A Guide to Dysfunctional Management and the Evil Workplace
December 2nd, 2014 by William

Synchronized Sycophantic Symphony of Mutual Appreciation

They’ve been called boot lickers, ass kissers, brown nosers, apple polishers, and suck ups. All these terms are synonymous with one another. Whatever you call them, they’re probably some of the most irritating and potentially destructive people in your organization. Is your workplace overrun with them? They do have an uncanny habit of showing up anywhere and at all levels of an organization. Ever wonder what makes them tick?

We’ve all had exposure to this type behavior starting at an early point in our lives. We’ve all heard the term “teacher’s pet” probably as far back as grade school. No wonder ass kissing is common in today’s work environment–our earliest school environment has taught us right from the start that there’s a potential benefit from brownnosing.

The definition of brownnose is “to try to get the approval of an important or powerful person by praise or flattery.” The term is derived “from the implication that servility is tantamount to having one’s nose in the anus of the person from whom advancement is sought.” Thus, the brownnoser is the person who says flattering things about another, with the intent of receiving something favorable in return. In technical terms people who behave this way are called “sycophants.”

Just like all the slang terms, a sycophant is defined as a person who acts obsequiously toward someone important in order to gain advantage, or a servile self-seeking flatterer. The term sycophant has its roots in the legal system of ancient Greece. Way back 2,500 years ago the term originated to describe people who abuse the legal system with frivolous claims. Such a litigant was called a “sycophant.” The word retains the meaning of “an informer” in Modern Greek; but in modern English, the meaning of the word has shifted to that of an “insincere flatterer.”

There’s a popular misconception that ass kisses are doing it to hide their laziness. Yes, lazy coworkers are annoying, but generally they are harmless. They’re harmless from the perspective that they won’t usually do things to torpedo your career, as will many of the myriad sociopathic personalities you’ll run across in the average workplace. I would make the case that fact ass kissing is a tough job and takes a lot of energy and concentration, least it be done at an inopportune time and do more damage than good. Ass kissing is a very strategic undertaking that requires tactical planning as well as a little luck in that the target of the ass kissing (the actual ass–pun intended) is receptive. Sociopaths are the perfect personality on which to target an aggressive ass kissing regimen. Their narcissistic tendencies make them receptive to all praise regardless of how blatant or foolish it might appear to a casual observer.

Most of us look down upon ass kissers or brownnosers, but we need to remember there are actually two kinds of ass kisser. Those who do it to survive and those who do it aggressively expecting some benefit in return, be it promotion or a pay raise. For those who have been reduced to having to do it to survive, they’re undoubtedly working for a sociopath. They brownnose their narcissistic boss with the sole intent of attempting to divert the bosses focus to others in the organization. When you work for a sociopath your odds of falling from grace is very high–it’s not a matter of if, but of when–so you naturally begin to believe you can stay the executioner by sucking up. These are the folks that should be pitied, not scorned, because they are living a miserable existence. To have to ass kiss to stay employed is not a fun place to be from a career development perspective–let alone a happiness perspective. I’ve been there, I know.

Many may think that ass kissers do it because they lack social skills. In fact the opposite is really the case–they are quite adept socially. They are also shrewd in that they are smart enough to see the hand writing on the wall and realize that hard work alone is not going to elevate their careers like well-placed ass kissing will do. In other words they possess an amazing grasp for the obvious.

From a psychological stand point, Daniel D. Martin and Janelle L. Wilson tell us in their 2012 article, “Apple-Polishers, Ass-Kissers and Suck-Ups: Towards a Sociology of Ingratiation” that ass kissing is a form of “ingratiation.” They define this as “a set of assertive tactics which have the purpose of gaining the approbation of the audience that controls significant rewards for the actor” It’s interesting that they use the term “tactics” to help describe this behavior. As I mentioned above ass kissing requires a tactical plan if the ass kisser wishes to achieve his/her objective. Ingratiation is a psychological technique in which an individual attempts to become more attractive or likeable to their target. This term was coined by social psychologist Edward E. Jones.

In their 1984 article, “Impression Management and Influence in the Organization,” researchers J. T. Tedeschi and V. Melburg identified four basic ingratiation strategies. They include: (a) the use of statements in front of the boss that are self-enhancing; (b) complimenting or flattering one’s supervisor; (c) making statements indicating similarity in belief or attitude with one’s manager; and (d) doing favors for the boss.

Notice they all are based on the perspective of someone kissing up to someone higher up the organization. While some forms of ingratiation such as joking or bullshitting can be done across status lines (laterally across the organization chart) true ass kissing only flows “up” the organizational structure–never down.

Further, Tedeschi and Melburg tell us, “As an organizational resource, ingratiation is used as a strategy by lower-organizational participants to either enlist the support of those in power or to appease them [i.e., do it to survive]. Research on organizational culture has observed the ways in which this culture exists as an elaborate system of control, rife with micro-politics, claims for allegiance, and moral mazes. More than an individual worker’s idiosyncrasy, this suggests that patterns of ingratiation found in the workplace reflect its structural arrangements.” In other words the practice becomes deeply entrenched in the organization’s culture and becomes a common behavior. In this way ass kissing becomes yet another component of organizational dysfunction.

In his 2012 book, The Self Illusion, Bruce Hood calls the proliferation of ingratiating, sycophantic, ass kissing behavior the “chameleon effect.” He looks at the sycophant phenomenon from the perspective that people undertake ass kissing because they “change their behavior to match others around them.” That’s where the term “monkey see, monkey do” came from. Hood notes that we only mimic those we like and in turn they mimic us in what he called a “synchronized sycophantic symphony of mutual appreciation.” The chameleon effect explains mob mentality, where the power of the group or peer pressure shapes our behavior, and our desire to be accepted.

The chameleon effect is intriguing because if a person does good deeds then they inspire others to do good deeds but, if an organization is founded on patronizing sycophancy then dysfunction will rule. In other words functional (based on do-gooders), or dysfunctional (based on having to kiss ass), organizational behavior can and will spread geometrically due to the chameleon effect.

Do you find yourself caught up in that synchronized sycophantic symphony of mutual appreciation? It may do you well to do some soul searching before you frown on those around you that are ass kissing. The fact is you’re probably doing it yourself all the while thinking that it’s somehow different when you do it and thus acceptable–you’re probably thinking that you’re actually better at it than your peers. If you must be a chameleon take the high road and mimic those that refrain from kissing ass. If you’re in the type of organization where you need to do it to survive then you’re really in the wrong organization. Find a new job if for no other reason than your self-esteem.

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