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CEOs Beware: Executives Full of Praise are More Likely to Backstab

Sycophantic underlings may not be so nice when they're talking to journalists, Harvard research finds.

All of us can’t help accepting praise without a tinge of suspicion that it’s not altogether genuine. Unfortunately for CEOs, they may have to take flattery with a particularly strong dose of incredulity.

New research conducted by the Harvard Business School has discovered that executives who shower compliments on their boss are more likely to criticize them in the press.

They drew the unsettling conclusion after analyzing 3,895 CEO-to-manager relationships, based on survey data from top executives at listed U.S. companies, as well as journalists on the beat.

The convincing magnitude of the correlations found in the results are most concerning for any CEO who has just received a pat on the back from that trusted office compadre.


On a two-point scale, a one-standard deviation increase in compliments to the CEO was associated with an average increase in resentment of between one-and-a-half and two points. This ill-feeling converted to more criticism in the media, with a two-point increase in resentment doubling the chance of an executive badmouthing their CEO to a journalist.

Criticism was either obvious, or took on more subtle forms via comments such as “the board is picking up the slack”, the researchers said.

The reasoning behind the results is relatively simple: sucking up can feel demeaning, especially for talented managers sure of their own abilities. The risk is that they’ll relieve themselves of all this pent-up self-belittlement by unloading on a journalist.

Most worryingly, though, the research found that CEOs who were women of from racial minorities experienced the most fake praise and subsequent criticism. White male executives found it particularly difficult to work for a female for non-white chief, it appeared.

“The fact that white male managers often make up the majority of a female or racial minority CEO’s direct reports further increases the likelihood that they will be criticized,” the researchers told the Harvard Business Review.

Also of concern is that fact that most people will only criticize colleagues in the press as anonymous sources, making it tough for CEOs to identify detractors.

Of course, many people are genuine in their appreciation. For CEOs, though, it might be better to value a person’s praise if they’ve discovered it indirectly through someone else—or received it from a colleague who isn’t afraid to regularly criticize them to their face, too.


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