In Hans Christian Andersen’s tale, The Emperor’s New Clothes, two swindlers convince a vain emperor they could weave the most elegant clothes so uncommonly fine, only those with the highest refinement, good taste, and exceptional intelligence would be able to see them. The ambitious emperor heartily agrees, thinking it would help him to distinguish the wise men from the fools in his empire. The con men pretend to weave the most beautiful cloth ever seen. Unable to admit that perhaps he himself is unqualified to be emperor, the nobleman pretends to admire the imaginary cloth. The day comes for a public procession, and the thieves make a great deal out of dressing the emperor in his fancy new duds. For his part, the emperor puts on his most regal face and strides down the street, his noblemen carrying the train behind him. All in attendance remark at the stunning beauty and quality of the emperor’s new clothes.
Finally, a child speaks up and says what everyone else is thinking: “The emperor has no clothes.”
This story has a few morals, but perhaps the most relevant to the workplace is that sycophancy makes the sycophant look like a fool. All the royal subjects who were heaping lavish and undeserved praise on their inept leader are equally foolish as the emperor himself.
Suck-up. Toady. Back-scratcher. Brown-noser. Lackey. Boot-licker. Regardless of the term you assign, it’s critical to your integrity, and by extension your personal brand, that you know how to identify and deal with workplace sycophants. These people are empty black holes of neediness, and if you allow them, they will suck the life out of you. They heap insincere praise on leaders, tend to bully peers and subordinates, all in their quest for personal power and self-preservation. Their modus operandi is venomous and can infect the workplace, and you, unless you know how to handle them. Here are some tips:
Let the sycophant know that you’re on to them. Brown-nosers are out for themselves, and, like roaches, will scatter and hide when the lights are turned on. Instead of merely ignoring the behavior, call them out. “I’m not asking for you to agree with me. I’m asking you what you would suggest we do about XYZ as we move forward. Please refrain from flattery.”
Remain alert. Remember that a sycophant will have no problem using you as a means to their end. Try to remain as detached and emotionless as possible when you interact with them. Make them stick to the facts.
Establish clear rules. You’ve undoubtedly heard the saying “You teach people how to treat you.” You need to lay down the law with the sycophant and let them know that you are not susceptible to their empty praise and flattery, and that you will not tolerate it.
Don’t engage. This one is simple. Just refuse to play their boot-licking, apple-polishing, obsequious games. Ignore the praise and flattery and keep every interaction with them focused on the issue at hand.
Whatever you do, don’t get embroiled in the situation such that you do not begin to think the same way. This kind of behavior is untenable and will only serve to damage you. Keep calm and plan a strategy to get people to realize that sucking up is intolerable.