In an ideal world, employees would succeed or fail on the merits of their work and managers would universally raise their collective eyebrows in response to flattery.
Alas, the real world does not work that way. Unless you plan on spending your entire career working for yourself, you'll probably run across a boss or two (or twenty) who enjoy (or demand) an occasional (or frequent) buttering up.
As with much that goes on in the office, brown-nosing is a more complicated behavior than it seems on the surface. There are three psychological factors at play:
- Your boss's need and desire for praise.
- How your peers will perceive your behavior.
- How you'll feel about yourself afterwards.
Let's look at each separately, shall we?
Every boss's personality can be mapped onto two sliding scales: 1) secure vs. insecure, and 2) perceptive vs. clueless. This creates the following grid:
Whether and how you brown-nose depends upon the general quadrant that defines your boss's personality:
- Quadrant 1 (Secure and Perceptive): Never try to brown-nose this type of boss. They'll realize immediately that you're trying to flatter and will wonder if you actually think they're stupid enough to be swayed. Example: Pope Francis.
- Quadrant 2 (Insecure and Perceptive): This type of boss can tell that flattery is insincere but values it anyway because it reinforces their sense that they're the boss, despite their inner doubts. In this case, you offer perfunctory praise ("good job!"). If you lay it on too thick, they'll think you're being sarcastic. Example: Tony Soprano.
- Quadrant 3 (Secure and Clueless): While you can safely brown-nose this type of boss, there's not much point to it, because they'll barely notice that you're doing it. Because they're not really keyed into other people's emotions, they're not going to care either way. Example: Bill Gates.
- Quadrant 4 (Insecure and Clueless): Here's where you've got to lay it on thick. Offer praise to the skies and leave no superlative unspoken. Indeed, failure to proceed from normal sphincter osculation to the French variety will be considered a sign of unforgivable disloyalty. Example: Donald Trump.
Because your workplace is a social environment, the opinion of co-workers and peers is important to your career. How they'll perceive your brown-nosing (if any) will be based upon their personalities, which can also be mapped onto two sliding scales: 1) sincere vs. insincere and 2) brave vs. cowardly. This creates the following grid:
- Quadrant 1 (Brave and Sincere): These peers will think less of you if they see you brown-nosing, regardless of how your boss perceives it. Therefore, if you must brown-nose at work, do it privately, during a one-on-one. Note: a quadrant 4 boss may demand a public display of butt-kissing in which case you must either resign or debase yourself in public.
- Quadrant 2 (Sincere and Cowardly): Since these peers are likely to miserable in any environment where brown-nosing is expected, they'll likely feel sympathy for you when it's your time to kneel and pucker up. Indeed, they'll simply be relieved that it's your turn rather than theirs.
- Quadrant 3 (Brave but Insincere): You can safely brown-nose around these peers because they'll be busily doing their own brown-nosing. If anything, they'll see your brown-nosing as an endorsement of their own suck-up behavior.
- Quadrant 4 (Cowardly and Insincere): In this case, if you decide to brown-nose, your co-workers will look upon you with envy if your technique is superior to theirs.
Now that we've analyzed your boss and your coworkers, it's time to take a deep look inwards, to see where you exist on both those grids, because the quadrants match up perfectly.
For example, because they neither expect nor seek flattery, Quadrant 1 bosses tend to surround themselves with Quadrant 1 workers. Similarly, Quadrant 4 bosses are always accompanied by a crowd of Quadrant 4 toadies; indeed Quadrant 4 bosses can't tolerate Quadrant 1 people.
Therefore, if you're working for anything other than a Quadrant 1 boss, you need to ask yourself whether you've gravitated to exactly where you belong. Is there a mismatch, in which case your situation is temporary (as in "paying your dues") or are you lacking in courage or integrity?
If you're paying your dues, then you can and should shrug off that clinging feeling of ickiness after you've done your due obeisance. It's all part of your greater plan, kiss away. Just be aware that if you stay there long, you'll be known in your industry as a shameless suck-up.
However, you feel icky after brown-nosing because you've have a sneaking suspicion that you can do better than working for a jerk, your best recourse is to grow a backbone, get your head straight, and find a job where kneeling and puckering isn't part of the job.
What if you don't? Well, eventually brown-nosing will become so natural to you that you won't feel icky about it any longer. It will just be business as usual. Problem solved.