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Flattery’s Positive Impact

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The Journal of Marketing Research published an interesting study on the impact of  flattery — those obviously insincere compliments some people throw around like rice (or whatever we throw at the bride and groom these days) at a wedding.  “Nice tie, Don” colleagues would say and I thought to myself, “Yeah, sure… that was an insincere compliment.”  A common assumption is the flattery is meant to curry favor, a real brown-noser I would tell myself, completely discounting the  compliment.  But did I really discount it?

Apparently not according to this research.  The researchers, studying consumers who saw through a retailer’s flattery, were measuring two levels of response, one at the explicit (conscious) level and the other at an implicit (non-conscious) level.

“This research uses a dual attitudes perspective to show that even after consumers consciously discount a blatantly insincere compliment from the marketer, the original positive reaction…coexists with, rather than being replaced by, the discounted evaluation (the explicit attitude).”

Even more interesting, the researchers  found that the implicit attitude lingers and is actually more predictive of future behavior. In other words, at an implicit level we accept the compliment and that positive response will influence our future actions.  In the case of the study, consumers rejected the flattery at an explicit level, but still ended up more predisposed to frequent that retailer.

“The results suggest that insincere flattery can exercise a persuasive influence on consumers’ automatic reactions even when they correct for the underlying ulterior motive in their deliberative judgments.”

So what does this have to do with employee engagement?  The driving need for self-esteem, to feel good about ourselves, to be validated and recognized.  As we tell our clients, every employee wakes up every morning in search of validation.  It is hard-wired into us.  Because this fundamental need for connection with others is rarely satiated, whenever we do get some validation (the impact of flattery at an implicit level), we believe it and hold on to it.  Now, I’m not suggesting you should start the New Year with a resolution to be a better brown-noser, but I can tell you with confidence that connecting with employees through acts of validation will improve workplace well-being and behavior.

BEST PRACTICE: Write out a list of 10 ways you could validate employees on a regular basis, then execute at least three of those ideas every month until you find a process or practice that “fits” your style and your organization’s culture.  If you get stuck, just browse this blog and our other resources for inspiration.

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