Whether we call it bootlicking, apple-polishing, kissing up, managing up, or dozens of other less delicate terms, currying favor can be painful for everyone. Currying favor is that behavior of a subordinate intended to make the boss feel good, especially about the subordinate.
When someone curries favor, peers can feel stress. To counteract the tactic, peers tend to defend themselves, or to attack the currier. When they do, they can appear to be petty or vengeful. Whether or not they respond, peers can lose status and suffer career damage.
Here are some common favor-currying tactics.
- Compliments about personal attire are especially popular because they're ambiguous — they provide tests of the effectiveness of the strategy. If the tactics work, the currier moves on to compliment more personal attributes.
- Forms of mimicry include adopting the mannerisms, speech, or dress of the boss. But mimicry can go much deeper, including acquiring identical interests in specific foods, particular professional sports or teams, political alignment, religious affiliation, or charities.
- Subtle psychological manipulation
- Compliments about
personal attire are
- To make the boss feel smart or useful or important, the currier can seek advice, guidance, or support from the boss when it really isn't necessary. Although these tactics can be difficult to identify, they're transparent to some, especially to those who've used them personally, or who have experienced their use by others.
- Excessive, ostentatious dedication
- Many of us work long hours. But those who consistently do so in a manner that makes the effort visible to the boss could be currying favor. Similarly, most of us agree occasionally to "step up" to impossible tasks. But those who jump to do so in a highly visible way could be currying favor.
- Opportunities to express adoration abound. One favorite is making obvious efforts to sit beside the boss at meetings, presentations, or lunches, and competing with others for the "honor."
- Fulfilling the boss's dreams
- When groups debate strategy, curriers often propose "solutions" that please the boss, whether or not the solutions are feasible.
Currying favor corrupts. It harms the organization, first by creating tension among its people. But when it works, it can be as toxic as bribery or extortion, because it distorts decisions. And that means that the organization might act (or not) for reasons other than organizational interests.
Organizations must make decisions on their merits, whether the issue is the substance of the work, the configuration of the organization, or the advancement of personnel. Influencing those decisions by currying favor weakens the organization, which threatens us all.
Is every other day a tense, anxious, angry misery as you watch people around you, who couldn't even think their way through a game of Jacks, win at workplace politics and steal the credit and glory for just about everyone's best work including yours? Read 303 Secrets of Workplace Politics, filled with tips and techniques for succeeding in workplace politics. More info
For an outstanding example of a currier in action, watch the character "Sgt. Red O'Neill," played by John C. McGinley in the 1986 film Platoon. (Charlie Sheen, Tom Berenger, Willem Dafoe; Director: Oliver Stone). Order from Amazon.com.
Because currying favor can be risky, practitioners often use indirect tactics. See "The True Costs of Indirectness," Point Lookout for November 29, 2006, for more on indirectness.
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- Conway's Law and Technical Debt
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Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming December 18: The Trap of Beautiful Language
- As we assess the validity of others' statements, we risk making a characteristically human error — we confuse the beauty of their language with the reliability of its meaning. We're easily thrown off by alliteration, anaphora, epistrophe, and chiasmus. Available here and by RSS on December 18.
- And on December 25: Disjoint Awareness
- In collaborations, awareness of how our own work might interfere with the work of others is essential. Unless our awareness of others' work — and their awareness of ours — matches reality, the collaboration's objective is at risk. Available here and by RSS on December 25.
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- The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
Many people who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.
Beware any resource that speaks of "winning" at workplace politics or "defeating" it. You can benefit or not, but there is no score-keeping, and it isn't a game.