PUTTIN' COLOGNE ON THE RICKSHAW

A Guide to Dysfunctional Management and the Evil Workplace
January 11th, 2013 by William

Sprezzatura

In his February 2007 Strategy and Business article, “The Favoritism Test–Learn to Avoid the Pitfalls of Rewarding Sycophants in the Workplace,” Marshall Goldsmith talks about the phenomenon of sycophancy in the modern workplace.

Goldsmith tells us, “I have reviewed custom-designed leadership profiles at more than 100 major corporations. Not one profile has ever included a desired behavior that reads ‘effectively sucks up to management.’ Although given the dedication to fawning and sucking up in most corporations–and how often such behavior is rewarded–it probably should. Almost every company says it wants people to ‘challenge the system,’ ‘be empowered to express their opinion,’ and ‘say what they really think,’ but there sure are a lot of companies that are stuck on sucking up.

“Not only do companies say they abhor such comically servile behavior, but so do individual leaders. Almost all the leaders I have met say that they would never encourage such a thing in their organizations.”

In my book Puttin’ Cologne on the Rickshaw, I devote an entire chapter to the widespread problem of sycophancy in the ranks of management. I make the case that sycophantic behavior has been around since the middle ages, and despite the stated abhorrence of the behavior, most management teams are nothing but a legion of sycophants that fawn over whoever is in the top management position. The fact is that, despite the voiced position to the contrary by management, sycophants play an important role to any organization’s management team. I’ll explain later.

First however, let’s understand exactly what constitutes a sycophant. According to Webster’s New World Dictionary a sycophant is “a person who seeks favor by flattering people of wealth or influence.” Personally I like Ambrose Bierce’s definition; “one who approaches greatness on his belly so that he may not be commanded to turn and be kicked.”

Sycophancy has been alive and well for as long as there has been people competing for power and prestige. Baldassare Castiglione’s The Book of the Courtier, published in 1528 was the first attempt to describe the sycophant behavior in detail. Despite being circa 1500s, what’s interesting about this work is that it describes perfectly the ilk that usually surrounds the top levels of management in today’s modern organizations.

What are the characteristics of the sycophant? According to Baldassare, all sycophants (his courtiers) must possess a certain “sprezzatura” or “the ability to hide what one really desires, feels, thinks, means, or intends.” This sounds exactly like the typical devoted sycophant.

Sprezzatura apparently was a vital quality for a courtier to have back in the 1500s and I think the talent is just as applicable today. Baldassare explains that courtiers essentially were sucking-up on a grand scale to try to create the impression that they were competent. These courtiers had probably reached their level of incompetence; thus the purpose of sprezzatura was to make them appear to be competent, in control, and a master of themselves and their domain, despite the reality. Sprezzatura is also described as “being unable to make mistakes or do anything wrong.” Certainly in the mind of a sycophant he can make no mistakes.

Even back in their day, courtiers were reputed as being “insincere suck-ups, prone to drama, overly ambitious and lacking any regard for people.” Add to that the more sinister part of their duties of acting as the Lord’s spies, bringing forward information about the subjects, and you have the model for a modern middle-management sycophant.

I don’t think much has changed since the middle ages when it comes to who hangs out with the top levels of management. In the 1500s the sole duty of the courtier was to make the boss look good and so it is today.

I mentioned earlier that sycophants play an important role to any organization’s management team and the reason for that is that sycophants are allowed to exist solely because of what’s called “The Selfish Herd Theory.”

The Selfish Herd Theory was proposed in 1971 by British evolutionary biologist W. D. Hamilton.  In our context it means “the risk of an individual [the sociopath in top management] being blamed for something is reduced if that person places another individual [the sycophant] between himself and the accuser [or the problem itself].” This is why top management likes having an entourage (the herd) of sycophants; it reduces any risk that their position can be jeopardized. Just like in the wild, where the weakest are pushed to the outside edge of the herd, so that they become expendable when a predator attacks, so do top management types place their sycophants out at the edge of the herd so that when the inevitable problem arises they have a sacrificial lamb that’s expendable. This is plausible deniability in action.

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