Corporate Sweet Talk
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Leadership Sep 1, 2010

Corporate Sweet Talk

How flattery can earn seats in the boardroom

Based on the research of

Ithai Stern

James D. Westphal

In the corporate world, board appointments are perceived as markers of success. However, new research from Ithai Stern suggests boardroom entrance strategies are rarely based on merit alone. According to the study, corporate leaders are more likely to win board appointments at other firms when employing subtle, but sophisticated, forms of flattery and opinion conformity within their organizations.

“Past research has demonstrated the effects of corporate leaders taking part in ingratiation and persuasion tactics,” says Stern, an assistant professor of management and organizations at the Kellogg School. “However, our study is the first to look at the effectiveness of specific tactics in increasing the likelihood of garnering board appointments at other firms, as well as which types of executives are most likely to effectively engage these tactics.”

As part of the study, Stern and his co-author James Westphal, a professor at the University of Michigan, drew from theory and research on interpersonal attraction, as well as interviews with 42 managers and CEOs of large U.S. industrial and service firms, to identify a set of tactics that are less likely to be interpreted as manipulative or political in intent, and are therefore more likely to bring about social influence.

Seven Ways to the Boardroom
Stern and Westphal identified seven effective forms of ingratiation most likely to help executives win board seats. First is to frame flattery as advice seeking—such as “How were you able to close that deal so successfully?” Second, argue before accepting a manager’s opinion; do not agree immediately. The researchers also recommend complimenting the manager to friends in his or her social network. Fourth, frame flattery as likely to make the manager uncomfortable (e.g. “I don’t want to embarrass you but your presentation was really top-notch. Better than most I’ve seen.”). Next, agree with the manager’s values before agreeing with his or her opinions. Expressing agreement with those values to people in the manager’s social network is another effective form of ingratiation. Finally, bring up potentially common affiliations with the manager, such as a religious organization or political party.

Part of the Background
As part of these findings, Stern and Westphal also discovered that managers and directors who have a background in politics, law, or sales are significantly more likely to engage in sophisticated forms of ingratiation. Similarly, managers and directors who have an upper-class background are more sophisticated in their ingratiatory behavior than individuals with a middle- or working-class background. The authors argue that this proclivity is consistent with social norms in these environments. These findings shed new light on why there are only a few top managers with backgrounds in engineering, accounting, or finance as compared to top managers with backgrounds in politics, law, or sales.

“Lawyers, politicians, and salespeople routinely take part in flattery and opinion conformity to complete their jobs, similar to those operating in an upper-class social environment,” Stern explains. “Ingratiatory behavior is a form of interpersonal communication that is acceptable and expected in both arenas.”

Stern and Westphal note that acts of flattery are successful in yielding board appointments at other firms only if the influence target does not recognize these acts as a favor-seeking motive.

“To tap into the corporate elite’s inner circle, a person cannot be too obvious,” Westphal says. “Being too overt with one’s intentions can be interpreted as manipulative or political. The more covert the ingratiation, the more sophisticated the approach and effective the outcome.”

Featured Faculty

Member of the Department of Management & Organizations faculty until 2015

About the Writer
Aaron Mays is assistant director of media relations at the Kellogg School of Management.
About the Research

Stern, Ithai, and James Westphal. 2010. Stealthy footsteps to the boardroom: Executives’ backgrounds, sophisticated interpersonal influence behavior, and board appointments. Administrative Science Quarterly 55: 278–319.

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