It’s Only Words…

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“Think not those faithful who praise thy words and actions but those who kindly reprove thy faults.”
–  Socrates, 400 BC

The ability to handle criticism well is an important life-skill. We all ‘know’ that criticisms – more than praises – provide opportunities for growth. After all, success is a poor teacher. Even when we know that, it isn’t easy when we are facing a barrage of criticisms after we had given our one-hundred per cent to something. Right?

Then, what about situations where you receive undeserved praise? Do you get uncomfortable by that or does that make your day? Of course, all of us like to be praised. Praises motivate. They become a source of encouragement. But, what about flattery? Is flattery easier to deal with than unfair criticism?

It is often said that praise with an underlying motive is flattery. But, then, there is hardly anything that we human beings do without a motive. The motive for praising someone could be to encourage or motivate. And, that can’t be bad?

Then there are those who believe that praise acknowledges and recognizes what is true and is factual, in contrast to flattery, which overstates for effect. But, don’t we all know that most things are not matters of fact but matters of perspective? Who gets to decide whether someone went beyond facts or not?

Yet, for all that we are likely to say about there being a thin line between praise and flattery, most of us know what it is when we come across it. We may not be able to list the parameters by which we decide it, but we are very unlikely to be confused about what it is when we face it.

As someone rightly said, ‘praise builds up. Flattery butters up.’ And, we know when we do it or it happens to us.

Let us call a spade, a spade: To flatter is to manipulate.

(Most subordinates struggle with praising their superiors, but this post is not about that. It is not easy to praise a superior without the superior perceiving it as flattery. That is a totally different challenge. On the other hand, bosses who fall for flattery are likely to lose their job. A 2012 paper “Set up for a Fall: The Insidious Effects of Flattery and Opinion Conformity toward Corporate Leaders,” shows that the likelihood of a CEO’s dismissal increases by as much as 64 percent when a culture of flattery creeps in.)

Let us, for a moment, assume that there is something called well-intentioned flattery. (Is there?) Let us assume that I want to make you believe that you are exceptionally good because when you believe so, you might become so. But, when you are being praised about with unusual glitter, before you deserve praise and frequently, even if it was meant to create a good feel, you are likely to recognize the emptiness and the effort involved. Deep down you would already be asking why. Worse still, everything that I say from then on gets discounted. After all, if I’m exaggerating what I say about you which you know the truth about, then you wouldn’t know where else I could be exaggerating, and you will feel compelled to discount even when I am talking facts at other times.

Of course, the other extreme is when, as a leader, I am too miserly with praise. That makes me look pricey and impossible to please.  That extreme is discouraging and counter-productive as well. No one wants to work for people who are impossible to please. Leaders are effective when they are genuine with praise and objective in criticism. We are effective when we don’t exaggerate.

Now, have you come across habitual flatterers? Someone who frequently overstates the value of what you do or who you are? I have! In most such cases, I have also seen a pattern.

As much as they shower exaggerated praises upon us, they also dismiss someone else’s achievements and abilities. In fact, they often praise us and offer a contrast with someone else. The flattery in this case is a useful guise for dangerous gossip. And, unfortunately, this sometimes works.

The second interesting phenomenon is the frequent anecdotal references to own achievements that get thrown in between the flattery. If you buy the flattery, you have also bought into the image building exercise of a person suffering from an interesting complex. S/he is smart-enough to do this, but not sure of how smart others think s/he is.

The third interesting phenomenon is that most of their achievements are people (‘trophies’) who have fallen for this in the past and who continue to yearn for their praise. After all, if you fall for flattery, it is addictive. You need more and more of it to keep going. So, you go back to where you can get it. The tragedy is that because this ‘selling’ often works, the habitual flatterers themselves don’t focus on the other strengths they have. They stop sharpening their saw when it comes to the other skills they genuinely have.

As exaggeration becomes a way of life, they lose their ability to focus on the details. They also lose the ability to be accurate or data-driven. In turn, they get used to making claims, ‘managing’ things and getting away. Every acquaintance is referred to as a friend and every friend, as family.  Every narrative has an imagined role the claimant has critically played. This is a double tragedy because in the end, habitual flatterers are not only failing others in their teams and in their organizations, but also themselves.

Incidentally, most people who receive flattery feel compelled to return generous praises. You may think that habitual flatterers would be the first ones to spot flattery and flee from it. On the contrary, most habitual flatterers like to be flattered in return. The complex works in a cycle-reinforcing manner.

A culture in which everyone is praising each other often should be positive, right? Unfortunately, a culture of frequent flattery is also likely to breed a culture of pulling down whoever is not present. Eventually, trust is lost, and the organization culture becomes one of negativity.

A very popular number from Boyzone of yesteryears was ‘Words’. Its chorus said “It’s only words and words are all I have to take your heart away”. Sounds romantic? Probably yes, if you are in your teens and are still not employed. If you are working in an organization or you have a department or team to lead, and all you have are words, then not!

Surely, no one is perfect. All of us are trying to do our best with what we have. But, surely, we all also have more than words. In any case, credible words – not exaggerations – work when it comes to both praises and criticisms. Credibility is the foundation on which leadership must be built.

“Leadership is not magnetic personality, that can just as well be a glib tongue. It is not ‘making friends and influencing people,’ that is flattery. Leadership is lifting a person’s vision to higher sights, the raising of a person’s performance to a higher standard, the building of a personality beyond its normal limitations.” –Peter F. Drucker

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J Mathew George
J Mathew George
J Mathew George is the Principal of St Mary’s College, Hyderabad. Mathew - or Prof Jojo as he is popularly known among his students - was earlier an Associate Professor of Economics at a Business School and headed the Center for Entrepreneurship Development at a private university. An economist by training, he started his academic career in the field of public policy education. His areas of current academic interest are spread over Education, Economics and Entrepreneurship. He describes himself as an educator, entertainer and encourager!

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