If flattery can get a millionaire man to completely change his mind about who he funds for president, what can it do to women in the workplace?
I literally stopped in my tracks. I was out for my morning walk listening to one of my favorite podcasts, This American Life. The episode was called Get Your Money’s Worth and part of it was dedicated to the story of Doug Deason, a Dallas millionaire and his father Darwin Deason, a billionaire. It was about their search for a Republican candidate to support for President of the United States.
The Deasons had budgeted 2 million dollars for this election cycle. After a thorough vetting process where they met with each candidate, they first endorsed Rick Perry and then Ted Cruz. They had such dislike for Donald Trump that the thought of vetting him didn’t cross their minds.
But when faced with the reality that Donald Trump would become the Republican nominee, Doug and his dad set up a meeting with him. Doug prepared a list of questions for Trump (similar to the ones he’d been asking all the other candidates before he decided who to support.) Only that, when he met with Trump, he didn’t get a chance to ask much. Why? Because Trump used flattery to win over him and his dad. Just like that. With plain, old flattery.
This is part of the transcript of Doug’s comment to Zoe Chace, the podcast’s producer and reporter right after the Deasons met Trump: “…he kept complimenting Dad on me, (…), ‘I know how great it is to be able to turn something over to your kids, and let them run it, and let them do it.’ Which, obviously, is what I do. So it was nice to be complimented, right?”
They walked out of that meeting believing that Donald Trump was nice. That he had their same mindset. He thought like a businessman. Forget all the reasons for which the Deasons had decided to never even vet him. A brief meeting peppered with the right flattery, complimenting a dad on his son, was enough to shift the destination of millions of dollars. Because money begets money. And when a couple of billionaires bet on one candidate, many others tend to follow. Which is exactly what happened.
The story stopped me in my tracks because I had a long-held belief that men were less susceptible to flattery than women. But they are not. And in fact, an amazing study of 451 CEOs (which we know are mostly men) showed that high levels of flattery lead to opinion conformity. Which means that CEOs “become over-confident in their strategic decisions and in their ability to correct performance problems with the current strategy.”
The study revealed that CEOs subject to flattery were more likely to believe they were better leaders. But this was not confirmed by the firm’s performance data. The authors of the study said that firms with flattered CEOs were less likely to change strategy when performance dropped.
What’s most disturbing is that studies have shown that even when you consciously know that the flattery is BS (as most CEOs surely do,) the subconscious impact remains.
So, if this can happen to a CEO, someone who is trained and experience in the art of identifying BS, where does it leave you?
It’s time to ask yourself if flattery is interfering with your goals.
Most people seem predisposed to flatter little girls. “You look so cute!” “What a pretty dress!” “I love your hair!” As of late, we’ve been hearing more and more about the effects of praising girl’s appearance and boy’s achievements or behavior. But the truth is that we all grew up appreciating flattery and putting a lot of weight and value on it.
As a matter of fact, we are now in a constant state of pursuing flattery. Think about how you feel when you post a picture on social media and receive only a few likes. Your ego takes a nosedive, doesn’t it? Well, it maybe time to stop with the selfies for a minute and reflect on how seeking and receiving flattery might be getting in the way of what you really want. Primarily at work.
Here are some comments from clients and colleagues (who will remain anonymous) to help me make this point.
“My boss told me he couldn’t have finished the project without me.”
“My supervisor was incredibly impressed with how well I manage the company’s external relationships. Everybody knows me when I walk in the room and she finally saw that. She told me, ‘I now realize how hard you’ve worked for the organization all these years.’”
“I rolled out the Business Resource Groups in our organization two years ago and they are showing very positive results. So my boss told me I had a powerful vision and an uncanny ability to execute. Then she asked me to replicate the same model in Latin America. And this is not even my main role.”
What happened when promotion time came around? Did these women, who had received the most flattering comments from their supervisors, get their due? You guessed it. Nope. They were asked to do more for the same pay. Yet they didn’t even think to ask for more. The usual answer when I ask why, is: “Oh, I’m happy to do it.” Or “I love what I do and money is not all that matters.”
This begs the question: Are women so satisfied with being flattered that they are willing to forgo money they deserve? Is getting a great compliment enough?
Remember: Knowing that someone is using flattery to get something from you (even when the ulterior motives are evident,) doesn’t protect you against its effect. So next time your supervisors flatter you for going above and beyond your job description, take the compliment. Enjoy it. Use it as an ego boost. And then write down exactly how you want to leverage your contribution, and the fact that it is being recognized as such, in the next salary negotiation. Or to get that stretch assignment you’ve been pining for.