Kiss Up at Your Own Risk! The Dark Side to Sucking Up

Ingratiation and its Effects

By In Weekly Email 5 minute read time

The Question

We know it to be true, don’t we?  That flattery will get you everywhere! Those who aren’t bootlickers seem to be the odd ones out as the promotions go to those who brown nose.  Empirical research seems to back that up.  However, an interesting question surfaces—if it’s so effective and works so well, why don’t more and more people do it? 

That’s the launch point of a fascinating study that can be found here.

Assuming that multi-level factor analyses don’t excite you, allow us to translate.


The scholars of this study lay out a rather straightforward argument.  Leaders will engage in ingratiation (e.g., sucking up) with their bosses because it does, in fact, work.  And here’s why. 

When a leader sucks up to the boss through compliments or taking an interest in his/her personal life, the leader is demonstrating affection, admiration, and respect toward the boss.  Also, when a leader provides compliments to the boss, especially when others are around, there may be a signaling or status effect that the boss is worthy of these accolades.  For that reason, bosses may gain status when others suck up to her.  The key here is that the boss, inherently, wants to reciprocate to those who ingratiate.  Bosses can do this by providing more resources to those who fawn over them compared to those who won’t lower themselves.  When we have good relationships with people, we just want to reciprocate.  And that’s why ingratiation works.

But, the authors toss in an interesting dark side.  Subordinates possess a mental model of what great leadership is.  Universally speaking, good leadership is about dependability and demonstrating trust.  People work hard for leaders like that.

When our employees see us kissing up to our boss, it turns their mental models upside down.  It just doesn’t fit with their view of what good leadership is.  In fact, they’re likely to see it as self-serving, selfish, and, even, flat-out slimy.  Some subordinate employees may go as far to see it as immoral. When confronted with that, subordinates begin to shut down rather than work for a Suck-up. 

The Samples and Measures

Research is hard work and it’s easy to tell that these social scientists rolled up their sleeves.  For this study, they examined 91 leaders, 91 bosses, and 215 subordinates across a range of jobs in South Korea.  They, then, administered a set of scientifically designed scales to capture all kinds of variables that we discuss below.

We Now Open the Kimono

Straight out of the gates, they found conclusive evidence that brown nosing makes a difference to both the boss and to the focal leader.  Specifically, ingratiating was correlated with stronger relationships between the leader and the boss.  And that stronger relationship was highly related to promotability along with leader job satisfaction. Looking only in this upward direction, brown nosing gets you promoted and you tend to feel better about your job in the process.  A win!

Now, the dark side.  Licking the boots of your boss appears to highly agitate your subordinates.  When subordinates perceived that their boss was a selfish Suck-up, they reported weaker relationships with their leader. But it gets better.  The researchers found that when subordinates didn’t like, trust, or just had a less-than-ideal relationship with their boss, the employees were more likely to have worse task performance, would be less likely to engage in discretionary behaviors that would help out the organization, and, crazily, were more apt to engage in sabotage or counter-productive work behaviors.  Again, when subordinates perceive their leader engage in ingratiation with their boss, the relationship suffers.  They trust him less.  And, in turn, job performance declines.

But wait!  There’s more.  When the authors of this study looked at and measured a leader’s political skill, things began to change a bit for the better.  First off, political skill covers how well we understand social situations, our ability to influence and network, and to demonstrate sincerity.  According to this study, when leaders scored higher on political skill, the negative effects from subordinates went down.  The feeling here is that how leaders kiss ass matters to subordinate perception.  When leaders come across as sincere and authentic even when licking boots, as opposed to self-serving or being a careerist, subordinates are more willing to cut them some slack.  Also, employees may think that if their leader is in good with their boss, they’ll all get more resources in the end and their jobs could get easier.  That makes sense; would you rather your leader have a strong relationship with your boss that could benefit the entire department with flush resources or the opposite? 


This research can help you become a better version of yourself.  First, know that subordinates and bosses act and respond differently when you ingratiate.  In the context of the boss, if you do it, you’ll get promoted. From the eyes of your subordinates, it’s quite negative. Their performance could suffer along with the bottom line.  Second, understand that political skill can change the scales.  If you’re going to engage in ingratiation, doing so in a politically astute way that preserves your dignity and authenticity matters.  Lastly, and something we would recommend, is not to engage in ingratiation in front of your subordinates if you’re going to do it at all.  Those that can hide their ingratiation or only do so in certain contexts will be the ones that win this game.

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

We respect your email privacy