Unbelievable, unbearable, and incomprehensible. Sycophants are everywhere. Sucking-up takes a variety of forms, from petty compliment, to oily flattery, to outright treachery. Who hasn’t witnessed scenes like the following? A colleague in the dean’s office—ever-ready to bow-and-scrape—organizes an orientation for department chairs. While attendees grab their coffees, we see the dean’s flunkey trot to center stage. “Welcome back!” she chirps, “delighted to see you all here. It’s my great pleasure to introduce our wonderful dean. Would you all stand up and give her a round of applause?” She scurries back to her seat and gazes at the dean, giving her best Nancy Reagan doe-eyed looking-at Ronnie imitation.
We’ve just been asked to applaud the least successful dean our institution has had in decades. A stunned colleague whispers “she forgot to say ‘Hail, Maximum Leader!’” As usual, we are reduced to powerless irony and sarcasm. Heavy sighs all around as people straggle to their feet. This apparatchik is widely known as the dean’s creature, but today she’s outdoing herself. Her own perpetual kowtow is not enough. Now she’s going to toady by leading others in toadying. She will prove that she can, in pursuing her own campaign of sucking-up, marshal great forces of sycophancy to assist her.
When I tell this story to friends, many chime in with their own stories of suck-ups. One recounted the behavior of a male colleague at the memorial service of a distinguished British book retailer. This world-class weasel never made decisions (in case he came down on the wrong side) and routinely undermined new employees by cozying up to them under the guise of fellowship, all the while storing up potential dirt. Outspokenly “loyal” and reliably obeisant until the next putsch, his fealty shifted swiftly and completely at the opportune moment. All that toadying served him well: he became the next CEO’s right-hand man. Yet this same lickspittle broke into tears at the memorial service for one of the company’s founders. Who’d have thought that sycophancy could be posthumous?
We could go on. And generally, we do, trading stories about sucking up, each more outrageous than the last. Every workplace teems with sycophants: from the hardened—those opportunistic and career-driven cynics—to the skilled—hypocritical and suavely ingratiating—to the fawning—warmed by mere proximity to power. But despite the rich variety of these sycophantic anecdotes, they do little to help us understand the behavior. For it is not simply the action that makes for sycophancy. The intent matters, and that intent is often carefully concealed by inveterate flatterers. We never get inside the sycophant’s mind. Nor are we privy to the circumstances of sucking up—the relations and situations that elicit and sustain it. We have our exasperation, our disgust, and at times our amusement at the antics of sycophants, but we have very little insight into sycophants and sycophancy.
We mostly take sycophancy for granted. Whether we grumble about it or grudgingly tolerate it as the price of getting along in a complex society, we rarely examine sycophancy closely. Ingratiation falsifies the terms of our engagement with others and the fundamental basis of the communities we inhabit. Our book, Sucking Up: A Brief Consideration of Sycophancy considers sycophancy from several perspectives—from the earliest types mentioned in classical literature, to historical examples, to modern sociology, to notorious examples from literature.
We would like to hear your stories. Who are the targets and ingratiators? How do observers respond? To confront sycophancy, we must understand it—all the more so given that we have entered a period of spectacular bowing and scraping. As sucking up becomes the master trope of the current presidency, a consideration of this corrosive practice is in order.