Avoid flattery at all cost

“Don’t be afraid of enemies who attack you. Be afraid of the friends who flatter you.” (General Alvaro Obregon)

The second principle in How to Win Friends and Influence People is “Give honest, sincere appreciation.” Why, then would I open with the quote above? Well, I’ll get to that shortly. First, I want to talk about the lack of honest appreciation that happens in many of our lives.

I once worked for a director whom I very greatly admired. Most of the things he did and said I did my best to learn and later copy. One area I did not agree with him was that of appreciation. He would say in meetings that he didn’t thank people for doing their jobs. He said that they drew their pay every two weeks, and that was thanks enough for doing what was expected.

Even before I was exposed to How to Win Friends and Influence People, I knew that giving appreciation to people was not only a good idea, but it was necessary for good working relationships. I was taught as a boy to say please and thank you, and to say thank you sincerely. I knew then, as I know now, that when a person is appreciated for what they do, it makes them want to do it more. Am I saying that I manipulate people? Heavens no. Why would giving sincere appreciation ever be manipulative? Manipulation only comes into play if the appreciation is perfunctory, or if it serves another end. When I say thank you to someone, I mean that I am grateful for what they have done. From the simplest of things, like holding a door, to delivering the most complex assignments at work.

Think about it from your own perspective. How often do we talk about being “taken for granted”? What we are saying is that no one notices the things that we do on a daily basis. They don’t ever say thank you for the thousands of little things that we do. At our house, I do the laundry and dishes most of the time, and my wife does the cooking most of the time. We both are in the habit of thanking each other for doing those tasks, even though some might see them as mundane. It is when we start to falter at giving that sincere appreciation that things slip in the house. Yes, they are chores, and yes, they just have to get done. But I can do the laundry carefully and efficiently, or I can let it build for a few extra days. We certainly have enough clothes to get by. But, I know that my wife appreciates when I stay ahead of the chore, and so I do. And she knows how much I appreciate the healthy and delicious meals she prepares, and that propels her to do more.

Giving honest and sincere appreciation is a virtuous cycle. The more that we show it to one another, the more that we do the things that are being appreciated, and the better we do them. That breeds more appreciation, and so the cycle continues.

In my previous post I talked about the ills of criticism, condemnation and complaint. Some have asked me whether this principle is the answer to the 3Cs. The short answer is no, the replacement of the 3Cs is to find more understanding and forgiveness. Sincere appreciation is not given for things that we find distasteful or rude. If I am cut off in traffic, I am not going to send a thank you note to the other driver. If someone heaps more work onto me when my plate is already full to the breaking point, I am not going to adorn their desk with flowers. That would be silly, and even sarcastic. And, it would certainly not be sincere.

This principle is about showing our true feelings for the things in our lives that we really appreciate.

The quote above is about flattery. There is an old saying, from TV and movies, that “flattery will get you everywhere.” I guess that might be true, if you are manipulative enough. And you might get there for a short time, but it won’t be lasting.

We all know what flattery is. It is that insincere praise that we hear so often. It is superficial and not backed with any kind of force. As Mr. Carnegie wrote:

“The difference between appreciation and flattery? That is simple. One is sincere and the other insincere. One comes from the heart out; the other from the teeth out. One is unselfish; the other selfish. One is universally admired; the other universally condemned.”

Strong words, wouldn’t you agree? If I give “appreciation” only to the extent that I want something in return, then it is insincere and self-serving. And, it will soon be seen for what it is. But when I sincerely appreciate something, and I express that appreciation, then it does not matter to me whether that act is ever repeated.

Last year two of my children went through life changing surgery. It all worked out well, and they are healthy and happy today. On the day of the surgery, my daughter was in the recovery area. As the hours wore on, more and more of the other patients were moved to their rooms to convalesce. My daughter was literally the last one to be moved. During this time, the nursing staff also began to peel off and go home for the night. One nurse was left with us. Surely it was her duty to be there, and she wasn’t a volunteer. But she was particularly kind to my daughter and me as we sat for those hours. She didn’t have to be. She could have stayed at her workstation, completing her paperwork for the day, but she didn’t. She checked on us frequently, and did everything she could to expedite our situation, and to make us as comfortable as possible.

When word finally came that my daughter was being moved, I went to the nurse and shook her hand and told her that I really appreciated all that she’d done for us. She smile, and tried to deflect by saying that she was just doing her job, but I persisted and said that I thought she’d gone well beyond the requirements of the job and that she’d made our stay a little less stressful as a result. She smiled and thanked me again. Did I do this because I wanted something from her? No. I have literally never crossed paths with her since, and likely never will. I gave her honest and sincere appreciation because it was what was called for in that instance.

Years ago I taught a class on leadership for managers. One of the things I taught the class members to do was to give compliments that were sincere and heartfelt. Last year I wrote this blog post on how to give compliments if you are interested. One thing that I have noted in my career, and I am sure many of you have as well, is that when the boss comes to compliment me, it is usually because she wants to give me more work. That’s how it goes very often. “Say there, Bobby-C. Great job on that assignment. Here is another for you.” Honestly, I like the compliment, but I have been somewhat conditioned to cringe when it starts because I might not like what comes at the tail end.

I would give my class members an assignment. I would tell them that for the next week, every day, they needed to find someone who worked for them, and give them a sincere, heartfelt, compliment. And then, walk away. I told them that many of the people they lead have been similarly conditioned as I was, and that if they started doing this, they would start to change that expectation.

The cycle we were trying to break was the idea that compliments from the boss come with strings. If the compliments come with strings, then no matter how sincere we may think we’re being, we are really just flattering them, and that’s not where we want to be.

Give that assignment a try for yourself. You don’t have to be a leader / manager to do it. Find someone with whom you work, or someone with whom you live. Find a personal trait of theirs that you admire, and give them a compliment with evidence. Then, walk away. Don’t let them try to fumble to return the compliment. Don’t let them sit in expectation of what’s coming next. Just deliver the gift, smile, and walk away. Do that once a day for the next week. At the end of that week, tell me if you don’t feel better about yourself, and if you don’t see a change in how people approach you.

Principle #2 – Give honest, sincere appreciation.

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4 Responses to Avoid flattery at all cost

  1. Bobby-C says:

    As I was reading this post I realized that I never finished one of the thoughts I had. That director, who said that he only gave appreciation in the paycheck, was really being very sly. The fact was that he did show appreciation to those who worked for him. He did say thank you for a job well done, and when he did it was always heartfelt and sincere.

    While I never agreed with his statements about paychecks, I came to understand two things. First, it was just a bit of very dry humor on his part. Second, he was purposely making the point that he only gave out praise when it was truly earned. In other words, it was always sincere.


  2. wantneedwill says:

    Sincere and insincere, altruist and selfish… I wonder if I’m a bit of a cynic when one of my most favorite sayings was “altruists don’t exist” – studying psychology has proved to me time and time again that people act with a motive. Sincere actions are never truly sincere, they all have a motive, a goal behind them. Like in the case of giving a ‘sincere’ compliment to the person, you want to make the person feel appreciated, which in return will make the worker happier to give out more of themselves to the company as well as boost the leader’s post as a good leader, for having given it. Not to mention it makes you feel good for having done the right thing. As you said yourself.

    It’s not sincere – it serves a purpose to benefit yourself, but it’s not really insincere either… it’s just… human.

    We manipulate people around us all the time, be it consciously or subconsciously – it might not be the goal of it, but it is undeniably the end product. The seminars you yourself have lead are subtle ways of providing education on how to manipulate people more efficiently, without them understanding they are being manipulated. Like you’d give a dog a treat for doing the right thing, you give a worker a compliment – and just like a dog, the worker will do the right thing more often when complimented. We really are a simple species in the end. You’ve heard those stories of loved ones reading books about training animals and then applying what they’ve learned to their spouses? It really is that simple. Kinda scary too.

    It always serves another end, in one way or another. That’s the key in life for me, finding out the motives of what makes people tick, why they do something, why it happens the way it does. It’s also the fastest way to help someone change who they are – finding the motive of their own actions that are unknown to them.

    But I digress, I enjoyed this post – obviously made me think quite a bit!


    • Bobby-C says:

      I could not disagree more. I tend to be a cynical person at times, to be sure. But I do believe that there is good for the sake of good. I know in my heart that when I give honest, sincere appreciation to someone that it is just that – honest and sincere. When I was an instructor of the Dale Carnegie course, I never once manipulated anyone within the course.

      There will always be people who can twist any good thing for nefarious purposes. That doesn’t mean that people shouldn’t do good things.


      • wantneedwill says:

        Oh don’t misunderstand me – I never said you shouldn’t do good things, you should! I’m all for doing good things for good, but one must always realize that the good things done for good, are also beneficial to oneself in one way or another.

        I love helping people, I’ve always been the listener in my group of friends and often times at the expense of my own mental well-being. It made me feel good to be helpful, selfless, and as such, I understand that no matter what good thing we do, it always serves a purpose for ourselves as well. It made me feel valuable, like I could make a difference in someone’s life by just being there. Same as giving money to charities.

        One can elude themselves into thinking otherwise, of course, but it does not change the end result. We human beings get something out of everything we choose to do. Be it good for good or not 🙂 If it makes you smile or you get that warm fuzzy feeling in your chest – you got something out of the equation, meaning it wasn’t truly sincere, in a sense.

        It is not the conscious reason for the things we choose to do, my body moves subconsciously and if someone cries I will try to make them smile. I don’t stop to think if it would make me feel good to help them or not, I just act – doing good for good. Our subconscious mind though, rules that – it makes us feel good to do the right thing. That’s all I’m trying to say, finding out why our subconscious reacts the way it does is based on the fact that true altruism is impossible unless you’re a single cell organism. It is engraved into our DNA to guarantee the survival of our species, to help others.

        Understanding that, allows us to understand ourselves and our motives – why we react the way we do without thought entering the picture. It doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do something, you should – react the way you do! Good things are great, but saying you do them just for the sake of doing them is a fallacy. In a sense, if you understand?

        That is my view on it at least, I love knowing how my mind works and why I do the things that I do. Conscious or unconscious.

        Doing good things and helping others makes me feel good, it brings me joy and I enjoy seeing others smile. So can we truly say I do so out of pure sincerity – in my conscious world I do, but what about the unconscious? It’s a thought dilemma, a fascinating idea – about our own existence and what in the end, makes us tick. How we react, without conscious thought entering the picture.


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