Sucking up to the boss can increase employees’ bad behavior in the workplace.

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Sucking up to the boss can increase employees’ bad behavior in the workplace.

Sucking up to the boss may boost employees’ careers but it also depletes the employees’ self-control resources, leaving them more likely to behave badly in the workplace, a new study shows.   

What the researchers say: “There’s a personal cost to ingratiating yourself with your boss,” said the lead author. “When your energy is depleted, it may nudge you into the slack-off territory.” The findings were published in the Journal of Applied Psychology.   Ingratiation is just one of many behaviors employees use to create and maintain their desired image in the workplace. Past research (see previous TRs) has shown that successful use of these behaviors, known collectively as impression management tactics, can have benefits for employees, including stronger performance evaluations.   “Generally, impression management in the workplace is about wanting to be liked and appearing capable,” said the co-author.   

The researchers examined how 75 professionals used two supervisor-focused impression management tactics—ingratiation and self-promotion—over two work weeks.   Ingratiation (kissing or sucking up) generally includes flattery, conforming with the supervisor’s opinion and doing favors. Self-promotion refers to taking credit for success, boasting about performance and highlighting connections to other important people.   

The study participants—mid-level managers in a large, publicly traded software company—completed daily diary surveys of their workplace experiences and took a survey measuring their political skills, which is the set of social abilities that helps them effectively understand others at work, influence others in ways that enhance their own objectives and navigate social situations with confidence.   The researchers found that the extent to which employees engaged in ingratiation varied widely from day to day. They also found that the more employees engaged in kissing up, the more their self-control resources were depleted by the end of the day. It makes sense that ingratiation is depleting because successfully kissing up requires the appearance of sincerity and that requires self-control, the researchers said. Other studies have shown that the same is true of partners dealing with clients in professional service firms (see past TRs).   

The depleted employees were more likely to engage in workplace deviance such as incivility to a co-worker, bullying, skipping a meeting or surfing the internet rather than working. There was no evidence of a similar link between self-promotion and resource depletion, the researchers said.   “It’s also important to note that the depleting effects of ingratiation are immediate, but the workplace benefits of those acts tend to build over the long term,” they added.   The researchers also found that ingratiation was less depleting for employees with high levels of political skill. Those employees were less prone to engage in deviance after performing impression management than their peers, this shows that political skill can act as a buffer against the depleting effects of ingratiation, they noted.   

So, what? Other studies—reported in past TRs—have shown that resource depletion leading to antisocial or non-empathetic behavior is largely due to the action of the neurochemical glutamate (from food—that which gives energy to our body also gives energy to our brain). The famous parole court judge study was a case in point —where it was found that the number of convicts released on parole varied according to the time lapse from the judges’ previous meal (the closer the more parolees).   These studies have shown that snacking can alleviate the depletion as well as “political skills”—though those always help. In truth, we’re grazing animals and our digestions are more geared to eating whenever food is present thus in our hunter-gatherer state resource depletion rarely happens.  

Dr Bob Murray

Bob Murray, MBA, PhD (Clinical Psychology), is an internationally recognised expert in strategy, leadership, influencing, human motivation and behavioural change.

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