I was initially appalled when I watched the recent cringeworthy video of Donald Trump’s cabinet meeting, where hugely powerful and successful men and women competed to see who could offer the highest (or lowest, depending on your point of view) form of flattery for their boss.
That was my personal reaction, but my professional reaction was totally different. As distasteful as it may have appeared, it was actually a brilliant display of persuasive communication skill. Think about it this way: if your goal is to advance the interests of the department you head, you need the support of the President. If you’re the only one in the room not competing to outdo the others in compliments, what do you suppose are your chances? (And don’t forget that each of these people is quite accustomed to being on the receiving end of flattery from their subordinates—they know it works.)
Trump’s apparent craving for flattery is probably extreme, but research has shown that flattery works with just about everyone. Stanford professor Jeffery Pfeffer says that “The surest way to keep your position and to build a power base is to help those with more power enhance their positive feelings about themselves.” Jennifer Chatman of UC Berkeley says, “People who bring positive information, that stroke the boss, that make the boss feel good about the decisions he or she has made, that build up the boss’ confidence, those people are going to do better.”
The reason it works is that a person hearing something nice about themselves can either a) believe that the other person is only saying it to curry favor, or b) believe it’s true. The problem with accepting A is that it requires you to think less well not only of the person saying it, but of yourself. Through the magic of motivated reasoning you are much more likely to choose B. And besides, as this recent article indicates, the really powerful may actually be incapable of reading your true intentions (not that you would tell them)!
It also works because it makes the recipient like you better. Robert Cialdini cites a study in which men received comments about themselves (some only praise, some negative comments, and others a mixture) from a person who needed a favor. Those who received only praise reported liking the commenter better, even when they knew they needed a favor and the praise was untrue.
That last statement shows that there’s not much risk of a backlash if your flattery is over the top. In her research, Chatman looked for the point at which flattery becomes less effective, and was not able to find it. Flattery is that powerful, which is why Machiavelli explicitly warned leaders against its power over five hundred years ago.
Flattery isn’t just for managing upward within your organization. It can be useful in sales calls or presentations, especially to get the audience more favorably disposed to your message right at the beginning. Keep in mind that a sales pitch can be ego-threatening to the buyer, because in effect you’re telling them that they’re doing something wrong and they need to change. Soften the blow by stroking their ego at the beginning, to get them more favorably disposed toward your idea and to you personally.
So, go ahead and be a suck-up. If you read this article, you are clearly too smart to let flattery work on you, but you are also too smart to pass up the use of this extremely powerful tool, even if you find it distasteful. But just in case, my next post will address how to do it without being a complete suck-up.
 Jeffrey Pfeffer, Power: Why Some People Have It and Others Don’t, p. 31.
 Robert, Cialdini, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, p. 176.
“When I left the dining room after sitting next to Mr. Gladstone, I thought he was the cleverest man in England. But after sitting next to Mr. Disraeli, I thought I was the cleverest woman in England.”
If someone asked about the impression you made on them, would they describe you as a Gladstone or a Disraeli? We all know people like Gladstone who strive to be perceived as the smartest or most important person in the room. If that’s what you care about, stop reading now. But if you care more about getting things done through others, you should instead strive to make them feel ten feet tall.
I submit that this is especially important in today’s flatter organizations that proclaim that hierarchies are dead, that ideas are judged on their merits regardless of who brings them up. Especially when markers of status are less overt, we pay close—albeit unspoken—attention to subtle signals of our relative ranking. It’s hard-wired into our brains through millennia as social animals, and no amount of corporate feel-good fables will erase it. So, one of the best ways to grow your personal influence, paradoxically, is to give it up when communicating with others.
William James said, “the deepest principle in human nature is the craving to be appreciated.” We all crave the comfortable glow of being respected and appreciated by others; when we get it, we feel good. So why not try to make others feel important? It costs us very little and means so much to them. Besides the fact that it’s the right thing to do, it makes practical sense to make others feel good about themselves when talking to us. Feeling good makes people more open-minded, more willing to listen and consider new ideas, and of course when people like us, they are much more likely to be persuaded.
The flip side of that argument, of course, is that when they feel put down, underappreciated or in a “one-down” position, they are less likely to go along. Even worse, the negative feeling can be far stronger than the corresponding positive. As in so many aspects of human nature, bad is stronger than good, and the threat to one’s self-importance is felt more intensely than the reward. According to David Rock, “the threat response is often triggered in social situations, and it tends to be more intense and longer-lasting than the reward response.” In fact, studies using functional MRIs have shown that the feeling of being excluded activates the same response in the brain as physical pain. And, when people feel threatened, their attention narrows and they are less open to new ideas. It can also feel very unfair, and people are quick to punish those they perceive as acting unfairly, even at a cost to themselves. , and Finally, if they associate you with pain, how likely are you to influence them?
Of course, most of us don’t go out of our way to alienate others, but we may do so inadvertently through inattention. And even when we don’t mess up, we may not take full advantage of ways to make the other person feel good about themselves. So it’s critical that you do everything you can to a) prevent negative feelings and b) foster positive feelings.
Prevent the bad – Don’t diminish their importance
Don’t ignore them. While this may sound obvious, it’s easy to make people feel ignored. How many times have you checked your phone while talking to someone? When meeting someone at a function, do you scan the room to see if there is someone more important to talk to? When giving a sales presentation, do you focus all your attention on the decision maker and overlook others in the room who may influence the final decision?
Don’t cross the line from confidence to cockiness, or assertiveness to aggression. This is especially important when making a first impression, because people tend to notice warmth before competence, in as little as a tenth of a sentence.
Be careful about giving advice. You may think that useful advice is a gift to the other person, but keep in mind that they “pay” for the gift by granting you superior status; in other words, at that moment, they have to at least symbolically put you in a dominant position.
Foster positive feelings – Put them on a pedestal
Get to know them before you meet them. Show that you consider them important enough to prepare for.
Be present. Especially in this distracted age, full attention is the highest compliment you can pay anyone. The great thing about being present is that it’s a gift that gives back: it makes them feel important and they see you as more charismatic, according Olivia Fox Cabane in her book, The Charisma Myth.
Let others talk, and listen actively: face them squarely, don’t interrupt, encourage them to talk, and respond appropriately.
Be more interested than interesting. I got this phrase from Mark Goulston’s excellent book, Just Listen. His advice is to treat a conversation not as a tennis match in which you want to return serve with a stronger point of your own, but as a detective game in which you earn points by learning as much as you can about the other person. Follow the 51+ rule: meet them more than halfway; be curious about them…
Make them feel like an expert. Everyone knows more than you about something; find out what it is and ask them about that. Solicit their advice, and pay attention to what they say. Even when challenging their thinking by delivering new information, you can say something like, “You’re the expert in your business; how would you see this idea applying to your operations?”
One last thought: I am not advocating servile sycophancy that insincerely tells the other person only what they want to hear. The crucial point is that you must genuinely strive to find in others that which sets them apart and makes them distinctive—otherwise it can backfire on you. But when it works, it’s like a magic see-saw that elevates both sides at once.
 Most people tend to have an intuitive sense of this, as illustrated in research by Alison Fragale, which found that emails to peers used more deferential language than even emails to superiors.
 See Compelling People, by John Neffinger and Matthew Kohutt, p. 12.
One of the tenets of lean is constant and continuous improvement, and in that spirit I have modified my model slightly, thanks to a new Harvard Business Review article by Nick Toman and Brent Adamson, The New Sales Imperative.
As I’ve written before, your purpose—in fact, the only reason salespeople are relevant—is to help your customers make effective buying decisions. Complex decisions can’t be made without investing time and effort to gather, understand, analyze and apply a lot of information, but salespeople often make it much harder than it should be. To that end, the goal of Lean Communication for Sales is to improve your buyers’ RoTE, or Return on Time and Effort. In lean terms, you provide useful information that helps improve their outcomes, and express it concisely and clearly.
To a great extent, their article reinforces what I’ve been saying about the importance of making it easier for people to decide. As their research shows, making buying easier results in a 62% increase in the likelihood of winning a high-quality sale.
But as new research that Toman and Adamson adduce shows, there is another hidden form of waste that needs to be removed from the buying journey: uncertainty. Their research shows that customers are “deeply uncertain and stressed”, and second-guess their decisions more than 40% of the time! This uncertainty can be paralyzing, and paradoxically it’s the good intentions of the salesperson that exacerbates it. That’s because they try to be responsive and attack uncertainty with even more information. But unfortunately, beyond a certain point, more information and more choice actually increases uncertainty, as you can see in the figure above.
This is a useful reminder, but most of us already have at least an inkling of this. The real difficulty is figuring out where the bottom of that curve is so that you can get uncertainty as low as possible but then stop. That’s where their article is particularly helpful. They lay out a four-step approach for being less responsive and more prescriptive. Out of deference to them and to HBR, I’m not going to try to summarize their ideas here—I encourage you to read it here.
What I am going to do, however, is spend some serious time thinking about how to incorporate the idea of reducing uncertainty into Lean Communication for Sales. As a start, I’m changing the goal of improving RoTE to RoUTE!
Let’s start today with a quick test:
- Which well-known company listed its values as,
“Integrity, Communication, Respect, Excellence”?
- Which well-known company said,
“Earning lifelong relationships, one customer at a time, is fundamental to achieving our vision.”
If you answered “Enron” for question 1 and “Wells Fargo” for question 2, go buy yourself a cigar.
Enron had its four values prominently displayed in the lobby of their headquarters building, right up to the day that they were shut down for massive fraud. Wells Fargo apparently thought that lifelong customer relationships were best pursued by striving to cross-sell eight accounts to every customer, even if the only way that most employees were able to achieve their sales targets was to act like “lions hunting zebras” and open accounts without authorization or to sell unneeded products, preying especially on those who were least in a positon to do anything about it.
Enron and Wells Fargo are extreme examples of the mismatch between stated values and actual behavior. I see examples of mismatches on a much smaller scale everywhere I go, and I’m sure you do too. But the problem with even small scale transgressions is that if left unchecked they can insidiously erode positive values drip by drip until one day you wake up to find that the actual culture bears little relation to the stated one.
Hypocrisy can either be intentional or unintentional. I believe that in the case of Enron it was intentional and systemic, because the people at the top were leading the charge and were immersed in fraud and criminal behavior up to their necks. If you’re one of those people, there’s not much I can say other than I hope you get caught sooner rather than later.
In the case of Wells Fargo, no one has proven that CEO John Stumpf was knowingly in on a conspiracy, and I am going to proceed from the assumption that he was not. Yet he did allow the conditions to exist that led to wrong behavior, even if he did not mean to. And that’s the important point of this post: vision and values are fragile and require constant cultivation and care if they are to take solid root and bear fruit. More importantly, it’s easy to kill the plant, so the first rule is “don’t do stupid stuff.”
Stupid stuff that erodes well-meaning vision and values includes:
Communicate, communicate, communicate
By all means, post your vision and values prominently in your lobby. When I work with a company, of course I research them and one of the first things I look for is to understand their stated vision and values—yet I’m constantly surprised when I find that many of the employees I work with can’t even tell me their own company’s vision statement, or give me quizzical looks when I mention one of their values!
But don’t stop there. Constantly be on the lookout for examples and share stories that reinforce the message. Publicly praise and reward employees who exemplify the values you cherish. Just as importantly, remember Voltaire’s quip: “It’s a good thing to shoot an admiral now and then to encourage the others.” When you announce a major decision or change, explain it in terms of your values.
Most importantly, model the values yourself. Employees pay far more attention to what you do than what you say. It’s like a parent telling kids to stay away from drugs, when they down three or four drinks every night at home.
Pay close attention to the goals you set
Continuing the theme of communication, what is the most powerful message medium a company can have? It’s the one corporate document that every employee reads: their paycheck. If you’re told to act a certain way but rewarded for acting in a different way, something has to give, and it probably won’t be the one that makes you money or keeps you employed.
In Wells Fargo’s case, their unrealistic goals and excessive pressure on results sent a far more powerful message than their stated values. For example, one of their values was:
“Our team members are our most important constituents because they’re the single most important influence on our customers.”
That’s a beautifully expressed and on-target sentiment, but what was the reality? According to the lawsuit filed by the City of Los Angeles in 2016: “Managers constantly hound, berate, demean and threaten employees who fail to meet these unreachable quotas.” That’s because the bank was targeting an astounding cross-selling target of eight accounts per customer. As their 2010 annual report said, “Eight rhymes with great.” Here’s a hint, if your goals rhyme, you may want to take a closer look at them.
As Emerson said, “What you do speaks so loudly that I can’t hear what you say”. What are you saying by your actions?
 Admiral John Byng of the Royal Navy was shot in 1757 after being court-martialed for “failing to do his utmost” in a naval battle.