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A Psychological Explanation for the Dysfunctional Trump White House

Kissing up to the boss takes a toll on employees' self-control.
President Donald Trump stands at the entrance of the White House in Washington, D.C.

President Donald Trump stands at the entrance of the White House in Washington, D.C.

The Trump White House has stood out from its predecessors in two important ways: its chaotic nature, and the staff's tendency to flatter their boss.

New research suggests those two highly problematic traits may, in fact, be linked.

It reports kissing up to the person in charge can deplete employees' finite levels of self-control. This can lead to incivility and indiscipline, which can make a workplace increasingly dysfunctional.

"There's a personal cost to ingratiating yourself with your boss," lead author Anthony Klotz of Oregon State University said in announcing the findings. "When your energy is depleted, it may nudge you into slack-off territory."

In the Journal of Applied Psychology, Klotz and colleagues from the United States and China describe a study featuring 75 mid-level managers at a large Chinese software corporation. As part of an "executive development program," the employees filled out a survey at the end of each work day for two weeks.

In it, they noted any attempts at ingratiating themselves with superiors, including agreeing with the supervisor's opinion, or doing him or her favors. They also estimated their subsequent level of self-control, and reported any "deviant" behaviors they engaged in.

Here, "deviance" is defined as "intentional behaviors that are performed with the goal of causing harm to the organization, its members, and/or its stakeholders," such as slacking off or acting out.

The researchers found that employees with low levels of political skill—that is, those who are less good at navigating office politics—reported lower levels of self-control after sucking up to their supervisors. This, in turn, increased the chances they engaged in unproductive or hostile behavior.

"The effort required to successfully pull off acts of favor-doing, flattery, and conformity may leave employees feeling drained, and increase their deviance," Klotz and his colleagues conclude.

Fortunately for the next White House chief of staff—whomever that may be—there are techniques that can dampen this destructive dynamic. He could encourage employees who are worn out by all that insincere smiling and nodding to "take a walk, talk to a friend, eat a snack," Klotz said. "That's typically better than allowing the depletion to manifest in other ways, like skipping a meeting or being rude to a co-worker."

He added that the boss can help. "Positive reinforcement," he said, "is resource-giving."

So the president would be wise to occasionally thank his underlings, and let them know they are appreciated. Now if only there was a medium that would allow him to convey such messages in a few short words, and share them with the world.