: “the ingratiator’s dilemma,” or the idea that the more lopsided the situation, the better the person in power becomes at picking up on insincerity. To put it another way, the people you need most are generally the toughest ones to crack — the more you stand to gain from the interaction, the more likely the other person will see right through your forced laughs and insincere praise.

But there are a lucky few — a small, blessed handful of people — who are actually pretty good at schmoozing, who see a conversation with a work higher-up or an attractive stranger as easy or pleasant or maybe even fun. They are also, uncoincidentally, the people who make said schmoozing work for them. It’s not just that they can get through it without sweating or stuttering or accidentally saying something embarrassing; they also know how to get what they want out of the interaction. And as Alex Fradera recently noted at BPS Research Digest, a study in the Academy of Management Journal (delightfully titled “Psyched Up to Suck-Up”) has identified one strategy for how they do it: convince themselves to like the people they’re sucking up to.

“Detecting unnatural behaviour comes fairly easily, especially if you know what to look for,” Fradera wrote, “meaning pretenders are one feigned smile or wavering compliment away from being dismissed as a brown-noser”:

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. [Study authors] 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.

For the study, the researchers surveyed 278 corporate muckety-mucks looking to snag a spot on a company’s board of directors — a feat that involved meeting with current members of the board. Before the meeting, each study participant answered questions about how much thought they’d given to their similarities with the other person, as well as their differences. The people who spent more time considering what they had in common, it turned out, were also the most likely to achieve their desired outcome.

The reason, the study authors argued, may be that as the board hopefuls thought about things they shared with their superiors, they ended up thinking themselves into a totally different mind-set. Focusing on commonalities, they wrote, “induces genuine positive feelings and admiration for the colleague, such that their interpersonal behaviors are less likely to appear as insincere attempts to curry favor, and thus more likely to engender influence.” It’s a mental gymnastics routine that leads to a genuine shift — what was once an exercise in flattery becomes two people sharing a friendly conversation. In other words: Faking it till you make it is fine, but faking it till you believe it may be even better.

How to Suck Up Without Being Obvious About It