The Fine Art of Sucking Up

Brownnosing, at least in its milder forms, can work wonders as a short-term career booster. Here are some tips that can help you advance your career by developing your own fine art of sucking up. . . Just don’t overdo it!


Academics who study career strategies call it “ingratiating.” To the rest of us, it’s just “brownnosing.” You know the tactics: Take copious notes whenever the boss opens his or her mouth, volunteer for office grunt work, e-mail managers in the wee hours to prove your tireless industry, fawn without mercy at every opportunity. Colleagues may roll their eyes and marvel that the boss can’t see the obvious manipulation, but forget them. It works.

Brownnosing succeeds. . . 

. . . because what the manager sees isn’t what your colleagues see. Where they perceive insincerity, the boss notes only energy, enthusiasm, and drive. To measure the value of sucking up, Jenny Chatman, a professor at the University of California at Berkeley’s Haas School of Business, grilled 120 Northwestern students who were interviewing for jobs. Those who told corporate recruiters what they wanted to hear — “Your company has a reputation for being team-oriented, and that is something I truly value” — landed jobs at twice the rate of their more reserved but equally qualified peers. “Targets eat it up,” Chatman explains. “People are happy to be ingratiated upon.”

So what are you waiting for? Odds are you could become a much more effective butt-kisser. All it takes is a little practice.

Master the art of eye contact.

Bob Rosner, who filled The Boss’s Survival Guide with workplace advice, suggests that beginners practice this skill by locking eyes intently with a friend’s, over a beer, as he’s droning on about his latest sales coup. If you can make him think his stories are more compelling than the buzzer-beater on the big-screen TV over his shoulder, you’re ready to try it with your managers.

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Parrot key ideas or slogans.

Using the boss’s pet phrases in meetings, reports, and memos shows that you are getting the message, you respect her opinions, and you firmly grasp what she wants from you on the job. This doesn’t take practice, just shamelessness.

Run ideas by managers who are most likely to hate them.

This protects you from looking like a dolt later on and proves that you covet their opinion.

Take credit for accomplishments.

Beverly Purtell, principal consultant at HRValue Group, recommends sending to managers concise e-mails that talk up your accomplishments. Just don’t forget to give credit to those who helped.

Finally, beware of sucking up to one manager at the expense of another.

“The one you were buttering up can disappear,” warns Richard Sadai, a former executive at Lucent Technologies. There’s nothing worse than hours of eye-locking, all for naught.

The Top 5 Lines to Use on Your Boss

  • “I’m really excited about your proposal. What an original idea.”(Hyperbole should be down-to-earth.)
  • “It’s like you said in last week’s meeting: The brand is everything.” (Bosses like to hear themselves quoted.)
  • “Thanks for your excellent advice on the revision. It made a big difference.” (Who doesn’t like praise?)
  • “You look great. That Zone diet is really working.” (Personalize your compliment so it sounds sincere.)
  • “Got it. Great idea. I’ll do it that way, and you said you want it tonight, right?” (Show you listen intently.) Be aware of your manager’s interests. Those pictures of your manager’s dopey-looking kids cover her desk for a reason. Ask how they’re doing. Does the boss love tennis? Suggest a match after work. At the very least, ask the boss to lunch. Talk about her, not you.

AuthorKim Girard is a freelance writer and author who grew up outside of Boston. She lives with her husband, daughter and dog in Brookline, MA.

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