On flattery and being ‘nice’
It was surprisingly refreshing to read Dennis Tourish’s book, The Dark Side of Transformational Leadership, because it tackled a common theme with a different take which exposed a new perspective. Mainstream leadership materials – from Collins’ Good to Great to Greenleaf’s Servant Leadership – highlight and endorse the central, transformational role of one person – the leader – in renewing, advancing, and achieving organizational success. Tourish, however, chooses to promote an opposing viewpoint: that overdependence on one individual creates a dysfunctional and even toxic organizational culture, and any success an organization achieves is dependent on the entire system working together in an ever-evolving process of action and communication.
Tourish advances a convincing argument which is unfortunately diminished by using extreme examples: cults, including Jonestown and Heaven’s Gate, the banking crisis, Stalinism, and the Zimbardo prison experiment are given extensive treatment. Rather than focus on egregious examples of darkness in leadership, I’d like to focus on a subtle but pernicious way in which organizational health is corrupted: through flattery and niceness.
Within the echo chamber of an organizational system, Tourish notes that “…a leader’s followers quickly realise that the best way to acquire influence and secure their position is to exaggerate how much they agree with the opinions of those in charge. Over time, more and more upward communication becomes flattering rather than critical in nature.” The lack of authentic upward feedback reduces the capacity of the leader to know what is really happening on the ground within her organization. He continues, “Flattery constitutes a perfumed trap for decision makers. It improves the odds of organizational failure, separates leaders even further from non-leaders, institutionalises dysfunctional power differences and ensures that leaders develop ever more elaborate plans and strategies with which their followers profoundly but silently disagree.”
The cousin of flattery is niceness, a pattern of behaviour that permeates our Christian churches and families. Researchers Troup and Marinchak, in their analysis of niceness, recall how Dale Carnegie popularized the strategic value of niceness in How to Win Friends and Influence People by citing the Golden Rule. They continue: “Nice people are supposed to affirm, to sound approving and supportive; we flatter to give an impression thereof. We say something that we do not really believe and would never really stand behind, and in so doing we pretend a form of goodness we cannot deliver. Therefore, niceness, even if a central value, is no virtue…. [N]iceness creates a society accustomed to low-intensity, soft-core deceit. Micro-lies permeate our collective lives and truthfulness ebbs.
Why is it important to develop authentic, truthful organizational environments? Researcher Rouxelle De Villiers’ review of Tourish’s work highlights how “[o]ver-powered leaders who quell feedback become fatally out of touch with reality and have an exaggerated sense of support and [are] unlikely to consider a sufficiently wide range of alternatives to make pivotal decisions.” This squelching of authentic feedback, through flattery, niceness, or minimizing, results in a leader who anticipates support from staff and is often blindsided when it fails to appear. Additionally, the decisions that are made are informed by a narrow, buffered perspective that is uninformed by more realistic opinions and alternative viewpoints.
Philanthropic families are not immune to the web of soft-core deceit woven by flattery and niceness. Tourish reveals that CEOs are especially liable to be flattered within their business contexts; the same is true of the philanthropic founders. Unfortunately, very few individuals on the receiving end of the philanthropy will risk future donation revenue by telling the truth. The result is an echo chamber of feel-good praises and accolades. Within the family, second and third generations perceive risks in being cut off from inheritances or ongoing work with the family foundation if their true feelings were communicated. Instead, they are papered over with niceness, failing to address the truth. As a result, the philanthropy leader often lacks a loop for authentic feedback and clarity for ongoing effectiveness is often reduced.
One way to address this awkward environment is using third-party consultants. In my early years in philanthropy, I hired a couple to anonymously interview approximately 50 charity leaders to provide me with an unvarnished perspective on how our philanthropy impacted their work. Obviously financial gifts benefited organizations, but how we operated needed improvement. We learned great lessons on how to give better, how to communicate more effectively, and how to create better conditions for mutuality by hearing voices on the other side of the grant application.
 Dennis Tourish, The Dark Side of Transformational Leadership (Hoboken NJ: Taylor and Francis, 2013), 77.
 Ibid., 77.
 Calvin L. Troup and Christina L. McDowell Marinchak, “Niceness, Flattery, and Deceit,” Western Journal of Communication 82, no. 1 (January 1, 2018): 59–74, https://doi.org/10.1080/10570314.2017.1306097.
 Rouxelle De Villiers, “Book Essay on “The Dark Side of Transformational Leadership: A Critical Perspective”.” Journal of Business Research 67, no. 12 (2014): 2513.
6 responses to “On flattery and being ‘nice’”
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Great insight re: donors. I hear you…and since money often creates a power-differential, I know missionaries who live behind a façade to avoid being “cut-off” because of something as simple a drinking wine. At some point niceness and flattery cross over into downright pandering and lying. In the name of Christ, of course!
You were very kind to Tourish. I doubt he would have anything good to say about your ministry since, according to his critical analysis strategy, you use an overpowering omniscient pressure that exploits spirituality on your clients and followers, which subverts their independent social construction and natural freedoms, or something like that. I read way too much of his book!
We have bad leaders in all leadership models. He would serve his agenda better to seek ways to improve leaders instead of tearing down the system.
The complexities of philanthropic family foundations must be intense. I cannot imagine the family dynamics that might get close and personal. You say, “Philanthropic families are not immune to the web of soft-core deceit woven by flattery and niceness.” Yes sir!
Plus, adding the complexities that money evokes, and it must really be sticky. Is this one of the reasons you are doing your research?
Thank you for your good work in helping such families (and no, I am not using flattery and niceness to butter you up.)
Wow, you deftly brought the extreme examples Tourish uses to light and highlighted some that are apparent in less ones. It would be easy to dismiss this book and its precepts by convincing ourselves that we are not Stalin, or Jim Jones and those people were certainly afflicted with NPD. Not so. The dangers of transformational leadership are not limited to the extremes but are evident in quite different contexts as my own experience demonstrates. The flattery and niceness of which you speak was consistently communicated to our president by the middle management in order to ingratiate themselves and save their own skins. Almost all of those people survived his dismissal and still maintain their positions of authority despite supporting the injustices of the regime tacitly.
It is interesting to me to see how even these issues apply to your contexts. I am glad that you are there as one who is willing to close the loop of authentic feedback, even at the risk of losing financial support.
I appreciated another great post from you Mark! Your discussion about niceness and flattery was very interesting and I think relevant in many leadership contexts. I also think the quote you highlighted…“[o]ver-powered leaders who quell feedback become fatally out of touch with reality and have an exaggerated sense of support and [are] unlikely to consider a sufficiently wide range of alternatives to make pivotal decisions.” was spot on when it comes to leaders becoming out of touch with those they are leading. If leaders cannot handle honest feedback I would not consider them good leaders.
Ok now that you say this (I didn’t read the book or around it) I am starting to wonder if I put too much pressure on myself to be the one who changes the system of the church I served. This is likely since it’s always been on me to change the dysfunction of my mother (and enabling father). I was deep in Friedman, Heifetz and Collins in those five years and always felt like a failure if I couldn’t eliminate all my anxiety in order to be the healthiest person in the room, etc. etc. I think Tourish would say the pressure I received from much leadership work contributed to me departure.