Flattery will get you fired
  • leadership
  • Blog post

Flattery will get you fired

Every leader recognizes the risk of getting their egos stroked by the people who report to them. They’re right to worry: Consciously or unconsciously, those who provide counsel and perspective to the boss are often reluctant to raise a challenge. They worry about being perceived as disloyal or “not with the program.” They’ve hitched their wagon to the leader’s star. So why wouldn’t they see things the same way?

For all these reasons, leaders know they need to discount the advice they get from these quarters. But a recent study found that many fall prey to flattery anyway. And the consequences — for the leader — can be severe.

The study surveyed CEOs and their direct reports at 1,350 public companies, but the key takeaway is relevant to anyone in a leadership position: The bosses subjected to the most “flattery and opinion conformity” were more likely to lose their job.

“The size of this effect is substantial,” write the study authors. “For example, at relatively low levels of firm performance (e.g., one standard deviation below the mean and lower), an increase in received flattery and opinion conformity of one standard deviation (from the average level) ultimately increases the likelihood of a CEO’s dismissal by 64 percent.”

It’s about strategy

The nature of the opinion conformity was revealing as well. The people advising the boss were especially reluctant to challenge his or her strategy. Even if results were poor, they advised the leader to stay the course and expressed confidence that success would soon follow.

As a result, these CEOs were more likely to keep doing what they’d been doing, convinced that success was just around the corner.

Ultimately, however, the CEO’s constituency – stockholders, directors, analysts, journalists – would see the business continue to tank and a CEO who seemed to be unable or unwilling to take action. Time for a new CEO.

Who’s whispering in your ear?

Though the study focused on top dogs, a similar dynamic can affect leaders at any level. They may not be involved in corporate strategy, but every manager has to think about a plan for achieving the team’s goals. And that’s where you have to be careful about feedback. Your people may be telling you that you’re doing a great job providing direction. Sure, the team might be lagging on goals, but you’re on the right track. With just a little more effort and encouragement, the team will catch up.

Meanwhile, to your boss, you may look like someone who’s unwilling to face reality, make tough decisions, come up with new ideas and embrace change.

Here are four steps you can take to keep your head off the chopping block:

1. Within your team, invite people to challenge and question your strategy and execution.

Reward the ones who tell you the plain unvarnished truth, not the ones who tell you what you want to hear. You may be worried that naysayers are at the root of the low performance – that they’re sabotaging your strategy and undermining your efforts. That is a risk and it must be managed, but the greater risk is ignoring divergent opinions – or even worse, punishing people for speaking up.

2. Appoint a devil’s advocate.

Give someone the explicit job of challenging the status quo. That way you remove or reduce the perceived risk of challenging the boss.

3. Don’t explain away unsatisfactory performance metrics.

If you’re managing a project and about to miss a deadline or other goal, the opinion conformists will tell you (1) that there’s nothing wrong with the strategy and a few tweaks will get it back on track; or (2) that your original goals were unrealistic and need to be adjusted; or (3) that certain unforeseen events set you back, but are only temporary. Listen to the data.

4. Seek outside opinions.

According to the study authors, “There is some evidence that CEOs who solicit advice on strategic issues from other top managers outside their regular network of friends are more likely to initiate strategic change in response to poor performance.” Seek counsel from other managers in your organization, people you know doing similar jobs in other companies, even people who don’t really know your business very well. Most important, don’t just rely on friends. Find people who have no stake in telling you what you want to hear.

Source: Park, S. H., Westphal, J. D., & Stern, I. (2011). Set up for a fall: The insidious effects of flattery and opinion conformity toward corporate leaders. Administrative Science Quarterly, 56(2), 257-302.

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