The Danger of Surrounding Yourself With Sycophants in Business
Have you ever had a colleague who routinely showered you with praise, a friend who always took your side or a significant other to whom you could do no wrong?
Being on the receiving end of these behaviors, you might have felt good, at least for some time. It’s only human to feel exhilarated when someone compliments you, admires you or offers other forms of validation. Business leaders in particular are prone to feeling good when someone in their corner agrees with their ideas, backs them up and gushes about their work. It helps them feel like they are on the right path and succeeding.
Of course, these gestures don’t always come from a place of malintent, especially if they happen every now and then. But for the most part, the people who routinely make these gestures, constantly offering different forms of validation, are not operating from a place of goodwill.
Professionally and personally, business leaders must be wary of sycophants, those people who appear to be starstruck and overly adoring of another person. Often, the person receiving the validation sees the sycophant’s words and actions as harmless. But the reality is that having business (and personal) relationships with sycophants can be dangerous and could seriously harm your business.
What Is Sycophancy?
I gave my take on what a sycophant is above, but it’s helpful to examine the psychological definition. A Psychology Today article by professors Deborah and Mark Parker references well-known writing on the subject, “Ingratiation: A Social Psychological Analysis,” by Edward Jones.
According to the Parkers, Jones “identifies three basic kinds of ingratiation” in his work, specifically, “Other enhancement (that is, the classic suck-up), opinion conformity (the yes-man), and self-presentation (the self-promoter).”
Per another article the Parkers wrote for Psychology Today, signs to look out for to “tell a flatterer from a true friend” include someone who “imitates your tastes and opinions,” copies your fashion sense, excessively promotes themselves, fawns over you “routinely,” interacts with “perceived underlings dismissively and with contempt” and only opts for “mild differences of opinion” under the guise of having “some independence of mind.”
Reflecting on your career, you might recall instances where you witnessed or were on the receiving end of such behavior. You might even recognize a current situation where sycophantic behaviors are involved.
The Dangers of Sycophancy
You should strive to detect sycophantic behaviors and distance yourself if you observe them. Why? Again, referencing the Parkers’ work (this time their book, Sucking Up: A Brief Consideration of Sycophancy), sycophants are drawn to power.
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If you work with a sycophant in a professional setting, there’s a chance they might be strategically positioned to gain from the relationship—accumulating and using power—in ways that could destroy your organization.
For instance, a sycophant who is employed to handle a company’s public relations could wreak major havoc by using their access to a company’s sensitive information to leak news about a merger or acquisition to the press (to gain favor with a member of the news media), which could jeopardize those plans. Or, a sycophant might only offer certain opinions or vote in favor of certain decisions not because they truly think it is best for the company but because they think it is what will win them brownie points.
A sycophant could also use their adoration of you to manipulate a business leader into doing certain things, such as revealing sensitive corporate financial information. Down the line, a sycophant could use that financial information to their advantage.
And these are just three examples. Many forms of damage can stem from sycophantic behaviors. Examine some businesses that have failed throughout history, and you’ll find that a group of “yes-men” never challenged anything, leading to terrible decisions. Just look at Enron.
Adoration Doesn’t Leave Room for Imperfection
In business and beyond, adoration doesn’t leave room for imperfection. Adoration is superficial and temporary. When someone adores you, they don’t see you as a flawed human being who messes up. In contrast, when someone loves you, they recognize that, like all people, you are imperfect, but they accept you anyway.
Over the years, I’ve concluded that real validation is about not always agreeing with someone. Coming from a 12-Step Alcoholics Anonymous program (26 years of sobriety as of this year), real validation, to me, has become about someone having the courage to tell me the truth about who I am. Those hard truths are truly in my best interest; they help me learn and grow as a human being. Someone who tells me the truth, however uncomfortable it may be, is someone who cares about my well-being.
If we all redefine validation as truths versus automatic affirmations that affirm what we want to hear, we can better protect ourselves, our businesses and those around us and continue to grow as people and leaders. Fake validation stagnates. Real validation nurtures development.
Thousands of years ago, Greek philosopher Plutarch wrote in How to Tell a Flatterer from a Friend that a flatterer “labors to please” you while a friend does so “to profit you.” At work and outside work, surround yourself with people who want to enrich you—even if it’s at the temporary expense of your ego.