The Wall Street Journal recently reviewed 7,000 pages of Hillary Clinton’s emails released by the State Department and found a surprising recurrent theme: praise from Clinton’s staffers on everything from her professional performance to her appearance.
For example, according to the Journal’s Peter Nicholas and Colleen McCain Nelson, former top official Anne-Marie Slaughter wrote in an email to Clinton: “You are the world’s best boss!”
Meanwhile, Maria Otero, a State Department official, emailed Clinton in 2011 to tell her she looked “just gorgeous” while dining with the Queen.
So were Clinton’s staffers wise to heap such lavish praise on their boss? Will flattery really win employees any favours?
Research suggests it depends on the specific person and how exactly they go about flattering their manager.
In 2010, Ithai Stern, Ph.D. and Jim Westphal, Ph.D., looked at top managers, outside directors, and CEOs from 350 large industrial and service firms in the US. The researchers asked the execs and directors how often they engaged in a number of ingratiating behaviours.
Then they analysed how likely the CEO was to appoint the execs and directors to another board of directors where they served.
Results, highlighted by Freek Vermeulen on Forbes, showed there were specific ways to ingratiate that were more effective for getting appointed to boards than others. Those strategies included framing your flattery as advice seeking, for example by asking, “How were you able to pull off that strategy so successfully?”
Another tactic is expressing your identification with a specific cause or institution that your boss personally values. For example, if you know your boss values family, you can start off your conversation by talking about your kids.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the study also found that those who had a background in politics were among those more likely to “engage in sophisticated forms of ingratiation.”
Researchers asked 98 college interns at retail firms to indicate how much they tried to ingratiate themselves by doing things like making their supervisors feel important. Interns also indicated their level of political skill by reporting whether they spent a lot of time networking and whether they could communicate well with others.
Supervisors indicated how much they liked their interns and rated them on their job performance.
Results showed that supervisors did indeed like interns more when the interns tried to ingratiate themselves — but only when the interns had high levels of political skill. Performance ratings were not affected.
Performance ratings went down for interns with low levels of political skill who tried to ingratiate themselves.
Liu acknowledges that research on full-time employees might yield slightly different findings, because most college interns haven’t spent enough time in the workforce to develop strong political skills.
Yet both studies seem to highlight the importance of having a proven strategy for flattering your manager without seeming too obsequious. In other words, it might not be the best idea to emulate Clinton’s staffers’ unabashed flattery, unless you know for a fact that it will work on your boss. The Wall Street Journal noted that Clinton often solicited the feedback, for example by asking “How do you think it went?”
Instead, you’d be wise to try something more subtle and sophisticated at your next meeting with your manager — or just wait until you have enough experience navigating office politics to ingratiate yourself appropriately.
NOW WATCH: Ideas videos
Business Insider Emails & Alerts
Site highlights each day to your inbox.