THE BRAZEN CAREERIST- Brownnose not: but do learn how to compliment

If you want your boss to like you, give him compliments. It may sound like I'm telling you to brownnose; actually, I'm telling you to find genuine ways to compliment your boss.

I never knew how important it is to compliment a boss until I complimented mine, mostly by accident. My boss gave a speech packed with bad news, and I knew it had been hard on him. So after the meeting, I stopped by his office to tell him privately, "You delivered the bad news really well. People were shocked, but they listened to you, and you made them hopeful."

His face brightened, and he said, in a surprised voice, "Really?"

I realized immediately how much my input had meant– how surprised he was to know I thought he did well and how much he respected my assessment. I had thought he was a more confident guy than that, but that's the thing about complimenting your boss. It's disarming and makes your boss see you as an equal.

Studies show, in fact, that powerful people think that people who praise them are smarter and more likable than those who don't. This may be because powerful people receive fewer compliments than the rest of us. 

Not surprisingly, it's the job of powerful people to act as though they don't care what anyone else thinks of them. But everyone likes– and needs– compliments, and one reason for the dearth of them at the top is that men give fewer compliments than women, and we all know who dominates the top ranks. 

So start crafting your compliments now. 

But don't brownnose. The difference between a genuine compliment and a desperate sycophancy is empathy and insight.

If you understand what worries your boss, and what she's trying hardest to achieve personally, then you will easily spot opportunities for praise. Don't just say "good job" for the sake of it. And don't just say "good job" either. Instead, carefully craft a compliment in an area that's particularly important to your boss. 

Why? The most effective compliments are very specific. And creative words are more memorable than standard words, according to research by Mark Knapp of the University of Texas. Praise of character is the most rare and most memorable of all. For example, "Nice job of being compassionate while you were laying everyone off." 

That said, your boss needs to view you as a trusted resource. This means you need to be able to give him bad news as well as good news.

I will never forget the employee who told me when I was the boss, "You know how everyone laughs at your jokes at the staff meeting? Well, the jokes are not that funny, but since all those people report to you, they laugh. You should stop with the jokes." 

I also remember when a boss pulled me into her office and said, "Joe (not his real name) is accusing me of leading him on romantically. This is a serious accusation since I'm his boss. Do you think other people perceive me as leading him on?" 

I was floored– especially since she may have already been in a legal mess. But I was flattered that she trusted me to give her an honest answer. (The guy was a nut case.) 

So give genuine compliments, but offer insightful criticism, as well. And remember, if you compliment your boss, she'll view you as a smarter person than she did previously and begin to take all your comments more seriously.


Penelope Trunk has started several companies and worked for many more. She penned this column several years ago, but she's busy with new things–- too busy to write new things.