Should You Kiss Ass?

Consider two possible work strategies. One strategy is just to try to do a good job. The other is to try to kiss ass and please your boss any way you can. Of course you can try either strategy, both, or neither. Which makes four different kinds of workers. Now ask yourself, of these four kinds of workers, which ones do you think achieve the most career success? Which ones have the most job and life satisfaction?

I came across a fascinating paper (ungated here) from 1994 that asked exactly this question. Looking at 500 ex students of industrial relations, they compared the effect of ass-kissing to doing a good job on success and job satisfaction.

Supervisor-focused tactics … include: agree with your immediate supervisor’s ideas; praise your immediate supervisor on his or her accomplishments; agree with your supervisor’s major opinions outwardly even when you disagree inwardly. Job-focused tactics … include: make others aware of your accomplishments in your job; try to take responsibility for positive events even when you are not solely responsible; arrive at work early in order to look good in front of others.

The result: workers who try to please their boss are more successful in their careers, and workers who try to seem good at their jobs are less successful. Boss-pleasers are also more satisfied with their job and life, while good-jobbers aren’t any more or less satisfied.

The only other thing that predicted satisfaction: being married. Other things that predicted job success: being married, being on the job many years, working more hours per week, and not having a PhD.

We like to act like we just want to do a good job, and would rather not have bosses breathing down our necks. But what if, we actually like kissing ass?

Please speak up if you know of any more recent that might confirm or disconfirm these results.

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  • Arceris

    “But what if, we actually like kissing ass?”

    I think this isn’t all that far fetched, and it fits in with my preexisting biases.

    Kissing ass is a way of ingratiating yourself into the tribal hierarchy. Given that it is a cheap way to increase status, it makes sense that, not only is it rational behavior, but that it would be something that evolution would support.

    • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ Stephen Diamond

      I think that’s indeed far fetched. Kissing ass isn’t a cheap way to increase status: it’s a sacrifice of status, expensive in status terms because high-status folks don’t need to kiss ass. I mean, that’s practically what it means to be high status!

      When people are promoted for kissing ass, they are being given protection in return for subordination.

      That’s not to say deep human needs for deference and even abasement don’t exist, but when they take the unsublimated, raw form of “kissing ass,” they are enjoyed only by the character-disordered, even while swallowed by careerists for whom it’s the only way.

      [Added.] Can we, Robin, expect ems to be ass kissers?

      • Nick T

        Successful association with high-status people is a source of status. Kissing ass doesn’t maximize status, but can increase it.

  • Terra

    This is a really insightful blog. I would’ve never thought of that.

    • Zubon

      There was not a “work hard group”; both groups were inflating their value. One group did so by praising themselves (job-focused) and the other by praising their supervisors (supervisor-focused).

      One would expect the job-focused group to view itself as the “work hard” group, while the other would probably favor something like “socially adept” over “ass kissers.” I don’t have a judgment here, just noting that the sort of folks who post here are more likely to be in the former, and we should be careful not to give into our own tribal urges to engage in status battles with groups using different tactics. Their tactics might help us accomplish our goals, including doing better at work (more resources, executive support, etc.).

  • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ Stephen Diamond

    The ungated link is broken.

    It’s obvious to me that some people are moral masochists and that they usually get promoted, but I don’t see how the results you report show that employees generally prefer to kiss ass—rather than that bosses like to have their asses kissed. (You mention the correlation with job satisfaction, but the resulting job “success” itself seems enough to explain it.)

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  • Kate Yemelyanov

    Well, there’s this (http://www.researchgate.net/publication/6575606_The_impact_of_political_skill_on_impression_management_effectiveness – available for free viewing via Google Scholar). It dates to 2007. “An individual high in political skill is able to use social cues to
    understand people. He or she is then able to use that understanding to tailor his or her own behavior to effectively influence others. This suggests that individuals high in political skill are able to consciously manage their own behavior to effectively influence their relationship partners. On the flipside, individuals low in political skill have less understanding of people and as a result are less able to consciously manage their workplace behaviors to
    effectively influence others.”

  • Doug

    “The only other thing that predicted satisfaction: being married.”

    Might I suggest that those who are married have more practice subsuming individual opinions and behaviors in favor of maintaining relationship harmony. In other words kissing ass.

    • IAMSBA

      Yeah, that’s what I was thinking as well.

  • Duane Hewitt

    One aspect of this jumps out at me. It distinguishes between those who “kiss ass” and those who give the appearance of doing a good job. I would like to see a study which is geared to objective measures of doing a good job and see how that compares to the political approach. Industrial relations sounds like a field where politics may be more active than in more objective domains.

  • Jan Rzymkowski

    It might be my bias, but it might simply happen, that people who are likely to kiss ass, are alse the ones, who feel obliged to claim they’re happy or satisfied with their life/jobs. Measuring happiness is murky waters. Those questionnaires doesn’t tell more than what is one’s favourite ice-cream flavour.

    My favourite example are young big-city catholics (in Warsaw – I don’t know how it looks around the world). Their very religious and very happy about their lives. Because they are supposed to. You’re a child of God, so you should be happy. Otherwise you’re not believing in God enough.
    How are you to measure how well are their lives in comparison with others?

  • Ben Harrison

    Perhaps the reason ass kissers have higher job satisfaction is that they are able to rise to whatever position their skills allow them to, whereas the people who are competent but don’t kiss ass feel dissatisfaction when they are passed over for promotion in favour of someone less competent but more politically inclined.

    I don’t think people like kissing ass but do like the benefits bestowed upon them for doing so, and those benefits outweigh the slimy feeling you would get when you deceive someone for your boss, which would feel less slimy and more automatic over time as it becomes a habit, in contrast to the angst arising from the consequences of being on the wrong side of your boss.

  • Sebastian_H

    It might be that people enjoy the fruits of kissing ass enough to make up for it.

  • http://lukeparrish.rationalsites.com Luke Parrish

    People who endeavor to please their bosses might just be more effective workers on net, actually accomplishing more for less effort expended. Organizations and work crews with more people genuinely trying to please their bosses would probably be able to delegate better, and trust would go further.

    Delegating and trusting more gives more chances for comparative advantage to kick in. In particular, the boss can concentrate better on the big picture because employees are more consistently taking care of the little details (that they know the boss is likely to care about) whereas the employee does not have to waste as much time considering big picture organizational matters as they would if they were explicitly trying to do a “good” job.

    Another aspect to consider is that a boss’s approval may be considerably easier to measure in terms of feedback than measuring whether the job one has done is “good”, so employees who use boss approval as their measuring stick tend to get more/better quality positive feedback, hence higher satisfaction (for less effort).

  • Anonymous

    I would definitely not classify “[making] others aware of your accomplishments in your job; [taking] responsibility for positive events even when you are not solely responsible; [arriving] at work early in order to look good in front of others” as “just doing a good job”. People who engage in the described behavior can be extremely disruptive to worker’s environment without increasing output in the least.

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