How to spot a sycophant in your office

A leading CEO explains how HR can tell if they’re surrounded by yes-men

How to spot a sycophant in your office
Does your team really think your idea is infallible or are they simply massaging your ego?

It’s a question many senior HR leaders may have asked themselves as they ascend within their organisation and struggle to find a genuine sounding board – so how do you separate the supporters from the sycophants?

“Check the objectivity of the subordinate’s answers – are they well thought out or simply an affirmation of the ‘alpha’s’ viewpoint,” suggests Tim Cole, CEO and founder of The Compass Alliance.

Cole – who recently penned ‘The Compass Solution, A Guide to Winning Your Career’ – says leaders should also regularly ask questions of others.

“There is no greater litmus test than the people responsible for the work,” he tells HRD. “An insightful HR leader has his or her finger on the pulse of the employees – and it’s there that you can learn and/or identify the persons of integrity versus the ‘players’.”

Finally, Cole encourages HR leaders to invest some critical thinking in watching department meetings, daily interactions, etc. 

“The greatest optic on the day-to-day can be found in the HR leader getting involved there – not relying on occasional pulse checks or after-action reviews,” he says.

If leaders fail to identify ingenuine employees, the risks will quickly stack up, warns Cole.

“Morale is always at a delicate balance – and often tips dangerously toward the negative when there is a perception that a member of the team is playing a political card that offers unfair advantage,” he tells HRD.

“That sense of fairness is predicated on the supervisor treating all much the same way. The ‘teacher’s pet syndrome’ may be tolerated in elementary school – it becomes far more serious when pay checks and careers are concerned.”

Cole also warns that there can be dramatic consequences for an organisation that inadvertently rewards sucking-up over skill.

“There are innumerable examples of sycophants rising to a level of incompetence where they are finally ‘revealed’,’ says Cole. “When that happens, the kissing up no longer matters – now reality demands competence.”

Finally, Cole reminds employers than an organisation can only survive if it’s profitable and productive – anyone who is sucking up, is wasting time which could be better spent elsewhere.

“Suck up behaviour is an internally focused skill set and totally centred on survival,” he says. “Successful companies shift the attention externally - toward the customer and the work processes that drive the bottom line.”

Related stories:
Why L&D isn’t just for young bucks
Are you overlooking this talent pool?

Recent articles & video

Can you fire a worker who was put on a performance management plan?

From courtroom to corporate: CHRO's rise from litigator to HR stardom

Japanese firms observe mental health issues rebound this year

'Supervisor bias': Why your organisation's performance review needs a review

Most Read Articles

Return to office challenge: terminations upheld in courts

Millennials had to 'speak up’ to get recognition

Singapore employers urged to be clear on allowing remote work overseas