Keeves, Westphal and McDonald (2017) Those Closest Wield the Sharpest Knife: How Ingratiation Leads to Resentment and Social Undermining of the CEO

Gareth D. Keeves – University of California Davis, Graduate School of Management and Rice University, Jones Graduate School of Business
James D. Westphal – University of Michigan, Stephen M. Ross School of Business
Michael L. McDonald – University of Texas at San Antonio, Alvarez College of Business

Emily Hsu – Washington University in St. Louis, Olin Business School
Ana Gabriela Rivera – The Pennsylvania State University, Smeal College of Business

Article link:

How did you decide to focus on ingratiation, as opposed to other constructs like impression management?

Ingratiation is interesting in part because it’s a way of getting around the Matthew Principle. It can work for almost anyone, even those who lack social capital (or other forms of capital). Impression management is less effective if you have little to brag about. We also thought that ingratiation could have complex and interesting psychological and behavioral side effects that haven’t received much attention, including negative psychological effects on the ingratiator (threatening self-regard) and negative social implications for the target (social undermining that damages their reputation). 

Regarding your answer to the previous question, it is interesting that you say ingratiation can work for almost anyone, even those who lack social capital (or other forms of capital). Do you think that people who experience strong imposter syndrome (i.e., feeling like a fraud and that any capital they have is fake/undeserved/based on luck) might engage in more ingratiation with others?

Sounds like a good research question! One hypothesis is that imposter syndrome triggers ingratiation, but that feelings of being an imposter often wax and wane over time (even short periods of time), and when they’re at a low ebb, that’s when feelings of resentment from ingratiation arise. There’s a need for research on the inter-temporal dynamics of social influence behavior and emotion, e.g., the implications of variance over time in influence behaviors like ingratiation and social undermining, and emotions like resentment. 

In the paper, you focus on demographics such as gender and race. How do you think the results of your paper might extend to other, perhaps less externally identifiable characteristics, such as religion or sexuality? That is, could your arguments be more generally about CEOs being in the focal managers’ outgroup, rather than their ingroup?

That’s a great question. Our theory would suggest that the results could generalize to other characteristics, provided that they provide a salient basis for social identification (if the characteristic is hard to notice then it wouldn’t qualify). An interesting possibility is that managers might be influenced by stereotypical markers of social or political categories (e.g., a republican manager assuming that a colleague who masks indoors is a democrat, leading to the pattern of resentment and undermining from ingratiation that we describe). Our theory should generalize to virtually any social category that can provide a salient basis for in-group/out-group categorization.

The study of CEOs is notorious for its methodological challenges (e.g., difficulty to get CEOs to answer surveys, or even getting access to them). What advice would you give to those scholars interested in top-executives as their main population?

Start with who you know. Does anyone at your school serve on a board, or have they in the past? If you ask around, you’re likely to find someone. That’s your first interview. Ask them about their experience (and themselves— see research on ingratiation), and ask them to introduce you to a top manager or director at the organization. This “snowball” approach takes time but it really works if you keep at it. 

What was the review process like? For example, is the published paper generally the same as the original submission or did it go through substantive changes in terms of theoretical framings or additional analyses?

It was a good experience. The theoretical arguments and findings didn’t change appreciably, but we had to do a number of robustness checks and improve the framing. The reviewers also identified some interesting connections between our work and research on power in groups (e.g., Greer and van Kleef, 2010). By struggling with the framing, we also came to a deeper understanding of how our research compares to prior work. We came to see a kind of inverse or “mirror” symmetry between our study and prior research. While extant theory showed how ingratiation leads to endorsements that enhance external reputation by increasing the influence target’s positive affect for the ingratiator, our study explains how ingratiation leads to social undermining that damages external reputation by triggering negative affect (i.e., resentment) of the ingratiator toward the influence target. And while prior research had shown how intergroup biases reduce the benefits that women and racial minorities derive from engaging in ingratiation, our study showed how similar biases augment the reputational costs to women and racial minorities from being the targets of ingratiation.

Is there anything we missed that you would want the scholarly community to know about this paper? You know your research best! Please raise a question that you wish we had asked you and then answer it.

I think this paper points to the need for more theory and research on resentment in organizations. It might be the most insidious, pervasive, and damaging emotion in the workplace (and beyond), yet it seems to have received little systematic research attention.

Would you be willing to elaborate more on the characteristics, or attributes, associated with resentment? For instance, resentment as an insidious and pervasive emotion suggests it is created over multiple instances of a particular behavior and somewhat resistant to behavioral changes (e.g., individuals making amends or changing their behavioral patterns). How might it compare to other emotions in the workplace?

Resentment is a complex emotion that is sensitive to the social and political context. Some forms of resentment, such as “ressentiment”, have been examined by philosophers (e.g., Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Scheler), sociologists (e.g., Weber), and psychologists. The idea that resentment is triggered by a scapegoating of out-group members has its roots in philosophy about ressentiment. There’s an opportunity to look further into the scapegoating process and the socio-political contexts in which it arises and persists. It also presents interesting opportunities for research on leadership. What kinds of leader communications subtly (or not so subtly) elicit ressentiment, and what kinds defuse it? These kinds of questions have unfortunately become more urgent in our current political climate.

Interviewer bios:

Emily Hsu is a rising 3rd year Ph.D. student in Organizational Behavior at the Washington University in St. Louis Olin Business School. She received her B.S. in Social Psychology with a double minor in Business and Biology from UC San Diego before joining WashU’s doctoral program in the Fall of 2020. She is interested in topics related to the interpersonal aspect of emotions, from phenomena such as emotional contagion and interpersonal emotion regulation to discrete “social” emotions such as shame and nostalgia. Emily is also fascinated by the new virtual world of work as introduced by the recent COVID-19 pandemic and is currently examining how the virtual context of videoconferencing impacts the way in which emotions affect group decision-making.

Gabriela “Gaby” Rivera is a second-year doctoral (soon to be third-year) student at the Management and Organization department at Smeal College of Business – The Pennsylvania State University. Her research interests are ethics, stakeholder management and salience, upper echelons perspectives and social theory. She works with Dr. Linda Treviño on projects that aim to better understand unethical leadership, and senior-leaders, stakeholder salience and management during the COVID19 crisis. Prior to joining the doctoral program her professional experiences included strategic project management, leadership development, international affairs, and video game/media production. Gabriela is an American Council on Education Fellow (class 2017-2018), and a Fulbright-Garciìa Robles Grantee (2019). She hold a Bachelors in Industrial Engineering, and an MBA, with a concentration in Marketing, from CETYS Universidad in Baja California, Mexico.

Works cited:

Greer, L. L., & van Kleef, G. A. (2010). Equality versus differentiation: The effects of power dispersion on group interaction. Journal of Applied Psychology, 95(6), 1032–1044.

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