The consequences of sucking up to the boss


Office suck-ups are more at risk of succumbing to other bad workplace behaviours, but they can make their managers look good, according to research.

Those who are inclined to kiss up to their boss usually have one thing in mind when doing so: personal gain. Most people are aware of this. But it turns out they might be shooting themselves in the foot, in more ways than one.

Research suggests that ‘ingratiators’ risk isolating themselves from others in the workplace, even as their efforts are usually met with a positive response from their supervisor and, in turn, they end up making their supervisor look better to others.

Seems like a win for the supervisor, right?

Well it turns out other research suggests that in the process of sucking up to the boss ingratiators also place themselves at risk of  poor workplace behaviour – such as slacking off, or being uncivil to colleagues. It’s this less obvious harm that could do more career and organisational damage in the long run.

The impressions that we get

“When we see a coworker kissing up to a supervisor, we tend to dislike that colleague and view him or her less favorably,” says Academy of Management scholar, Trevor Foulk in an article for The Conversation.

Foulk co-authored a paper on impression management (IM) and ingratiation in the workplace – published in the Journal of Applied Psychology – which suggests that while integrators tend to elicit a collective eye roll from their co-workers, the external opinion of the ingratiated person (usually a manager) is improved.

Despite the fact that observers of the sucking up were likely to know the behaviour wasn’t 100 per cent genuine (do you really think the boss’s joke was funny or are you just trying to impress them?), Foulk found that when newcomers join an organisation and witness someone kissing up to their mutual supervisor, the newcomer’s positive impression of the boss is increased.

“Newcomers, who know very little about the supervisor, are motivated to learn about the boss any way they can. And thus they are more likely to disregard the aspects of ingratiation that suggest that it’s fake and interpret it as being a positive signal about the boss,” says Foulk.

Interestingly, they tested this theory on those in contract roles – people who wouldn’t need to impress their supervisor as much, as they’d likely move on from the organisation quickly. They found that when these participants witnessed someone kissing up to their supervisor, it had no effect on their impression of the supervisor.

In a separate study conducted by Foulk, he was able to take his findings a step further by analysing the supervisor’s role in the outcome of impression management. He found that when a supervisor responded positively to the ingratiation – maybe they praised the intraitiator in front of others or signalled they enjoyed working with them – this further solidified the positive feelings others had towards the supervisor.

This means any negative impressions of the ingratiation are “overridden by the supervisor’s own genuinely positive behaviors,” says Foulk.

“This suggests that newcomers prefer direct information from the supervisor when forming opinions about the supervisor, but in the absence of this information they will use observed ingratiation as a substitute for direct information.”

The personal cost and “workplace deviance”

As an ingratiator, you might think it’s worth being disliked from your co-workers in order to reap the benefits – better shifts, involvement in specific projects, promotion opportunities etc. But other research suggests that being a social outcast in the office isn’t the only potential downfall that can come from kissing up.

In a research paper titled, Good actors but bad apples: Deviant consequences of daily impression management at work, researchers Anthony Klotz, Wei He, Kai Chi Yam, Mark Bolino, Wu Wei and Lawrence Houston found that individuals’ self-control levels can decrease when they suck up to their manager too much. It makes it more likely that their other behaviour in the workplace will falter.

The researchers note there are plenty of benefits to come from IM – to some degree, we all care about, and want to frame, how other people think of us – but issues arise when too much energy is spent trying to ingratiate yourself to the boss. As Klotz told Science Daily, “Ingratiation is depleting, because successfully kissing up requires the appearance of sincerity and that requires self-control.”

The researchers followed the behaviours of 75 mid-level managers in China over a two week period. They were looking at how these participants utilized two different forms of IM: ingratiation and self-promotion – that is, using forms of flattery versus boasting about your own success.

Participants were asked to keep diary entries and complete surveys each day that were designed to ascertain their social influence and abilities to understand other people in the workplace. 

Interestingly, they found that those who were seen to be ingratiating themselves more than others were more likely to “engage in workplace deviance”. 

“There’s a personal cost to ingratiating yourself with your boss. When your energy is depleted, it may nudge you into slack-off territory,” Klotz says.

Examples of ‘deviant’ behaviours included incivility towards a coworker, skipping a meeting and waning engagement levels (like surfing the internet during work hours). The researchers weren’t able to draw similar links between those who practiced self-promoting behaviours, only ingratiators.

Replenishing your emotional energy

So, while as a manager you’re probably more likely to gel with the person sucking up to you (obviously), and might find the self-promotion type to be cocky, this research suggests that the latter might actually be better for you in the long run.

For individuals who feel the effects of ‘over ingratiation’, the researchers suggest directing disgruntled energy elsewhere – such as talking to a trusted person who is external to the situation or taking a walk to gain some fresh perspective.

“Leaders can [either] respond to their employees’ ingratiation efforts in ways that are resource depleting or in ways that are more resource giving,” says Houston. “Positive reinforcement is resource giving, and it’s free,” adds Klotz.

Basically, it seems the research is confirming that a lot of energy goes into putting on an act. Think about trying to hide workplace stress. If you feel a need to mask your stress levels from your manager for fear of appearing incompetent or simply wanted to impress with your work ethic, you increase your chances of burning out. And when you burn out, your work quality is compromised or you might be more prone to an outburst. That’s essentially what this research is showing.

So if you see ingratiation at work, or feel compelled to behave like an ingratiator, you would do well to keep in mind its surprising symptoms. And remember there’s another great way to earn your superior’s respect: bribery.


Leaders need to understand how to make the most of their teams in order to achieve the desired business results. Ignition Wealth’s in-house course ‘Creating High Performing teams’ will set you up with the skills you need.


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The consequences of sucking up to the boss


Office suck-ups are more at risk of succumbing to other bad workplace behaviours, but they can make their managers look good, according to research.

Those who are inclined to kiss up to their boss usually have one thing in mind when doing so: personal gain. Most people are aware of this. But it turns out they might be shooting themselves in the foot, in more ways than one.

Research suggests that ‘ingratiators’ risk isolating themselves from others in the workplace, even as their efforts are usually met with a positive response from their supervisor and, in turn, they end up making their supervisor look better to others.

Seems like a win for the supervisor, right?

Well it turns out other research suggests that in the process of sucking up to the boss ingratiators also place themselves at risk of  poor workplace behaviour – such as slacking off, or being uncivil to colleagues. It’s this less obvious harm that could do more career and organisational damage in the long run.

The impressions that we get

“When we see a coworker kissing up to a supervisor, we tend to dislike that colleague and view him or her less favorably,” says Academy of Management scholar, Trevor Foulk in an article for The Conversation.

Foulk co-authored a paper on impression management (IM) and ingratiation in the workplace – published in the Journal of Applied Psychology – which suggests that while integrators tend to elicit a collective eye roll from their co-workers, the external opinion of the ingratiated person (usually a manager) is improved.

Despite the fact that observers of the sucking up were likely to know the behaviour wasn’t 100 per cent genuine (do you really think the boss’s joke was funny or are you just trying to impress them?), Foulk found that when newcomers join an organisation and witness someone kissing up to their mutual supervisor, the newcomer’s positive impression of the boss is increased.

“Newcomers, who know very little about the supervisor, are motivated to learn about the boss any way they can. And thus they are more likely to disregard the aspects of ingratiation that suggest that it’s fake and interpret it as being a positive signal about the boss,” says Foulk.

Interestingly, they tested this theory on those in contract roles – people who wouldn’t need to impress their supervisor as much, as they’d likely move on from the organisation quickly. They found that when these participants witnessed someone kissing up to their supervisor, it had no effect on their impression of the supervisor.

In a separate study conducted by Foulk, he was able to take his findings a step further by analysing the supervisor’s role in the outcome of impression management. He found that when a supervisor responded positively to the ingratiation – maybe they praised the intraitiator in front of others or signalled they enjoyed working with them – this further solidified the positive feelings others had towards the supervisor.

This means any negative impressions of the ingratiation are “overridden by the supervisor’s own genuinely positive behaviors,” says Foulk.

“This suggests that newcomers prefer direct information from the supervisor when forming opinions about the supervisor, but in the absence of this information they will use observed ingratiation as a substitute for direct information.”

The personal cost and “workplace deviance”

As an ingratiator, you might think it’s worth being disliked from your co-workers in order to reap the benefits – better shifts, involvement in specific projects, promotion opportunities etc. But other research suggests that being a social outcast in the office isn’t the only potential downfall that can come from kissing up.

In a research paper titled, Good actors but bad apples: Deviant consequences of daily impression management at work, researchers Anthony Klotz, Wei He, Kai Chi Yam, Mark Bolino, Wu Wei and Lawrence Houston found that individuals’ self-control levels can decrease when they suck up to their manager too much. It makes it more likely that their other behaviour in the workplace will falter.

The researchers note there are plenty of benefits to come from IM – to some degree, we all care about, and want to frame, how other people think of us – but issues arise when too much energy is spent trying to ingratiate yourself to the boss. As Klotz told Science Daily, “Ingratiation is depleting, because successfully kissing up requires the appearance of sincerity and that requires self-control.”

The researchers followed the behaviours of 75 mid-level managers in China over a two week period. They were looking at how these participants utilized two different forms of IM: ingratiation and self-promotion – that is, using forms of flattery versus boasting about your own success.

Participants were asked to keep diary entries and complete surveys each day that were designed to ascertain their social influence and abilities to understand other people in the workplace. 

Interestingly, they found that those who were seen to be ingratiating themselves more than others were more likely to “engage in workplace deviance”. 

“There’s a personal cost to ingratiating yourself with your boss. When your energy is depleted, it may nudge you into slack-off territory,” Klotz says.

Examples of ‘deviant’ behaviours included incivility towards a coworker, skipping a meeting and waning engagement levels (like surfing the internet during work hours). The researchers weren’t able to draw similar links between those who practiced self-promoting behaviours, only ingratiators.

Replenishing your emotional energy

So, while as a manager you’re probably more likely to gel with the person sucking up to you (obviously), and might find the self-promotion type to be cocky, this research suggests that the latter might actually be better for you in the long run.

For individuals who feel the effects of ‘over ingratiation’, the researchers suggest directing disgruntled energy elsewhere – such as talking to a trusted person who is external to the situation or taking a walk to gain some fresh perspective.

“Leaders can [either] respond to their employees’ ingratiation efforts in ways that are resource depleting or in ways that are more resource giving,” says Houston. “Positive reinforcement is resource giving, and it’s free,” adds Klotz.

Basically, it seems the research is confirming that a lot of energy goes into putting on an act. Think about trying to hide workplace stress. If you feel a need to mask your stress levels from your manager for fear of appearing incompetent or simply wanted to impress with your work ethic, you increase your chances of burning out. And when you burn out, your work quality is compromised or you might be more prone to an outburst. That’s essentially what this research is showing.

So if you see ingratiation at work, or feel compelled to behave like an ingratiator, you would do well to keep in mind its surprising symptoms. And remember there’s another great way to earn your superior’s respect: bribery.


Leaders need to understand how to make the most of their teams in order to achieve the desired business results. Ignition Wealth’s in-house course ‘Creating High Performing teams’ will set you up with the skills you need.


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