Analysis: Why a Cabinet of flatterers is a big problem for Trump -- and any boss

Posted6/18/2017 7:22 AM
  • President Donald Trump listens during a Cabinet meeting in the White House on Monday.

    President Donald Trump listens during a Cabinet meeting in the White House on Monday. Washington Post photo by Jabin Botsford

President Donald Trump's first full Cabinet meeting last week included a gusher of effusive praise, a virtual round-robin of complimentary remarks that set social media ablaze and drew mockery from Democratic corners. One by one, starting with Vice President Mike Pence, Cabinet members around the table weighed in, with most offering effusive praise of the president or gratitude for the opportunity.

Pence said the "greatest privilege of my life is to serve as vice president to a president who's keeping his word to the American people." Department of Health and Human Services chief Tom Price said "I can't thank you enough for the privileges you've given me and the leadership that you've shown." And White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus topped them all, thanking Trump "for the opportunity and the blessing that you've given us to serve your agenda and the American people."

Taken all together -- combined with the cameras in the room -- the accolades were called "groveling," "exquisitely awkward," and drew comparisons to King Lear.

But management experts say that however good it might make Trump feel to hear such praise, it's likely to help the people giving it more than him. Not only does it set the tone for future meetings -- likely cutting down on the kind of dissenting views Trump will need to lead the country well -- but research shows that when people feel like they need to engage in flattery, it makes them resentful, slows down strategic change and can even prompt subordinates to make negative comments to the press.

"These first meetings are crucial, because they set the norms of behavior," said Gautam Mukunda, a professor at Harvard Business School who has written about leadership and the presidency. "Every interaction after that is going to be shaped by what you did in that first meeting."

Whatever prompted the cavalcade of compliments, the fact that they were given while cameras were on -- and that Pence started things off -- may have made others feel like they had to follow suit, said James Westphal, a professor at University of Michigan's Ross School of Business. "It puts them in a difficult position if they don't conform -- not only do they stick out to the president, but their nonconformity sticks out to the public" given the cameras, he said. "We would expect them to feel resentment for having to show deference."

Westphal's studies have examined the effect flattery has on the recipient -- in the case of his research, typically a CEO or leader -- rather than on the kiss-up himself. In one study, he found that CEOs who heard more flattery also tended to be more overconfident in their strategy -- and that overconfidence led to fewer changes in strategy following poor performance. "Top management teams with lots of ingratiation were more likely to have strategic inertia," he said.

He also found that the more adulation managers show to their CEO, the less likely they are to engage in disagreement and debate. "The CEO's going to hear less of a devil's advocate point of view on their strategic ideas if there's a lot of ingratiation going on," Westphal said.

Again, that puts Trump at a disadvantage. Mukunda said that "the most valuable thing that these people can do for Trump is to tell him the things he doesn't want to hear," he said. "The team is only going to save you from a mistake if they tell you what you don't want to know. These sycophantic displays, other than being degrading to the people involved, make it difficult or impossible for information to flow."

Meanwhile, the people offering the accolades tend to get plenty from it. Research has shown that ingratiation is associated with greater rates of promotions, recommendations for board appointments and getting a job after an interview. For the person offering it, Mukunda says, "it really works. People do think better of the people who flatter them, even when they know they are being flattered."

In other words, flattery may get you anywhere, but it does little to help the boss. That's why it's considered good management practice to shun it, encourage dissenting views, and reward people who speak their minds in order to prevent mistakes, make better decisions and position an organization to change quickly.

If those arguments don't convince Trump, maybe this one will. Other recent research by Westphal found that top managers who engage in flattery were significantly more likely to admit to making negative comments about their CEO to journalists. If they felt bitter about it, which they frequently did, the managers in Westphal's study were more likely to offer faint praise, negative comments or even direct complaints when speaking to outside parties.

Could it also encourage them to leak? Maybe, Westphal said: "The resentment could lead to a natural desire to make leaks to outsiders that reflect poorly on the leader."

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