UF study: Brown-nosing works better than boasting in job interviews

10/14/04

GAINESVILLE, Fla. --- Sucking up or apple polishing are more likely to work in a job interview than boasting of one's accomplishments, a new University of Florida study finds.

"Kissing up, being nice and agreeing more than disagreeing do seem to be effective tactics for people to use when looking for a job," said Timothy Judge, a UF management professor who did the research. "This approach succeeds because it leads recruiters and interviewers to believe the applicant will fit into the organization."

The findings show there is a large social component to the workplace, despite business schools spending a great deal of time and effort training people to master technical skills, said Judge, whose study appears in the August Journal of Applied Psychology. People like being complimented and having others agree with them, and practicing such social niceties can't help but make a favorable impression in the workaday world, he said.

"One might view these ingratiatory behaviors negatively as apple polishing or bootlicking, but by the same token one could consider them social skills," he said. "In fact, one social psychologist once said that one of the key findings in the history of psychological research is the 'similar-to-me bias,' which means, 'We like people who are like us.'"

That similarity-attraction theory suggests people are attracted to those with whom they have something in common, so when an applicant agrees with a recruiter's opinions, the recruiter may believe they share many beliefs and attitudes, he said.

"Judge's paper is a well-conducted study that gives insight into the fact that it is more useful to compliment others than it is to compliment ourselves," said Daniel Cable, professor of management and organizational behavior at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, who has studied the job choice process for nearly a decade. "On the other hand, agreeing outwardly with an interviewer when you really disagree could wind you up with a job where you don't really fit the culture of the organization."

For their research, Judge and Chad Higgins, a University of Washington management professor, studied 116 undergraduate students majoring in business or liberal arts at the University of Iowa who were interviewed for jobs they sought through the college placement service.

The applicants completed surveys asking them to rate on a seven-point scale their use of various ingratiatory and self-promotion tactics. Examples of ingratiatory behaviors included agreeing outwardly with the recruiter's opinion while disagreeing inwardly, and complimenting the interviewer's appearance. Self-promotion tactics included playing up one's accomplishments or experience levels and overstating one's qualifications.

In turn, the recruiters were asked to assess the applicants, including stating how strongly they agreed or disagreed with statements such as, "This applicant is a good match or fit with my organization and its current employees" and "This applicant's values reflect the values of my organization." Ultimately, recruiters were asked to rate how likely they would be to recommend hiring the applicant, using a seven-point scale ranging from 'strongly agree' to 'strongly disagree.'

While the results showed a strong relationship between the use of ingratiating behaviors and favorable attitudes on the part of recruiters, self-promotion techniques had no effect, Judge said.

"We know that on the job, self-promotion has never seemed to work too well, probably because the supervisor has much more of an opportunity to find out the reality," he said.

On the other hand, studies have found the use of ingratiating behaviors to be effective in influencing performance ratings, he said. Complimenting supervisors or co-workers and agreeing with their opinions may not be as dishonest as it would appear; some people are simply more agreeable by nature, Judge said.

In order to ensure they get the best-qualified applicants, though, recruiters should strive to get more detailed information from prospective job candidates rather than simply accepting comments that are designed to please, he said.

"A certain level of agreement and trying to get along is fine, but I think the interviewer needs to be careful that there's substance behind the style," Judge said. "There are questions that can test that. For example, if you asked an applicant, 'Have you broken a rule?' that may be a way to test whether a person is agreeing with everything that is said or is just an agreeable person." The results, showing that ingratiation tactics have such a strong effect during the interview process, raise the question about whether businesses are really looking for people with their own ideas.

"Probably if you were to ask most managers, 'Do you want "yes" people?' they would say, 'No, I want people who disagree and represent themselves,'" he said. "But if you look at what they actually mean, you get a different picture."

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Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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