Study: Executives who flatter CEOs most also develop greatest resentment for them

While CEOs may like to hear their top executives sing their praises, a recent study suggests they may want to be wary of managers who never voice dissenting opinions.

Researchers found when top executives ingratiate themselves with the CEO, the process can ultimately lead to resentment and result in the same executives making negative comments to the press about the CEO. Unfortunately, researchers found an even stronger correlation between flattery and resentment when the CEO was female and/or a minority and the top managers were white males.

The study, published in the journal Harvard Business Review and featured in Harvard Business Review, includes survey information from 3,895 CEO and top manager pairs from large to mid-sized companies that bring in at least $50 million in annual sales.

They found ingratiation — which may include flattery, compliments and opinion conformity — is often used by top managers to build social capital with CEOs, potentially gaining board appointment recommendations or insider information. However, this type of ingratiation can be demeaning for the executives who make the comments and lead to behaviors that damage their target — such as making negative comments to the press about the CEO.

The researchers found negative comments were both direct and indirect. In their article for HBR, the study authors gave examples of negative comments to journalists, such as "the 'board is picking up the slack' or that the CEO 'recognizes their lack of experience.'"

They found the correlation between flattery and resentment was strong. So strong, in fact, that an increase in compliments by one standard deviation was associated with a one and half to two point increase in resentment on a five-point scale. The correlation was even stronger when white men reported to a CEO who was female or a racial minority, according to the report.

"[O]ur findings suggest that the CEOs who tend to receive high levels of flattery and agreement from their managers are particularly prone to being socially undermined by those very same individuals," the authors concluded for HBR.

Read the full article here.


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