Buttering your boss – Sycophancy redefined


The use of the word buttering implies that we are falsely praising a person. A few people (with very low self esteem) may enjoy being buttered, but others do not.

Consider this. We do not like criticism from anyone – except from those we respect and when we know the persons have a genuine interest in their hearts for me. However, we like praise from anyone. Sometimes, we wish that people notice our work and achievements and talk about it.

So if I am giving positive strokes to my boss for all the good things he has done, or the effort he is putting in, I am simply acknowledging his work. Similarly if I refrain from criticising; and, in fact, support his work with additional data or timely support, then it is not false. I am talking about fetching tea and coffee, polishing his shoes and acting as if he is God, but a genuine appreciation and support goes a long way in creating rapport.

People crave recognition and empathy and providing that makes a person positively predisposed to you. It is not possible to consistently deliver results (due to no fault of ours, but accidents happen) and this positive disposition helps during those times.

Have we become inconsiderate?



Today, a close friend of mine expressed anguish at the following incident.

Yesterday, he learnt of the death of his sister’s father-in-law. He was close to the deceased gentleman and they had spent many moments together solving crosswords and discussing other similar mysteries of life. He went over to his sister’s house and started helping with the arrangements for the funeral – ambulance, priest, death certificate, calling friends and relatives…

Meanwhile, he received phone calls from his workplace and from other persons who had professional things to discuss with him. With each person, he started his conversation by stating that he was in the midst of funeral arrangements of a close relative. Almost all persons, after saying something like, “Oh I see…,” carried on regardless, stating their case and discussing whatever they had called up for.

My friend, being the polite gentleman he is, discussed their case with them.

Subsequently, he expressed his wonder and bewilderment that, apart from one person, no one commiserated with him or showed any sensitivity towards the occasion or his emotions.

We see similar parallels in our life. I too am guilty of the same. I sometimes ask the other person whether it is a good time to talk. But other times, because I need the counterparty’s help or advice, I plough on regardless. I sometimes think that I will not take much time, but lose the sense of time when immersed into the details of my problem.

It may be difficult but do consider that over the last 24 hours, you may have superimposed your will on others, who have been polite enough not to tell you to “take a long jump off a short pier”.

I am not able to motivate myself…or others.


I know that I am supposed to do a particular activity like an assignment, or study a book or write letters. But I tend to postpone these indefinitely, citing various excuses.

Charles Handy talks about 3 things that are required in the motivational calculus.

  1. I should know my needs. These can be the need for security, for money, food, clothing and shelter, or need for companionship,  or need for approval, or a need to fulfill my debt to various people.
  2. I should know the result of which activity would satisfy these all or some of these needs.
  3. I should have the energy or the resources (money, time etc.) to spend on those activities.

The above are multiplicative. That is, if any of the three is not there, I would not be motivated.

If I do not know my needs, then no activity would motivate me.

If I do not have the energy or the resources, then I cannot finish the activity satisfactorily.

If I do not know how to satisfy my needs, then I will not be motivated.

Therefore, I have to link the activity (that I dislike) to a need. For example, if I fear that I will fail a course, and therefore have a need to pass it and get rid of my fear, I can link an assignment to that need.  If I need the approval of my colleagues, and the distasteful activity will satisfy that need, then I will try to do the activity.

Whether I finish the activity or not is based on the resources at hand. If I do not have the time, or I delayed it so much that I cannot possibly finish, then I am not motivated to do the activity, even if I know that the activity will satisfy a need.

The same principle holds good for motivating others. If I do not know the needs of another person, I cannot offer him an activity, the result of which would satisfy the needs.

If I do know his needs and I can link it to an activity that I want him to do, and I provide him with the means and resources (including training) to do that activity, the person will be motivated.

Remove any of the three (needs, activity or resources) and there will be no motivation.

Why do people commit violence?


For that matter, why do people do anything? De Becker talks about 4 things.

  1. Justification: we make a judgement that we have been wronged, hence we need to retaliate. If we think about it, we have justified each of our actions (or inaction). Sometimes we say it was necessary or unavoidable. Sometimes, we assume an impact which may or may not really happen.
  2. Alternatives: typically, violence seems to be the only alternative. This comes out of a lack of emotional control, where we are so much into the emotion that we cannot perceive any other option.
  3. Consequences: whether we can live with the consequences of the act. In fact, if we are afraid of further retaliation, we may not act.
  4. Ability:  do we have the confidence to use our body or a substitute (knife, gun or another person) to achieve the results.

When we talk about motivating others, the justification is the end result (either we want to avoid the pain or go towards pleasure) or what we want to get the person to do.

How we achieve the end result, are our alternatives. As a manager, we need to understand the other person’s justification and then come up with alternatives. We may then choose the right alternative. However, in general, we choose the first or the emotionally satisfying one.

Typically people stop at this level of analysis and start to act. But a good manager would think of the following also:

Will the action guarantee the consequence? What about other unintended consequences? This requires a certain experience.

Are we capable of doing this action? Intention and the selection of the most ideal alternative do not guarantee execution, if we do not have the skills and the experience.

Most motivational tactics fail, because without execution capability, they is only wishful thinking.

Suppose we wish to make people in the team work.

  • The justification is the result of the the team work. Whether team members buy into the result will determine if they will contribute. The result may not be important if it is not important to a person. finding what a person wants and linking the result of the team effort to this ‘want’ requires a certain creativity.
  • What can we tell a person so that he is convinced that he should do the work allotted to him. Maybe it is not the right work, because he perceives it demeaning. Maybe he thinks that you have given some one else the work that he wants to do, and that you are playing favorites.
  • Does the person believe that the work he is supposed to do will have the right consequences? If you promise him that it will, but he does not have confidence in you, then he will not do it, even if he has the capability.
  • And lastly, are you sure he can do this work?

Suppose we wish to change our job.

  • We justify the change of job – the boss is not good, the company is not good, the work has changed etc.
  • We look for alternative jobs – and here we indulge in a lot of wishful thinking and peer comparison.
  • We check of the short list of jobs will have the right consequences in terms of peer approval, money and prestige.
  • We do not typically, look at our capability in doing that job because we are focused on the job profile, not our capability.

Double Standards and Hypocrisy


Talking to some students, I realised that a person has a different set of rules for how they should be treated and for how they should treat others.  For example, we expect that juniors should obey our rules, but we should not obey any rules.

A corollary to this is the expectation that if person A treats person B well, then person B should treat person A well (Law of Reciprocity). If I have helped someone, that person should help me when I need it. Funnily,  this law should not hold good when treating a person badly.  I am allowed to shout at a person, but the person is not allowed to should back.

This is having double double standards.  This is not just among students, but also among teachers,bosses and our expectations in corporate life. We expect that if we are good to our colleagues, they should be good to us. We want a theory Y boss (nurturing boss), but we treat our subordinates as lazy good-for-nothing fellows and therefore follow theory X. If we are bad to someone, the person should understand why we are doing this (for their own good, obviously) and thank us for it.

I first thought this was hypocrisy, until my wife pointed out that hypocrisy is about saying one thing but acting in a different way. So when students or teachers advice others about the need to good time management, but come late, or if a boss professes to be Theory Y and having an open door, but actually uses the stick more than the carrot and is never available, this is hypocrisy.

Isn’t having two rules of behaviour more confusing to self and to others? You may argue that different situations call for different types actions. True enough. But is it different stimuli creating different responses but the beliefs are consistent, or are we also changing beliefs based on the situation?

If the second one is true, and if beliefs define the person, will the real person please stand up?

Does feedback help?


What happens when I give or receive feedback? Why is it that I give feedback with good intentions, but the result is not what we intended.

An engineering graduate would say, feedback is provided, based on output, to the input of a process to modify the process. A negative feedback dampens the process, a positive one increases the throughput.

When I give feedback, I give it with a desire to change the current state of mind (or belief) of the receiver so that his future actions (output) are more amenable to me personally. If others give feedback to the same receiver, and the feedback is different, what will be the state of mind of the receiver? Therefore, can I really control the state of mind or belief of the receiver?

If I am the receiver of feedback,I need to decide between various providers of feedback. I have my own priority system, which may be based on trust and on my assessment of the provider’s intent. Since the provider does not know what is going on in my mind, the provider cannot determine the impact of the feedback.

What is negative feedback?

Is it based on what I say? Or is it based on how the receiver perceives it? If my intent was to decrease the output of the receiver’s actions (negative feedback), the receiver has to accept my feedback to act accordingly. If the receiver rejects the feedback, my intent comes to naught. Similarly, if my intent is to provide feedback to increase the current output (positive feedback), but the receiver perceives me negatively, he may do the opposite. Hence, unlike feedback in engineering, negative and positive feedback as perceived by the provider is multiplicative based on whether the receiver perceives the feedback negatively or positively.

To put it plainly, my negative feedback, if considered negatively by the receiver, may make him do the opposite thing or make him continue doing what he does (minus x minus = plus).

My negative feedback, if considered favourably by the receiver, will make him do what I want him to do (minus x plus = minus).

Similarly, my positive feedback, if considered negatively by the receiver, may make him do the opposite thing and he may discontinue doing what he was doing (plus x minus = minus).

So, before giving feedback, I need to understand the belief of the receiver in terms of how he perceives me in relation to other influencers. I may need to prepare the ground by making the person amenable to my feedback, by choosing the right time, the right environment and past events leading to this event. Only then can I give feedback..

In reality, I simply burst out with feedback (generally negative), and it has an unintended reaction. I really need to control when and how I give feedback, else it is a waste of time and creates more relationship issues.

e-mails: ‘disrupting’ technology


Emails are one of the worst inventions for interpersonal relationships. I know that it is cheap and fast. But it is impersonal.

I are naturally shy and therefore hide behind emails. It allows me to compose at leisure and rewrite my mail, therefore lose all spontaneity. It therefore is not a true picture of who I am. Someone else can also write my emails on my behalf.

On the other hand, I have a tendency to personalise everything that I receive as input – whether it is an email or feedback. So when I get an impersonal letter, I colour it with my impressions of the sender. If my last interaction with the sender was bad, the letter is coloured by that impression…and vice versa. So junk mails have no impact because I have no connection with the sender.

If I am selling, or looking for a job, or talking to a friend or significant other, I should try and talk to him personally so that he can get a better impression about me. Otherwise when I send an email, like when applying for a job using a CV or an impersonal letter, it makes me the same as 500,000 others who are looking for a job.

If however, I have talked to a person, or someone else has talked on my behalf, then there is a personalisation, and when I send an email, the email is coloured by their impression about me.

If my email is forwarded to another person, again it becomes impersonal because the new recipient has no interaction with me. It is therefore sometimes better if I talk to the end user (the department that plans to hire me, e.g. the sales department) who then talks to the HR persons.

We need to decrease email interaction and increase verbal or face to face interaction. Handwritten letters are better than emails. At least there is a personalisation and a spontaneity.

Judging people


I have a tendency to judge people or companies. They are all doing the best they can under the circumstances and we do not know all the circumstances to judge them. When a person acts in a particular way, he does it based on his beliefs. We take this action of the person and extrapolate from it, his beliefs. Can we generalise based on one action?

I need to remember that I do not like to be judged. Why should I not extend the same courtesy to others?

How to ask for advice


Drucker, in his book ‘The Effective Executive,’ points out that the more senior a person is, the less time he has to himself. Since that person is also paid more, time is at a premium.

So if I waylay him and ask for advice, he will not be very keen on doing so – not because he does not want to, but because he needs to shift gears, listen to me, think of an answer or answers and then discuss them with me.
Furthermore, do I really need to be spoon fed? Does it create a good impression about me?
What I would do is the following:
Step 1: Do my research
    1. take the problem, analyse it, come up with 3 alternatives (1. do nothing, 2.do something radical and drastic, 3. something in the middle)


  • for each of the alternatives, understand the consequences. I need to remember that there is no right or wrong decision, there are paths and there are consequences.



  • I try to have at least 2 positive and 2 negative consequences for each alternative



  • I try an get one more ‘out-of-the-box’ alternative and its consequences



  • I then evaluate each one of them and come up with the most plausible alternative


Step 2: Find an opportune moment

I try to find a suitable time when the mentor is amenable to spend 5-10 minutes with me. This may need a prior appointment. I should be prepared to tell him the following:

    1. I have a problem which is ….(one sentence)


  • The impact of this problem on me (or whatever) is ….(one sentence)



  • I have come up with some solutions and I need his advice on whether I am taking the right step / approach. I do not tell him the solutions right now.


The advantage of this approach is that my mentor does have to waste his time. He knows I have done my homework, and I am coming to him for ratification. This allows him to give advice based on some foundation and my line of thought. It also tells him that I understand the value of his time.

Step 3: Prepare for the meeting

I make a mind map or a set of slides outlining the problem, the constraints, the assumptions, the alternatives and the consequences.

I print this out. This is dicey. I personally do not like to print and waste paper unless it is something to be kept for posterity. However, most seniors i know like to touch a piece of paper and scribble their comments on them and give them back. I typically ask the mentor what he would prefer.

Step 4: Meet, present, take advice and get out, fast

I do not need to say more.

Step 5: Give feedback

This is important. After I have done what I decided to do, I send my mentor a small email or a handwritten note explaining what happened and thanking him for his help. I cannot emphasise this more.