Apple-Polishers, Ass-Kissers and Suck-Ups: Towards a Sociology of Ingratiation

By Martin, Daniel D.; Wilson, Janelle L. | The Qualitative Report, August 20, 2012 | Go to article overview

Apple-Polishers, Ass-Kissers and Suck-Ups: Towards a Sociology of Ingratiation


Martin, Daniel D., Wilson, Janelle L., The Qualitative Report


Among sociologists, the topic of power in the workplace represents a longstanding interest (Blauner, 1964; Braverman, 1975; Gouldner, 1954; Grenier, 1988). However, while studies of both micro-structural relations (Collins, 2004) and organizational culture (Morrill, Zald, & Rao, 2003), have added to our understanding of workplace inequality, studies of power in formal organizations commonly locate it within existing complexes of rules, resources, and relations (Perrow, 1986; Pfeffer, 1981). Much less scholarly attention has been paid to how people, in the course of daily interaction within organizations create, in situ, "idio-cultural" strategies (Fine, 1979) that can be employed in efforts to gain favor. Two such strategies are "bullshitting" and "brownnosing." In a previous article (Martin & Wilson, 2011), we examined how "bullshitting" is used in negotiating relationships in interpersonal, social, and work contexts. We now turn our attention to another implement in the "cultural toolkit" (Swidler, 1986)--"brownnosing." We assess this phenomenon by using a sample comprised of members of the Millennial Generation (i.e., those born between 1982 and 2000) who were college students at the time we administered our survey to them. Using this data, we interrogate the ways in which students both understand and attempt to shape the structure of power relations in the work place, looking at a specific form of interaction--brownnosing.

Research studies carried out by organizational psychologists have identified an array of behaviors through which individuals attempt to increase their attractiveness in the eyes of others as "ingratiation" (Linden & Mitchell, 1988, p. 572). These studies commonly identify ingratiation as a micro-political resource used by subordinates in navigating strictures in the workplace-strictures that reflect the hierarchical arrangement of work relations. Previous research suggests that when managers in the workplace face contestation from workers they more readily cede rewards to ingratiating subordinates (Kipnis & Vanderveer, 1971). This observation is consistent with findings from experimental research studying the ways in which workers draw upon "influence tactics" in efforts to garner favor from supervisors. This research demonstrates that workers who are successful in securing rewards strategically exhibit a deferential demeanor once their reading of the boss reveals him or her to be "in the right mood" (Kipnis, Schmidt, & Wilkinson, 1980, p. 442). Ironically, however, this same study also discovered that it is managers and supervisors (rather than subordinates) who routinely engage in ingratiating behaviors.

Classic studies in organizational sociology have observed the ways in which workers attempt to curry favor with management by shaping the definitions and perceptions that management holds of them (Bramel & Friend, 1981; Homans, 1941). Recent research has examined the verbal strategies used by workers to cast themselves in a positive light (Hall & Valde, 1995; Tedeschi & Melburg, 1984; Tedeschi & Reiss, 1981). In line with this research, we have adopted Tedeschi and Melburg's (1984) conceptual definition of "ingratiation," vis-a-vis "... a set of assertive tactics which have the purpose of gaining the approbation of the audience that controls significant rewards for the actor" (p. 37). In their research, Tedeschi and Melburg (1984) identified four ingratiation strategies, including: (a) the use of statements in front of the boss that are self-enhancing; (b) complimenting or flattering one's supervisor; (c) making statements indicating similarity in belief or attitude with one's manager; and (d) doing favors for the boss (pp. 38-40). While these observations are both insightful and significant, there is still much to be said concerning the values, culture, and work-orientation of Millennial workers. Our objective in the present article is to describe and theorize the ways in which students, as present and future workers, conceptualize and engage in brownnosing as an interaction strategy.

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