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Get Ahead in Your Career Without Working Harder: Why Brown-Nosers Succeed

When I began to really study workplaces to evaluate who was thriving, I realized I was doing everything wrong.

Young employees won't stay in the same job for the next 30 years. They look for opportunities to get ahead, learn, and grow.

Young employees won't stay in the same job for the next 30 years. They look for opportunities to get ahead, learn, and grow.

Keeping Your Nose to the Grindstone Won't Help You Get Ahead in Today's World

“They were coming at me from the right and coming at me from the left,” my stressed-out father would grumble about his subordinates as we ate dinner. “I couldn't get anything done because I was too busy handling their problems.” In our family, where little children were to be seen and not heard, I listened with a keen ear and a closed mouth while processing this information I deemed as good as gold. After all, my dad was an esteemed manager who supervised 40 underlings. What he said carried a lot of weight and shaped my opinions of what a good employee should be: quiet, self-reliant, industrious, a person who didn't make waves, kept her nose to the grindstone, and never bothered the boss. So, not surprisingly, that's exactly the kind of worker I grew up to be.

Yet, as I approached 50 years on the planet and found myself newly unemployed, I realized my dad's portrait of the perfect worker was no longer applicable in today's economy. I started to study people who were thriving in their workplaces and realized I was doing everything wrong. I noticed how they used the same three strategies to win over their higher-ups:

  1. They were artful brown-nosers.
  2. They asked for advice and feedback.
  3. They didn't hesitate to toot their own horn.

Strategy #1: Artful Brown-Nosers

There are many negative terms for a person who flatters and fawns to gain an advantage: brown-noser, bootlicker, ass-kisser, shoe shiner, teacher's pet. When I was a teenager, my friends and I were sickened by kids who'd butter up the teachers for better grades or suck up to the coaches for more playing time. We felt their behavior was calculating and manipulative. We also saw that it worked. In fact, studies show that employees who flatter their bosses have a greater chance of being promoted, getting a raise, and receiving better ratings than those who rely on hard work alone. So if I were to meet up with those brown-nosers at our 30-year high school reunion, I'd probably come face-to-face with individuals who had rapidly climbed the ladder of success and were now comfortably perched on top.

The expression, “Flattery will take you nowhere or everywhere,” is a reminder that compliments should be doled out artfully. Otherwise, they seem insincere, hollow, and even sleazy. While some individuals are naturals at giving praise, most of us need practice to feel comfortable doing it. We also need to know what works best with our particular employer. By observing my brown-nosing colleagues, I discovered three strategies that always score brownie points with our boss.

How to Brown-Nose Your Boss to Get Ahead

  • Compliments. Give your boss compliments/credit when others are present (during meetings, in front of clients, in front of her boss, in front of her husband at the company Christmas party). These public acknowledgments made our boss beam from ear to ear and were not soon forgotten.
  • Praise. Praise her for a specific way she handled something and say you'd follow her example: “I was so impressed by how you handled that difficult client with so much finesse. I learned so much from watching you.” Keep in mind that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.
  • Presents. The two biggest brown-nosers at work collected money from the rest of us to purchase gifts of appreciation for our boss at Christmas and on her birthday. While I always found this somewhat odd, I now appreciate how effective it was. These gift-givers were the ones who received plum assignments, were excused from mandatory morning meetings, were allowed to leave during the work day to attend a child's play, and were never reprimanded for tardiness or dress code violations.
Don't hesitate to ask your boss for advice and feedback. It makes them feel needed.

Don't hesitate to ask your boss for advice and feedback. It makes them feel needed.

Strategy #2: Strategic Advice Seekers

Going to your boss for advice is one of the best ways to win her favor. Because my dad complained when workers pounced on him with their problems, I'd always been reluctant to call upon bosses for support. I thought asking for help would be viewed as a sign of weakness—an indication that I was incapable of handling the situation on my own. I always believed it best to stay out of my employer's hair, but I was wrong.

Most bosses are flattered when asked for their advice and opinion. It makes them feel needed and respected. It also provides an opportunity for that crucial face-to-face time that fortifies the employer-employee relationship and builds rapport. Being competent but invisible at work is never a good strategy.

Since bosses are often busy and stressed, schedule a time when she can sit down with you in private and give you her full attention. Connecting with your boss on the fly is unsatisfactory for you and them. Instead, give your boss a heads-up on what you wish to discuss so they can give it some thought and mentally prepare. This will result in a more productive meeting.

Never hesitate to ask your boss for feedback. Asking for feedback lets her know you're motivated and open to constructive criticism. Unlike 30 years ago, when it was all about employees serving their employers, workers today can ask more of their bosses: career development opportunities, avenues for advancement, and classes to learn new skills. While your employer can expect a lot from you, it's also reasonable for you to expect something from them.

Even if it goes against your modest nature, highlight your accomplishments when the boss is present.

Even if it goes against your modest nature, highlight your accomplishments when the boss is present.

Strategy #3: Shameless Horn Tooters

While humility may be a virtue, it's definitely not a plus at work. Employees who sing their own praises, particularly when the boss is present, are bound for a bright future. I once had a colleague who would tell story after story in the lunch room about her successes at work, portraying herself as an office superhero who always saved the day. While nauseating at times (especially since she was a recent college graduate with little experience), I also found it quite shrewd for someone so young.

Because of my self-deprecating nature, I've often depicted myself as less than heroic at work. While this made me seem humble, approachable, and down-to-earth, it did nothing to boost my profile as a hard-working, competent employee. Younger workers, who have grown up using Facebook, Twitter, and other social media, know the importance of marketing themselves. What older folks such as myself may interpret as bragging, they see as projecting confidence, communicating their expertise, and getting ahead at work. Some cagey co-workers of mine knew how to sing their praises without seeming overly boastful by doing the following:

  • While patting themselves on the back, they also gave due credit to co-workers and superiors.
  • They were specific about their accomplishments: I doubled my sales from last month. I signed up six new clients. My article was featured in the newspaper.
  • They focused on work-related triumphs. Co-workers who are always bragging about their perfect spouse, their amazing children, and their superstar status on the tennis court usually wind up eating alone in the lunch room.

Closing Thoughts

When my father said to keep my nose to the grindstone and don't make waves, he was not giving me bad advice. It's just that times have changed, and those tips are no longer applicable in today's economy, where employees move from job to job. Unlike 40 years ago, a person no longer graduates from high school or college and works at the same place until they retire and receive a gold watch. Today, employees must be assertive, get noticed, and market themselves. Being a brown-noser who seeks advice and toots her own horn is no longer a bad thing. Because the truth is, brown-nosers succeed in business.

I'm so Glad I Read This Book!

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.

© 2015 McKenna Meyers


McKenna Meyers (author) on January 25, 2016:

Yes. It's all part of the game -- learning the rules to get ahead. Working hard is just one piece of it. Thanks for reading and commenting and sharing your experience.

Glenn Stok from Long Island, NY on January 25, 2016:

You are absolutely right everything you mentioned in this hub. I've had the experience of trying many of these things in the days of my employment.

Asking for feedback and criticism definitely has a powerful effect. It gives the boss the feeling of being in control. And as you said, he or she will appreciate that one wants to know how they're doing and is willing to get constructive criticism to be a better employee. That's what they are looking for. It works!

McKenna Meyers (author) on December 22, 2015:

Yes, working hard is not enough. I learned that the hard way on my last job!

Robert Sacchi on December 22, 2015:

I wish it wasn't good advice but yes, it is good advice.