We all use it (although we probably deny it); when it’s used on us, we enjoy it (although we probably deny it); it fills the atmosphere and ethos in organisations with dangerous complacency and not a few injuries, as the back-slapping becomes unbearable. Yes – flattery is part of everyday life in most organisations and businesses, despite the fact we all know it when we hear it, and recognise it as a self-serving and corrosive art.
Flattery is secretly tolerated in business, but has always been seen as a difficult issue in politics and philosophy, or at least one on which most thinkers and writers felt it necessary to comment.
In The Moralia, Greek scholar Plutarch’s collection of essays and speeches, one of the passages is How to Tell a Flatterer from a Friend. Plutarch was prescient in what might be seen as a warning to business leaders, who so often become surrounded by ‘Yes Men’, creating an unchallenged, and therefore very dangerous, environment. He lauds the friend, or associate, who favours truth above sweet words: ‘whereas the true friend always does what is right, and so often gives pleasure, often pain, not wishing the latter, but not shunning it either, if he deems it best.’ This rings so true. But we’ve all seen honesty punished, and messengers shot (figuratively speaking, of course).
Dutch Renaissance humanist Erasmus professed a different opinion of flattery, presumably when the delusion it caused did not result in catastrophe, saying it ‘raises downcast spirits, comforts the sad, rouses the apathetic, stirs up the stolid, cheers the sick, restrains the headstrong, brings lovers together and keeps them united.’
Erasmus was very wise. But if we could interview him today, might he say that in the business sense, this take on flattery was more related to having positive words for colleagues and employees, with flattery only taking its more insidious form when used on your manager or boss?
Machiavelli’s The Prince is possibly the most misquoted of all career advice manuals. But its position regarding flattery, which he considered a plague, is clear, as is his advice for dealing with it.
‘For there is no way to guard against flattery but by letting it be seen that you take no offense in hearing the truth: but when every one is free to tell you the truth respect falls short. Wherefore a prudent Prince should follow a middle course, by choosing certain discreet men from among his subjects, and allowing them alone free leave to speak their minds on any matter….’
Flattery is hot air: dishonest hot air. But if it’s accurately aimed, there’s no question that it can, at the very least, undermine a leader’s credibility and effectiveness. At worst, its effects on decisions and strategy over time can damage an organisation and harm employees and shareholders. If an organisation has a good and complete leader, whose views and values are shared with everyone, there is no problem.
So, if you’re a business leader, go to work today and reward someone who tells the uncomfortable truth that might help the organisation, even if hearing it stings.
Leadership that needs large doses of weasel words from paid admirers is no leadership at all.