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Me thinks thou art a suck-up

I was speaking with a couple of friends of mine recently about some of our common trials and tribulations at work.  During these two conversations, the subject of ingratiating sycophants, more commonly known as suck-ups came up in the discussions.  It is interesting why this type of personality is so prevalent in just about every organization.  The brown-nosing yes-men (persons) can sprout up like dandelions, for some very significant reasons. 

The behaviors of acting like a butt-smoocher, or enjoying the company of them like a court of fools, both reside with a lack of confidence and security.  Organizations in most environments are dynamic, with the levels of management experiencing frequent movements.  This flux is caused by positions opening, outdated positions closing, and people being transferred, promoted, or demoted.  If the organization you are in doesn't experience these changes, it is either very small or dying.  How supervisors and managers behave in their new environments however dictates whether the rump-kisser will emerge, or be forced to act better, suppressing their tendencies until a time comes along when they are encouraged to act out.

People will ingratiate themselves to superiors only if the behavior is rewarded.  In any type of group environment where someone feels the need to bypass hard work, dedication, team-play, and sincerity; they may try to gain favor by stroking the ego of their superior.  The urge to do this emanates from a desire for attention that overrides professionalism.  People who crave the attention of others have a void in their self-esteem that takes a great deal of effort to fill.  Receiving accolades by being overly agreeable or throwing your coworkers under the bus is a cheap and empty way of filling this void.  Once this process starts, it becomes an addiction, if the upper-upper indulges these rat-like actions, it simply reinforces the behavior.

 If someone of authority surrounds themselves with a court of fools, it is because they need to  receive a boost to their ego.  They need to hear that what they say is popular and that loyal jesters affirm everything said.  The need of a superior to hear themselves talk, or to have their ideas held in high esteem correspond to an issue with confidence in their abilities.  Every supervisor that finds themselves in a new environment, with new direct reports, can easily fall into the trap of allowing a suck-up to latch on like a lamprey. The relationship may seem symbiotic at first, but it is actually co-dependant and doesn't help either party.  The supervisor is blinded of his or her judgement errors by the continual stream of false feedback from the lazy idiot who would rather tell their boss what he wants to hear rather than what he needs to know.

In every job and position I have started, I have tried my hardest to resist the all too easy temptation to encourage new reports to kiss up to me to gain my favor.  It can easily take 3-6 months to get into the groove in a new location.  Those employees looking to skirt hard work and dedication are the first ones to try to stroke fragile ego with false encouragement when my judgement is vulnerable. I often push myself to reserve making any major decisions until the honeymoon is over.

Often I look for those employees who have the genuine respect of their coworkers.  In many instances these hard workers remain somewhat aloof during the initial weeks of new contact.  They have confidence in their abilities and security in their skills, but they are unsure how the recent changes in landscape will affect them.  The employees who fit this model are the ones whose respect I strive to earn.  They don't buy-in to new ideas easily, and they may often resist change, but you can usually depend on them to be honest brokers of  fair play.  They will never give me unconditional support, since they don't want to be known as part of a court of fools, nor do I demand it.  I can sometimes use their wavering support as an indication that my directives aren't fully planned or thought through.

 To sum it up, if you want a faithful companion, get a dog.  If you want to form a strong team of diverse players who will work hard for a common goal, then you need to promote hard work and goal oriented behavior.  As supervisors, we cannot create this environment if we are more worried about our self-esteem and padded egos than getting the job done right.  If you have a kiss-ass in your outfit, it is by your own creation.  You allowed them to sprout up and continue behavior that should have been quashed earlier.  If you need someone to tell you how great you are, call your Mom.  If you want to gain respect and true cooperation, start earning it.


  1. Great article, David! And, I agree with you completely. A leader who is surrounded with "yes" people has these types of people working for him because he created this environment. It's not always fragile egos though. I've known several leaders who have an unhealthy need to control everything and so they seek sycophants who will work for them and just implement what they are told. Either way, it's not healthy.



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