Every company claims to discourage suck-ups. Every leader claims to despise suck-ups. If we all hate suck-ups so much, why does so much sucking-up go on?
Sucking-up happens because we all tend to create an environment where people learn to suck-up to us. We can easily see this in others. It is just hard to see in ourselves. You are probably thinking, "Marshall is making a good point. I see others do this all of the time. Of course, I find it to be disgusting!"
As a test of our unconscious tendency to encourage sycophants, I always ask participants in my executive education classes this question, "How many of you own a dog that you love?" Big smiles cross the faces of these leaders as they wave their hands in the air. They beam as they tell me the names of their always faithful hounds. Then we have a little contest. I ask them, "At home, who gets the most unqualified positive recognition? Is it (a) your husband, wife or partner (b) your kids or (c) your dog?" More than 80 percent of the time the winner is the dog.
I next ask these same executives, "Do you really love your dog more than the other members of your family?" They laugh and say no. My next question, "Why does the dog get the most unqualified positive recognition?"
Their replies are always the same: "The dog doesn't talk back." "When I come home the dog is always happy to see me!" "Even if I come home late (or drunk) the dog doesn't care." "The dog gives me unconditional love -- no matter what I do!"
In other words, the dog is a suck-up.
If we aren't careful, we can wind up treating people at work like dogs. We can unconsciously recognize people who recognize us.
The best way to stop this behavior is to recognize that we all have a tendency to fall into this trap -- and the higher we move up in the organization, the bigger the trap gets.
I teach leaders to rank order their direct reports four ways:
1. How much do they like me? I know that you cannot be sure. What matters is what you think. Only bad suck-ups look like they are sucking-up. Great suck-ups appear to be your "true friends."
2. How much are they like me? Some leaders don't favor people who like them; they favor people who remind them of themselves. A common variation from an engineer might be, "He may be a jerk, but he is an engineer." As if people who are not engineers don't have brains.
3. What is their contribution to our company and its customers?
4. How much positive personal recognition do I give them?
If we are honest with ourselves, in a surprisingly large number of cases, we may find that recognition is more influenced by 1 or 2 than it is 3. And that (without meaning to) we may be falling into a trap that we despise in others -- playing favorites.
Make this ranking yourself. After doing a thoughtful review, start monitoring your own behavior. Make sure that you are recognizing people at working for doing what is right for the company -- not for making you feel good about yourself.