Using Flattery to Elicit Action

When I was little I often wanted to emulate my older siblings. My parents didn’t give me chores on account of my age, but my older sister did chores, so I wanted to do them too. Knowing I was fully capable, my cunning sister exploited the asymmetry of information. She exclaimed to me, “You are so grown up, I wonder if you can vacuum this whole room all by yourself like I can.” Motivated to be like her, I vacuumed the room with extreme precision. Afterwards, my sister remarked, “Wow, you did an amazing job, better than a real grown up – I bet you are better than me at washing windows, too!” With a dash of showmanship, my sister then sprayed Windex on the window in the shape of a smiley face and demonstrated how to clean a window. It was a compelling presentation: I proceeded to wash all of the windows in my house.

You might think that only gullible children are susceptible to flattery, but studies have shown that flattery works on adults too. Take business school. Building financial models is really not my thing, but I really admire someone who is a whiz at finance. Recently, an honest compliment resulted in one of my group members eagerly working on the financials for all group assignments. It was an unintended consequence of my comment.

After Booth we will need to “lead” people to accomplish undesirable or mundane tasks, otherwise known as “working through others.” Flattery is your ticket out of having to do these assignments all by yourself. The key to success is navigating the line between complimenting coworkers in a supportive, validating way (tasteful flattery) and unintentionally hitting on your colleagues (distasteful sexual harassment). These two routes of action result in entirely different career outcomes. There are people on both ends of the spectrum: those who are brilliant but crash and burn due to low emotional intelligence, and those who are so emotionally intelligent that you are picking up their morning coffee not because they asked, but because they complimented your ability to find the city’s hippest undiscovered coffee spots.

I’m writing this piece about subtly motivating others using flattery having myself been a victim of flattery, yet again. The next time Warren Yates compliments your linguistic prowess, artistic abilities, or perhaps your smile if he is feeling extra pressed for content, I would watch out – you might end up writing an article for the next ChiBus!

Editor’s note: The validity of a compliment is independent of whether the complimenter wants something from the complimentee. However, the verbalization of the compliment may not be.