Creeping once meant an apple for teacher. Now, as Joanne Brill reports, white lies and sycophancy have become key black arts of the workplace
IN America they refer to it as "brown-nosing" and that's polite compared to the terms we use over here. Perhaps it's our British reserve, but in the workplace schmoozing, flattering, sycophancy in the cause of Getting On - call it what you will - is still frowned upon. It's one of those things you can just about get away with in private, but suck up to your boss in full view of colleagues and prepare to plunge to the depths in their estimation levels.

Why does such an activity provoke deep-seated contempt from observers? Partly because in its overt form it's a type of behaviour that implies a lack of sincerity and a certain disingenuous nature. Clearly, however, some levels of schmoozing are more acceptable than others. Like flirting, a lot depends on technique. As Cary Cooper, professor in organisational psychology at the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology, explains: "Brown-nosing takes a lot of forms, from the overt sort, such as a public declaration of someone's success to more subtle things: saying 'yes' a lot, never disagreeing and always affirming. Another way is always attending meetings for senior people even if it has no relevance to your own job."

He adds: "But brown-nosing is a deliberate act. It's thought through and it's an admission that you're prepared to do anything for promotion." Which is another reason why it can be so distasteful to those who witness it but aren't on the receiving end. "It can offend people's sense of self- respect and dignity," says Cooper.

It certainly offends Jonathan, 32, who works for a company with a high turnover of sales staff - of which he is one. For him, there's nothing worse than seeing a "brown-nose" in action. "I hate the obsequiousness some new recruits always show to our boss. When they realise he's into football, they'll take any opportunity to score points by talking about it.

"I know one bloke who had absolutely no interest in football but would revise Saturday's results so he could make conversation with the boss on Monday morning."

He continues: "Some of them will actually try to take on the boss's persona - talk a bit like him, crack similar jokes, express the same views. They think they'll be liked the more like him they are." Jonathan's disdain is all the greater since his boss actually seems to enjoy this sort of sycophantic treatment. "I think he sees through it on one level but he does definitely enjoy it. I can see it boosts his ego when people laugh at his jokes and tell him what a great salesman he is. I lose respect for him as a result."

When a boss is flattered by such behaviour there is a strong danger other staff, like Jonathan, will become resentful. According to corporate psychologist Beverley Stone "That kind of action can demoralise the achievers who aren't so good at playing games. So leaders have to be aware of those who keep their heads down."

While some bosses may lap it up, many others see straight through it. Sophie, a 32-year-old TV producer, was aware of her colleagues' shift in attitude after her recent promotion. "Everyone was being doubly nice to me; returning my calls promptly, nodding and smiling more, agreeing with me in meetings. People I'd known for years suddenly weren't being themselves," she recalls. "I got a taste - in a small way - of what it's like to be famous. Everyone wants to be your friend but I really didn't like it. I got used to it after a fortnight and now I don't really notice.

But this sort of behaviour - in Jonathan and Sophie's office - is likely to increase as down-sizing and short-term contracts flourish. Cooper says: "A brown-noser is either ambitious or feels extremely threatened by job loss. They'll do it for safety and security." Yet many people couldn't brown-nose even if they knew their job was on the line. So why is such an activity innate for some but prostitution of the soul for others? Stone says: "Some people are much better at presenting themselves in a certain way. From childhood they've had to be more manipulative to gain attention or praise. Others who've been rewarded for humility and honesty find it more difficult."

But many raised on a diet of honesty and integrity would still like to know how to creep subtly should the need arise. Katy, 34, publicity manager for a publishing company, says ruefully: "I don't have a sense of hierarchy. I tend to treat people normally, so if 'Dave the friend' suddenly becomes 'Dave the boss' I still treat him like 'Funny old Dave' rather than someone who's my senior."

Part of this is gender difference; men accept game playing as part of the corporate culture, whereas women still feel more self-conscious when it comes to ingratiating themselves in an obvious way.

Darren, 32, a marketing director for a drinks company, is open about his techniques. "I think I'm fairly obsequious," he confesses. "I'll flatter my boss and my clients because being nice to people is the way to get on." He always laughs at his director's jokes. "They are all terrible but, yes, I force myself to laugh along. Last week I told him all the girls in his office really liked his tie and I asked him where I could buy one. I was being quite ironic about it but he was still flattered." As Cooper says: "Men know how to play the organisational political structure - they can see who are the rising stars and the people to link their halos to. On balance, women feel it's below their dignity and prefer to do it on their own terms."

Or at least do it subtly while still retaining a shred of self-dignity and the respect of other colleagues. Ros Taylor, a psychologist who runs Plus Consulting, says that's what all of us should aim for. Her first tip is to drop the negative terms. "If you call it 'influencing', people will act in a different way. Call it 'brown-nosing' and they won't."

Taylor agrees that there is a fine dividing line, but the key is sincerity. "Compliments are a persuasive technique, but you've got to be genuine. If you say to someone 'I really love what you do,' that's OK if you mean it. It's only brown-nosing if you don't really like that person."

So, basically, if you can convince yourself that you really mean it, you can creep with a crystal-clear conscience. This isn't quite what Taylor has in mind. "Go up to someone and focus on what you genuinely like about them," she counsels. "It's about giving feedback in a warm fashion. Then of course you'll get on - people will want to be around you."

Cooper's tip is perhaps more realistic. "Try to tell your boss about a success, then imply the idea came from them. That way you kill two birds with one stone. You're saying 'I'm successful, but it was thanks to you.' " And if that approach isn't quite your style either, don't worry. Brown-nosing in all its various forms just isn't worth faking.

Cooper stresses: "Don't try to be anything that you're not. Anytime someone's not themselves it doesn't serve them well. Rather than pandering to someone's ego, be yourself and you'll always be more successful."