Will Flattery Get You Anywhere?


The Definition of Flattery

Flattery is a term that, by definition, is negative: excessive and insincere praise, especially that given to further one’s own interests. Although people commonly use the term “flattery” as a positive term, the formal definition is contrary.

The objective of using flattery is typically self-centered and born out of fear, jealousy and a sense of entitlement. On the other hand, a timely and kind word is selfless and given to acknowledge another person’s abilities, attributes or accomplishments without expecting anything in return and is known as a genuine compliment.

Research has shown that, in a work environment, flattery can increase performance. Indeed, the old adage of “flattery will get you anywhere” may have some scientific truth behind it. Using flattery just to get ahead in your company or to look good to your boss has many words attached for this obsequious behavior.

In his 2012 study, National Institute for Physiological Sciences Professor Norihiro Sadato compares receiving a genuine compliment to receiving cash as a reward for a task completed successfully. He concluded that receiving a genuine compliment on your work can be equivalent to receiving an increase in compensation (at least on some level).

In his research, Professor Sadato outlines that the part of the brain called the striatum is activated when a person is rewarded a compliment and/or cash. His research indicates that if the striatum is activated when completing a task, a person is likely to perform better.

This doesn’t seem surprising, as clichés and song lyrics have endorsed positivity over criticism for decades. Clichés like “you can catch more flies with honey” are passed from generation to generation because of their accuracy. If they didn’t hold any truth, they wouldn’t be part of our lexicon.

Yet, flattery, by definition, is still termed a negative action.

The Dark Side of Flattery

The Bible calls out flattery for what it is: a sin. Proverbs 29:5-6 reads, “A person who flatters his neighbor is spreading a net for him to step into. To an evil person sin is bait in a trap, but a righteous person runs away from it and is glad.”

Christians believe that flattery is a sin that puts pressure on the person who is being flattered or complimented, and the person doing the flattery.  Since the flatterer is not at all concerned about telling the truth, and lying is a sin, the flatterer will have to stand in judgment before the Lord.  The Bible preaches being humble and expecting no acknowledgement of praise for your healthy actions. Proverbs 27:5-6 read, “An open rebuke is better than hidden love! Wounds from a sincere friend are better than many kisses from an enemy.” The passage refers to flattery as “kisses from the enemy.”

Insincere flattery, a form of manipulation, usually serves the person offering it. There may be hidden strings attached to the complimentary words.  If it seems the compliments are overblown, take heed.  Listen and watch the person to see if they are sincere in their words or need and want something from you.  Dr. Leon F. Seltzer Ph.D. in Psychology has six reasons to question hidden agenda flattery.

Identifying Your Intentions

The difference between flattery and a compliment lies in your intentions. If they are genuine, then you are complimenting someone for their work, attire or words. To determine if your intentions are positive or negative, ask yourself the following questions:

  • How well do I know this person? If you are trying to make a certain impression (typical in the early stages of relationship building) evaluate your intentions.
  • Does this person have anything to offer me? If they do, be sure your advances are sincere and not because you stand something to gain from the relationship.
  • Is there anything I want from this person? If you need something are you being genuine?
  • What is the benefit of what I’m about to do, if anything? Always take a second look when you stand to benefit in anyway.
  • What is the drawback of what I am about to do, if anything? Assess the risk in the relationship or the statement you’re about to make.
  • What are my general feelings for this person? If you don’t like the person reconsider why you are creating a relationship or having a conversation with them.

If you stop and take a moment to think about your intentions, the answer is likely obvious – if you’re willing to recognize it. Compliments, if sincere, can reward, inspire, and comfort both the giver and receiver. Perfecting the Art of the Compliment provides tips on giving and receiving compliments the right way.

Proverbs 28:23 reads, “In the end, people appreciate honest criticism far more than flattery.” We’re sure no one would disagree with that.

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