Even when it’s seriously over-the-top, sweet talk is difficult to deflect, which is why I’ll do somersaults for an associate who told me she’d spot me anywhere because I have “that Julia Roberts thing going”. Thanks, Babongile – anything more I can do for you?
My friend Marianne tells me that she successfully concludes countless exchanges with – wait for it – call centre operators by indulging in some seriously solicitous and silver-tongued fawning: “Flattery is, after all,” she argues, paraphrasing 18th century English war profiteer, Lord Chandos, “the infantry of negotiation.”
Marianne’s winning approach goes as follows: “Hello, Joseph! (It’s vital to note the applicable name when your call is answered.) I am so pleased that you (accentuate the word “you”) answered my call today. I have a problem with my XYZ but I know that you, Joseph, have the intelligence, authority and ability to sort it out for me quickly. Gosh, I can’t explain how relieved I am to hear your warm and reassuring voice. Joseph, I know this won’t be a problem for you: will you please…”
And the reality is, even the most cynical sods among us can be softened by sycophancy. You just need to know which knobs to twiddle: “Darling, you looked like Valentino Rossi out there today,” works every time for my superbike-barmy husband, while my 16-year-old-son is more susceptible to, “I knew you’d ace that exam”.
It’s like Mae West said, “Flattery will get you everywhere”. It is hardly surprising then, that a new study by the Kellogg School of Management says that corporate success and board appointments depend on how skilled you are at the art of sucking up.
Moreover, the study identifies seven different modes of obsequiousness that increase business prospects at executive level. It also reveals that there is no place for good old fashioned, in-your-face butt kissing in the land of the upper managers. It’s no longer good enough to haul out old gems like, “Are you working out” or “That shirt does wonders for your eyes”. No sir. The ingratiatory behaviour (the word “flattery” no longer suffices to describe this sophisticated conduct) of the 21st century executive is more complicated than the BBBEE codes and sneakier than a floor-crossing politician.
Here, according to the study, are the seven most effective forms of ingratiation for movers, shakers and snake-eyed fakers of today’s business world:
Coming in at number one is “framing flattery as advice seeking”. For example, “How were you able to negotiate such a great deal?” Then there’s the fine art of arguing prior to conforming, as in, “Initially, I couldn’t understand your point but it makes total sense now. You’ve convinced me.” And, if that is not enough, the flatterer should compliment the flatteree among people he knows will repeat his words to the victim.
In fourth place on the smooth talking scoreboard is the tactic of framing flattery like something that might embarrass your prey, without actually doing so. For example, “I don’t want to embarrass you, but your presentation was among the best I’ve seen.”
The next popular form of ingratiation, says the study, is to express values or morals you know are the same as the person you want to flatter. In this case, you’d say something like, “I am with you. I believe we should increase the minimum wage”.
The sixth killer ploy of office obsequiousness is to covertly learn your victim’s opinion from his or her contacts and then conform to them in subsequent conversations. Kellogg’s final top tactic involves referencing social affiliations (political, sporting, religious or the like) that you have in common with your prey, prior to flattery or opinion conformity.
And, say the researchers, “the more sophisticated the approach, the more effective the outcome”, which just goes to show, it’s not who you know, but how you nose them.
(First published in Business Day in 2010.)