Superflattery: The art of getting what you want

(Clockwise) woman smiling; people in a business room clapping; outstretched hands

How do you get someone to do something they definitely DO NOT want to do? Lucy Kellaway, of the Financial Times, finds out how flattery will get you (almost) anywhere.

The other day I got an email asking me to go to Scotland to give a speech for charity. There were three powerful reasons to decline the invitation. I don't like going anywhere that can't be reached by bicycle from north London. I hadn't heard of the charity and barely knew the woman who wrote the message.

Yet rather than say No, I found myself saying Yes instead.

To understand how on earth this could have happened, I've been studying the emails that went to and fro between us, and have drawn four universal lessons about how to get people to do things they don't want to do. This, after all, is what management is all about, and jolly difficult it is, too.

But this woman got it right. Her first email began: "We haven't met yet, but I hope we will." She went on to profess a huge fondness for my columns in the Financial Times and claimed that the charity's committee would be "utterly over the moon" if I turned up.

As I read her first message, I found myself strangely disabled. It was not so long ago that I finally learned how to say No. It turns out to be surprisingly easy - you simply say, "No". But this time I forgot myself and gave a reason. Scotland was too far away, I said.

The science of flattery

In the 2010 Hong Kong study, students were given a flyer from a fictional clothing shop with the strapline: "We are contacting you directly because we know that you are a fashionable and stylish person. Your dress sense is not only classy, but also chic…"

They knew the compliment was impersonal, and the motive was plain - the flyer asked them to shop at the store.

But researchers Elaine Chan and Jaideep Sengupta found that participants given the flyer were more favourably disposed towards the store than those who hadn't received it.

In a flash she replied it wasn't far away at all. The train journey would be wonderful with comfy seats, breathtaking views and nice ladies bringing free biscuits.

What could I do but buckle and say Yes?

The first lesson from this is about the extraordinary power of flattery. This woman laid it on with the biggest trowel she could find. What was interesting that even though I didn't actually believe she was a HUGE fan etc, I was softened up anyway.

This is strange but true. According to a recent study from the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, flattery still works even when the recipient knows it is insincere.

The second lesson is about the even more extraordinary power of peer pressure.

Find out more

The woman told me that two colleagues of mine had agreed to give the speech in the past. She picked her peer group perfectly. Had I been told that previous speakers were David Cameron and Henry Kissinger, I would have been unmoved. But these two women are a more successful and busier version of me. If they were generous with their time, then a nagging voice in my head said I ought to be too.

This is pretty spineless, sheep-like thinking, but it's also perfectly normal.

Please reuse your towel

Hotel towel

"Simply changing a few words on the standard sign, guests who learned that the majority of their fellow guests had reused their towels (the social norms appeal) were 26% more likely than those who saw the basic environmental protection message to recycle their towels," says Noah Goldstein, co-author of the study.

"So, does this mean that we're just sheep? Not necessarily. But we're definitely more likely to follow the herd when we're uncertain about how to behave. And it turns out that we're also more likely to follow the herd to the extent that we perceive the herd as sharing our circumstances."

I remember reading a study by the psychologist Robert Cialdini showing that guests in hotels were overwhelmingly more inclined to reuse towels if they were told that other, similar, guests in the same hotel had done so before.

Having successfully appealed to my inner egomaniac and my inner sheep, she was halfway there; instead of saying No, I gave my fatal No-but. The third lesson says: seize on any excuse and demolish it with all the energy and charm you can muster.

Most surprising is the fourth lesson: that hard facts have almost no traction when compared to these psychological ploys. I still don't really know what this charity does, as the link to it in the original email didn't work.

I hope there may be one further lesson from this story. As I board the train from King's Cross and sit back and enjoy the free biscuits and the view, I may discover that Yes can sometimes be a better answer than No.

Further reading from around the web

While a clothing store may woo customers with a spot of empty flattery, Havard Business Review points out that it can backfire - especially in the workplace.

Start Quote

When a real relationship exists between the parties, the perceived sincerity behind the flattery may be more important”

End Quote

"Research by Darren Treadway, of the University at Buffalo, and others shows that... when dished out in personal interactions, ham-handed flattery generates a negative response. If a supervisor perceives a subordinate's flattery as a ploy to get ahead, she'll tend to rate the employee lower on job performance (in this study, supervisors rated employees on cooperative workplace behaviour). But when she's fooled into thinking the sentiments are sincere, the supervisor rates the complimenter higher, Treadway tells us.

"So you're taking a chance when you flatter the boss. You could improve your performance rating, but if you're inept, your stock will fall.

"We asked Treadway how his findings square with Chan and Sengupta's [shop flyer] results about the effects of insincere flattery. Perhaps, he says, there's something inherently different about a high-stakes, personal interaction - when a real relationship exists between the parties, the perceived sincerity behind the flattery may be more important."

But an article in The Economist on how to rise through the ranks at work begs to differ - it argues that the ambitious should master the art of flattery: "Jennifer Chatman, of the University of California, Berkeley, conducted experiments in which she tried to find a point at which flattery became ineffective. It turned out there wasn't one."

Chatman told Reuters: "People who bring positive information, that stroke the boss, that make the boss feel good about the decisions he or she has made, that build up the boss' confidence, those people are going to do better."

More on This Story

In today's Magazine

Features

  • RihannaCloud caution

    After celebrity leaks, what can you do to safeguard your photos?


  • Cesc FabregasFair price?

    Have some football clubs overpaid for their new players?


  • Woman and hairdryerBlow back

    Would banning high-power appliances actually save energy?


  • Rack of lambFavourite feast

    Is the UK unusually fond of lamb and potatoes?


  • Members of staff at James Stevenson Flags hold a Union Jack and Saltire flag UK minus Scotland

    Does the rest of the UK care if the Scots become independent?


BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.