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Blog Insight & Commentary

Your Guide to Handling Brown-Nosing & the Rise of Ingratiation

How to get past the office suck-up

Gene Wilder eye roll

By Abbey Slattery

Brown-noser. Bootlicker. Butt kisser. It goes by many names, but sucking up is a national epidemic.

While a little brown-nosing in the workplace seems harmless enough, a coworker’s constant need to impress and be the top dog around the office can quickly lead to a toxic environment.

From spotting brown-nosers to knowing how to politely shut them down, here’s everything you need to know about dealing with the office suck-up.

Where does “brown-nosing” come from?

It’s kind of a weird name, right? In the United States, the term “brown-nosing” dates all the way back to the 1930s and started as military slang for someone who well...had their nose right where it shouldn’t be. But brown-nosing actually has a much longer history than just the early 20th century.

Let’s go somewhere that you didn’t think an article on brown-nosing would take you: 14th-century Italy. In Dante Alighieri’s renowned 14th-century epic poem Divine Comedy, Dante takes a journey through the nine rings of Hell, getting his own personal tour of how sinners are tortured. And where does Dante find the flatterers in this story? In the eighth circle, drowning in excrement...obviously. It’s a gross image, but visceral enough to stick—and for iterations to continue in modern culture.

Brown-nosing is in

Despite the less-than savory imagery, excessive flattery is kind of in right now. No one wants to be known as the office brown-noser, but it turns out plenty of people want to know how to use sucking up to subtly get ahead. Just do a quick online search, and you’ll find pages of articles titled “How to Be a Better Brown-Noser” or “How to Brown-Nose Without Feeling Icky Afterwards.” The tips offered include things like:

  • Talk like your boss and mimic their behaviors

  • Pretend to seek advice and disguise it as a compliment

  • Tell people in your boss’s network about your mutual interests, including hinting about your political or religious affiliation

Brown-nosing is so wide-spread, that psychologists have even hypothesized that we could be in a “Golden Age of Brown-Nosing.”

Brown-nosing in effect

Hopefully, you’re working for a good boss who’s able to recognize when a brown-noser is using their powers of persuasion. Unfortunately, not all bosses are good bosses. In a recent study by James Westphal, a University of Michigan business strategy professor, he and his colleagues found that overly flattering your superiors was the top predictive factor for moving up.

Specifically, subjects of the study would compliment their bosses a few times, challenge them on a position, and do a personal favor. All of this put together over twelve months led to a 64% increase in the chances of a board appointment.

But for the rest of the office, brown-nosing makes for an unhealthy environment.

How to spot brown-nosing

The office brown-noser can wear a variety of hats. Venting about your boss then somehow word gets back to them about the things you said? Thrown under the bus at a meeting so someone else looks good? Constantly picking up the slack of a person who would rather talk with your superior than do their own work? Constantly rolling your eyes at clearly fake compliments? You might be dealing with a brown-noser.

Not only can this behavior lead to a distrustful and suspicious environment, but it also can make others feel frustrated and unhappy—which decreases both morale and productivity.

Read more: What to Say When You See Nepotism at Work

How to de-brown the noser

Whether you’re another employee or the boss that the flattery is directed at, there are a few ways to diffuse brown-nosing before it goes too far:

  • Respond to compliments by directing praise at other coworkers

  • Turn the tables by praising and complimenting the brown-noser

  • Avoid the brown-noser

  • Meet privately to talk about the pattern of behavior

  • Keep a record of incidents for human resources if needed

There are tons positive ways to network and build relationships without feeling the “ickiness” of brown-nosing, and in the end, brown-nosing typically does more harm than good.

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