Ingratiating Behavior Provides Alternative Path to the Boardroom
Skip to content
The Insightful Leader Live: What to Know about Today’s AI—and Tomorrow’s | Register Now
Leadership Organizations Apr 1, 2008

Ingratiating Behavior Provides Alternative Path to the Boardroom

Talent and credentials are not all that matters

Based on the research of

James D. Westphal

Ithai Stern

Corporate managers who express opinions that differ from those of their CEO may spoil their chances of being appointed to outside boards, according to recently published research. Ithai Stern (Assistant Professor of Management & Organizations at the Kellogg School of Management) and Kellogg graduate James Westphal (Professor of Business Administration and Strategy at the University of Michigan) have found that managers who engage in ingratiating behavior when interacting with their CEO are most likely to be recommended for seats on outside boards on which the CEO serves.

Populating a corporate board in this manner may result in a group unlikely to challenge upper management. Westphal and Stern explain that according to previous research, the culture of deferral to management has been a factor in corporate decisions that have resulted in many negative outcomes for shareholders, including poor corporate performance, accounting scandals, and white-collar crime. In spite of considerable pressure from institutional investors wanting boards to exercise more oversight, this culture has persisted because of the tendency for boards to consist of a circle of “insiders.” These insiders are typically privileged white men who have similar attitudes and ideas based on their shared experiences, such as education at elite institutions, membership in exclusive social clubs, and upper-class backgrounds. According to Westphal and Stern, this system perpetuates itself because of the widespread practice of appointing new board members on the recommendation of current board members.

In response to demands from external stakeholders, more people without the insider credentials of white race, male gender, and privilege have been appointed to corporate boards in recent years. Stakeholders expect diversity to encourage a greater range of ideas and increase the likelihood that board members will be able to exercise control over internal management to the benefit of shareholders. However, as Westphal and Stern explain, evidence now suggests that as more women and men of diverse racial, ethnic, and social backgrounds gain entry to the boardroom, the norms of social conformity are actually persisting. The researchers set out to find explanations for this counterintuitive result.

Their study involved 350 companies selected at random from the Forbes 500 index of large and mid-sized U.S. industrial and service firms. By surveying more than one thousand managers of these companies, Westphal and Stern measured the three components of ingratiating behavior described in social influence literature: other-enhancement, opinion conformity, and favor rendering. They sent similar surveys to the CEOs of companies in the sample, asking about each top manager’s behavior toward the CEO. To measure elite social and educational credentials of the managers, the researchers obtained demographic and biographical data on top managers from a variety of sources that have been used extensively in similar research, including Dun and Bradstreet’s Reference Book of Corporate Management, Standard and Poor’s Register, the Social Register, Marquis Who’s Who, corporate proxy statements, and annual company reports.

Two years after the initial survey, Westphal and Stern sent a questionnaire to directors who serve on nominating committees of companies in the sample. They asked the directors whether one or more CEOs who serve on the board had suggested that someone be nominated for an outside director appointment during the prior two years and, if so, who had made the recommendation and who was recommended.

The researchers found that ingratiating behavior was the strongest single predictive factor for obtaining board appointments. According to Stern, in a twelve-month period, challenging the CEO’s opinion on a strategic issue one fewer time, complimenting the CEO on his insight two more times, and doing one personal favor increased by 64 percent the likelihood of an appointment to a board where the CEO was already a director. Stern notes, “We were surprised by the sheer magnitude of the effect.”

Ingratiation provides a path to the boardroom for white men who lack elite educational credentials or upper-class social backgrounds. However, the importance of ingratiation in recommendations for future board appointments is even greater for managers who are female or ethnic minorities (Figure 1); they must engage in a particularly high level of ingratiating behavior to gain board appointments. According to Westphal and Stern, this is direct evidence of a subtle form of social discrimination faced by managers who are not both white and male. Their findings suggest that “while ethnic minorities and women who seek access to the highest level of the corporation do not come up against a ‘glass ceiling’ per se, they also do not receive equal treatment or consideration in the director selection process.”

Figure 1: Interaction between ingratiation and elite undergraduate degree
Graph depicting relationship between ingratiating behavior & board appointment

Westphal and Stern conclude that the current convention, by which many board members receive appointments on the recommendation of current board members, must change. Otherwise, corporate boards will not provide the kind of oversight that could enable them to be effective watchdogs for shareholders.

Featured Faculty

Member of the Department of Management & Organizations faculty until 2015

About the Writer
Beverly A. Caley, JD, is a freelance science writer based in Corvallis, Oregon.
About the Research

Westphal, James D. and Ithai Stern (2006). “The Other Pathway to the Boardroom: Interpersonal Influence Behavior as a Substitute for Elite Credentials and Majority Status in Obtaining Board Appointments.” Administrative Science Quarterly, June, 51(2):169-204.

Read the original

Most Popular This Week
  1. What Went Wrong at Silicon Valley Bank?
    And how can it be avoided next time? A new analysis sheds light on vulnerabilities within the U.S. banking industry.
    People visit a bank
  2. How Are Black–White Biracial People Perceived in Terms of Race?
    Understanding the answer—and why black and white Americans may percieve biracial people differently—is increasingly important in a multiracial society.
    How are biracial people perceived in terms of race
  3. What Went Wrong at AIG?
    Unpacking the insurance giant's collapse during the 2008 financial crisis.
    What went wrong during the AIG financial crisis?
  4. Will AI Eventually Replace Doctors?
    Maybe not entirely. But the doctor–patient relationship is likely to change dramatically.
    doctors offices in small nodules
  5. Which Form of Government Is Best?
    Democracies may not outlast dictatorships, but they adapt better.
    Is democracy the best form of government?
  6. Podcast: "It's Hard to Regulate U.S. Banks!"
    Silicon Valley Bank spectacularly collapsed—and a new analysis suggests that its precarious situation is not as much of an outlier as we’d hope. On this episode of The Insightful Leader, we learn what went wrong and what should happen next.
  7. What Happens to Worker Productivity after a Minimum Wage Increase?
    A pay raise boosts productivity for some—but the impact on the bottom line is more complicated.
    employees unload pallets from a truck using hand carts
  8. Why Do Some People Succeed after Failing, While Others Continue to Flounder?
    A new study dispels some of the mystery behind success after failure.
    Scientists build a staircase from paper
  9. Marketers, Don’t Be Too Hasty to Act on Data
    Don’t like the trends you’re seeing? It’s tempting to take immediate action. Instead, consider a hypothesis-driven approach to solving your problems.
    CEO stands before large data wall
  10. Why Well-Meaning NGOs Sometimes Do More Harm than Good
    Studies of aid groups in Ghana and Uganda show why it’s so important to coordinate with local governments and institutions.
    To succeed, foreign aid and health programs need buy-in and coordination with local partners.
  11. Understanding the Pandemic’s Lasting Impact on Real Estate
    Work-from-home has stuck around. What does this mean for residential and commercial real-estate markets?
    realtor showing converted office building to family
  12. How Has Marketing Changed over the Past Half-Century?
    Phil Kotler’s groundbreaking textbook came out 55 years ago. Sixteen editions later, he and coauthor Alexander Chernev discuss how big data, social media, and purpose-driven branding are moving the field forward.
    people in 1967 and 2022 react to advertising
  13. How Much Do Campaign Ads Matter?
    Tone is key, according to new research, which found that a change in TV ad strategy could have altered the results of the 2000 presidential election.
    Political advertisements on television next to polling place
  14. How Peer Pressure Can Lead Teens to Underachieve—Even in Schools Where It’s “Cool to Be Smart”
    New research offers lessons for administrators hoping to improve student performance.
    Eager student raises hand while other student hesitates.
  15. Immigrants to the U.S. Create More Jobs than They Take
    A new study finds that immigrants are far more likely to found companies—both large and small—than native-born Americans.
    Immigrant CEO welcomes new hires
  16. Leaders, Don’t Be Afraid to Admit Your Flaws
    We prefer to work for people who can make themselves vulnerable, a new study finds. But there are limits.
    person removes mask to show less happy face
  17. For Students with Disabilities, Discrimination Starts Before They Even Enter School
    Public-school principals are less welcoming to prospective families with disabled children—particularly when they’re Black.
    child in wheelchair facing padlocked school doors
  18. Executive Presence Isn’t One-Size-Fits-All. Here’s How to Develop Yours.
    A professor and executive coach unpacks this seemingly elusive trait.
    woman standing confidently
  19. How Self-Reflection Can Make You a Better Leader
    Setting aside 15 minutes a day can help you prioritize, prepare, and build a stronger team
    Self-reflection improves leadership over time
Add Insight to your inbox.
More in Leadership