By Marshall Goldsmith
I have reviewed more than 100 custom-designed leadership profiles for major corporations. These documents typically feature boilerplate language that describes the leadership behaviors companies desire. Such chestnuts include “communicates a clear vision,” “helps people develop to their maximum potential,” “strives to see the value of differing opinions,” and “avoids playing favorites.”
One item I have never read is “effectively fawns over executive management.” While almost every company says it wants people to “challenge the system,” “be empowered to express your opinion,” and “say what you really think,” there sure are a lot of high performers who are stuck on sucking up.
Not only do companies say they abhor such comically servile behavior but so do individual leaders. Almost all of the leaders I have met say that they would never encourage such a thing in their organizations. I have no doubt that they are sincere. Most of us are easily irritated—if not disgusted—by derriere kissers. Which raises a question: If leaders say they discourage sucking up, why does it happen so often? Here’s a straightforward answer: Without meaning to, we all tend to create an environment where people learn to reward others with accolades that aren’t really warranted. We can see this very clearly in other people. We just can’t see it in ourselves.
So now you may be thinking, “This guy Goldsmith is right. It’s amazing how leaders send out subtle signals that encourage subordinates to mute their criticisms and exaggerate their praise of the powers that be. And it’s surprising how they can’t see themselves doing it. Of course, Goldsmith isn’t talking about me. I don’t do this in my company.” And maybe you’re right. But how can you be so sure that you’re not in denial?
I use an irrefutable test with my clients to show how we unknowingly encourage sucking up. I ask a group of leaders the following question: “How many of you own a dog that you love?” Big smiles cross these executives’ faces as they wave their hands in the air. They beam as they tell me the names of their always-faithful mutts. Then we have a contest. I ask them, “At home, who gets most of your unabashed affection?” The multiple choices: one, your husband, wife, or partner; two, your kids; or three, your dog. More than 80% of the time, the winner is the dog.
I then ask them if they love their dogs more than the members of their families. The answer is always a resounding no. My follow-up: “So why does the dog get most of your attention?” They reply with answers that all sound about the same. “The dog is always happy to see me.” “The dog never talks back.” “The dog gives me unconditional love, no matter what I do.” In other words, the dog is a suck-up.
I can’t say that I am any better. I have two dogs at home. I travel all the time, and the dogs go absolutely nuts when I return from a trip. I pull into the driveway, and my first inclination is to open the front door, go straight to the dogs, and exclaim, “Daddy’s home!” Invariably, the dogs jump up and down, and I give them a hug. One day, my daughter, Kelly, was home from college. She watched my typical love fest with the dogs. She then looked at me, held her hands in the air like little paws, and barked, “Woof woof.”
If we aren’t careful, we can treat people at work like dogs: by rewarding those who heap unthinking, unconditional admiration upon us. What behavior do we get in return? A virulent case of the suck-ups.
Here’s how leaders can stop encouraging this behavior. Begin by admitting that we all have a tendency to favor those who favor us, even if we don’t mean to. We should then rank our direct reports in three areas. First, how much do they like me? (I know you aren’t sure. What matters is how much they act as if they like you.) Second, what is their contribution to our company and our customers? Third, how much positive, personal recognition do I give them? In many cases, if we are honest with ourselves, how much recognition we give someone is more often highly correlated with how much they seem to like us than it is with how well they perform. If that is the case, we may be encouraging the kind of behavior that we despise in others. Without meaning to, we are basking in hollow praise, which makes us hollow leaders.
Marshall Goldsmith (marshall@A4SL.com) is corporate America’s preeminent executive coach and founding director of the Alliance for Strategic Leadership.
A version of this article appeared in the December 2003 issue of Fast Company magazine.