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Give 'Em Lip Service

Vivia Chen

November 19, 2010

Fotolia_1295909_XS It's kind of icky, but I know--as you know--that kissing up works. Only the very naive think that talent and hard work propel people to the top of the heap. Look around you: Are those partners sitting in those big offices or the senior execs in your company really the brightest lights in the neighborhood?

The answer is obvious, but everyone needs reminding about the efficacy of brown-nosing. The legal profession, with its obsession with grades and unreadable law review articles, loves spewing that "cream naturally rises to the top" nonsense. Don't believe it.

Yes, sucking up builds careers, especially if you're just passably smart, as most of us are. But the big question is how to do it well.

Thanks to two business school professors--Ithai Stern of Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management and James Westphal of the University of Michigan--we now have some guidance. For the last few years, they've been studying how executives gained coveted seats on corporate boards. And guess what: Brown-nosing got them there! (Their 2008 study, which surveyed 350 companies and over 1,000 managers, concluded "that ingratiating behavior was the strongest single predictive factor for obtaining board appointments.")

The Kellogg School came out with a synopsis ("Corporate Sweet Talk") of Stern and Westphal's latest findings on the subject, which include pointers for effective brown-nosing:

1. Pretend you're seeking advice. Example: “How were you able to close that deal so successfully?”  Mentoring is very in--so let that incoherent partner think that he can actually teach you something.

2. Argue a bit with the kissee about his opinion or approach. Do not agree immediately. But, needless to say, ultimately agree. Remember, lawyers love a good argument--especially if they think they've won.

3. Tell the kissee's friends or family how much you adore/admire her. Just pray that word ultimately gets back to the kissee--otherwise, you've wasted a lot of time.

4. Flatter the kissee by pretending that you're actually a reluctant flatterer. Example: “I don’t want to embarrass you, but your presentation was really top-notch. Better than most I’ve seen.”

5. Agree with the kissee’s values before agreeing with her opinions. The goal is to convey how you both share the same big picture--that vision thing.

6. Tell people in the kissee’s social network that you really share those values. Again, you are counting on word getting back to the kissee that you are kindred spirits.

7. Finally, hint that you are part of the same circle, such as a religious organization or political party.

Interestingly, the research puts lawyers in the league of sophisticated brown-nosers, like politicians and salespeople. These professions, Stern says, "routinely take part in flattery and opinion conformity to complete their jobs, similar to those operating in an upper-class social environment. Ingratiatory behavior is a form of interpersonal communication that is acceptable and expected in both arenas.”

The lessons aren't complicated: As a junior lawyer who needs to advance to the next level, focus on kissing up to the people immediately above you. But to get ahead in the long haul, you'll need to kiss up well beyond your circle; so get a head start and start brown-nosing clients and management committee members now. Do it early and do it often.

Pucker up now.


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Do you have topics you'd like to discuss or tips to share? E-mail The Careerist's chief blogger, Vivia Chen, at VChen@alm.com.

Photo: Steve Lovegrove / Fotolia.com


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This is an interesting angle. I have never taken well to being on either side of the kissing, as it relates to this article. LOL.
Instead, what I have noticed is that if someone in a position of power trusts you, it's not for sharing values, but for valuing them as being smart and treating them as intelligent people (this includes disagreeing with them, and talking to them as intelligent and real people), is makes you the valued and trusted employee.
I recognize, though, that I am not in the lead in-house position. But I have been the one who takes the boss to the airport, in his car, and makes personal contacts with his personal friends and acquaintances. And I have been privy to the more annoying confidences that are sometimes repugnant (but that are usually there for a reason, often to be truthful and helpful). I feel that the love and confidence of people in power is a hard-won seat that takes months or years of standing solidly against other people's brash attempts at kissing up, and sometimes it places you at odds. In which seat of power would you rather be? In the one that is prone to superficial money-grabs, or the one that is genuine and trustworthy? It's not as if powerful people are no longer intelligent or insightful, and while they may select the brash approach for its sheer audacity and guts, they may also select the steady one who will take the bullet on occassion.

Do men wear lipstick too?

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The Careerist takes an inside look at how lawyers shape their careers and manage their lives. The blog aims to dissect developments in the profession, provide useful information and advice, and give lawyers a platform to voice their views. The goal is to provide a fresh, provocative take on the state of lawyering.

About Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen, The Careerist's chief blogger, has been covering the business and culture of law firms for a decade. A former corporate lawyer, Chen is fascinated by those who thrive (as well as those who don't) in the legal profession. Her take: Success in the law (and life) doesn't always travel a linear path. If you have topics you'd like to discuss or information to share, contact her: VChen@alm.com

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