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Brown Noses and Failed Organizations
November 27, 2013
by William P. Meyers

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A brown-noser, one who brown noses, is a person who seeks favor from a superior by slavish, obsequious, or fawning behavior. The image is of the favor-seeker kissing the rear end of the favor-giver, and hence getting a bit of brown excrement on the nose. The term may have originated in the U.S. military during the late 1930's, as Americans used to considerable individual liberty reacted to military cultural standards. Compared to ass kisser, brown noser implies getting in deep and perhaps repeatedly.

Organizations of all types tend to be filled with brown nosers; the middle ranks of every hierarchy are filled with them. Academia, the military, religious and non-profit organizations, government bureaucracies, and especially business organizations all are filled with sycophantic characters. I believe, would even say I have observed, that too much brown-nosing is a common cause of organizational failure.

You could argue other wise. As is so often the case, a lot depends on how you define failure (or success), how you define brown nosing, and dozens of other variables that affect people and their organizations.

Consider mentoring and role modeling. Those are good, right? Well, they are only as good or bad (or complex in many variables) as the specific mentoring and modeling. Of the many forms of brown nosing, perhaps the most common and effective is imitation. Initiation of a good model should produce good results. The problem is that there is often no lack of bad models in organizations. So imitating a person, as a form of brown nosing, can have positive or negative results, depending on the person imitating.

We want young children to imitate their teachers to learn the alphabet and learn to read. Whether we want young adult citizens to imitate the politics of various role models depends on our value systems.

One aspect of brown nosing, as opposed to appropriate learning methods, is a desire to get rewards out of proportion to the actual merits of performance within an organization. For instance, a student who tests at the B level may use brown nosing as a tactic to convince a teacher to award a grade of A for a course. The student is thereby seeking to equate his or her self with the students who earned A's, while distinguishing themselves from those who earned what they earned, B's. Methods could include direct bribes or threats, but more wheedling and whining are often tried.

Brown nosing in its true sense is more about sweet talking and shows of admiration than about crude bribes, and it should be a continuous process. The effect may be more to guarantee an A than to ensure getting one without earning it, and the admiration may even be genuine.

Grades, in the lower levels of academia like high school, serve as filters. Getting into college, getting into graduate school, getting the thesis supervisor you need, all depend on how well you have already done.

The most critical aspect of brown-nosing is telling people what they want to hear. Getting the answers "right" is largely a matter of regurgitation. Originality should be confined to propping up the established belief system, not to overthrowing it. Originality is valued in principle, and generally required for a successful PhD thesis, but in reality original people are usually filtered out of academia long before they rise that high. There are just enough exceptions that occasionally some progress is made, even in brown-nose dominated domains like English Literature, economics, and sociology. But keep in mind the brown-nosing personality is good at conserving culture; institutions are cohesive, and therefore functional, because brown glue keeps most people from spinning off on tangents.

Outside of academia brown-nosing takes only slightly different forms. Brown nosers get promotions; people who criticize or ignore the instructions of their superiors fail to rise, and may even be fired. If an organization is performing well this is not a bad thing. As with mutations in nature, if a business is highly adapted to its environment, a change is more likely to be detrimental than adaptive. In a rapidly changing environment, however, the inertia usually associated with brown nosing can mean a failure to change, and organizational failure, as we have seen in Research in Motion (Blackberry), WorldCom (former telecommunications company), and Bear Sterns (an investment bank).

Even in more slowly changing environments governments and political parties based on brown nosing have failed, notably the former Tsarist government of Russia, the more recent but also former Communist government of Russia, and the fascist government of General Franco in Spain.

Organizational inertia is sometimes ascribed to the Peter Principle, which says that even in a merit-based promotional system, eventually each person will be promoted beyond their level of ability. The problem is the definition of merit. Most people in the position to promote will think that brown nosers truly merit promotions. They may fail to see flaws in the brown nosers. For this very reason people may be lifted to a level beyond their competence. But brown nosers are practiced in the art of appearing to be competent. They may squeeze competence out of subordinates, or successfully blame outside factors (sales are down in Newton because of X, not because I am an incompetent sales leader. Let me divert to your attention to Oldton, where sales are up [but only because Geraldine, who is not a brown noser and did not get promoted, has that territory]).

In some businesses it is the customers that must be brown nosed. Just as Apple long ago perfected the art of telling customers they were superior because they paid high prices for computers, many businesses get repeat sales by telling their customers how lucky they are to be allowed to serve them. Hair dressers and almost all professionals do better business when they brown nose their customers. Whether the better brown nosers do a better job for their customers is another matter.

Is it a crime to try to please your superiors? No, in fact if an organization is doing work beneficial to society, pleasing superiors mostly has good consequences. The bad consequences of a brown nose culture tend to manifest when things are going wrong.

In World War I British Empire officers (including leading generals) demonstrated the ultimate bad consequences of a system built on brown nosing. The English Army was still largely a reflection of class stratification: upper class types became officers, workers became enlisted men, and aristocrats became generals. While it can be said that all war is pointless, there was something truly insane about the mass charges of Brits (colonial subjects) into artillery barrages, machine gun fire, and barbed wire entanglements. Is business organizations just following orders gets you a paycheck. In a mismanaged military organization, it can get you killed.

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