Sycophant: Tale-Teller about Figs
Synonyms for “sycophant” include brown-noser, ass-kisser, bootlicker, flatterer, toady, apple polisher, yes-man, parasite, ladder climber, hanger-on, and fawner. When a cultural norm (or object) is important to a culture, it is given several names. The Eskimos have 50+ words for snow, Brazilians have 136 terms (28 categories) for skin color, and so on. So how did the word “sycophant” originate?
Origin of “Sycophant”
Well, if you’ve watched My Big, Fat Greek Wedding, the answer is not in the movie, but the origin of sychophancy came from Greece. “Sykophantēs” is Greek for a “tale-teller about figs.” In today’s terms, we may call that person a “snitch,” however the social context is more complicated than that. I shall explain…in ancient Greece, the law of the land had some loopholes. One such loophole, if you will, was the ability for unscrupulous people to take people to court for a crime both parties knew was not committed. It was a way to make money (i.e. blackmail), because it would be cheaper (and reduce the likelihood of a tarnished brand/reputation) to settle out of court. (A-hem!…don’t place that scalding hot coffee between your thighs as you drive away from the drive-thru).
Now 6th-century Greece did not have a police system in place, per se, and it was considered illegal to export any consumable goods other than olives, yet figs were another rich commodity. If a fellow citizen accused you of fig smuggling, then they, themselves, could prosecute you and gain from the rewards.
The rewards were not limited to financial gain, however. Being an informant to the authorities was a commonplace effort intended for recognition of civic duty and a behavior of explicit ingratiation. The strive for power and influence in social circles is a cultural phenomenon found throughout the animal kingdom (that includes us homo sapiens).
Having too much power and influence often lends itself to envy. Envy, in turn, can lead to slander, ostracism, and – in the case of Socrates (and, later, Jesus) – punishment by death. In Corporate America, the parallel terminology could be watercooler chatter, false accusation, termination (of employment).
While At Will states create room for chaos by the masses, Right to Work (a.k.a. Right to Fire states) states are breeding grounds for more sycophancy. This is because state law in At Will states protects the employee, whereas state law in Right to Work states protects the employer. This social construct leads people to perform more ingratiation (than usual) from the bottom-up, knowing that if they fail to please their superiors, termination can be as simple as Donald Trump’s “You’re fired” – no reason, or paper trail, necessary. This type of structure keeps traditional (i.e. Good Ol’ Boy) systems in place, and lends itself to conformity – which is, needless to say, lack of diversity of thought.
In a corporate setting rife with “yes-men,” how possible is it to have a robust strategy?
How likely is a sycophantic company capable of out-performing its competitors?
- Outsource Human Relations (HR). There is a grain of truth in every stereotype…social politics (hence, the workforce) will improve when the administrative laborers are off-site (or overseas). Many HR professionals tend to respond more from a “What do you want to fix?” or a “respond to the urgent” approach rather than a “focus on the important” one. They often demonstrate reticence, even resistance, to embrace a more strategic, and less transactional, approach, either from lack of know-how and/or fear.
- Clamp down on cronyism. Social factions develop as a direct result of “kharis” (Greek word with no direct translation) – which is a feeling of gratitude and loyalty for the extended favor. Self-serving behavior results (loyalty “pay-back” for having been hired by a friend/acquaintance) as opposed to what is best for the organization.
- Have a transparent succession plan in place. High-Potentials will stay and work hard when there is a career path outlined for them. Outright favoritism will drive them away.
- Hire Organization Development (OD) professionals. A real OD practitioner does not (always) supply the answers. Their role is to ask Socratic questions which determine the business need, and to partner with clients to determine the answers. They facilitate discussions. They retain objectivity, especially as outside/external consultants. In essence, they serve as the Center of Excellence (COE), which is responsible for designing the solution, while in-house HR staff implement the solution; not the other way around. The 5 standard COE areas are the following: Leadership Development, change management, team effectiveness, talent recruitment, and retention.
- Make your talent pool reflect your target market. This is so obvious, it is painful to include. However, the statistics on the emerging markets (“hidden” dollars) contrasted against the composition of most C-Suites are staggeringly incongruent.
- Role-model challenging others’ thought processes. Mimicry is the oldest form of learning. It is an innate ability we can witness in infants. Press your direct reports, and they will learn to do the same. (See also A Peak inside the Leadership Development of Facebook).
- Commend the challenging of thought process. Rewarded behavior makes it safe to perform, it gets repeated faster, and it becomes a norm. 17th-Century French philosopher René Descartes was famous for having said, “I think; therefore, I am.” Cartesian logic (named after Descartes) is the act of exploring conceptual thought to hear and practice how the logical path stems and to where it can lead. If a strategy is to be sound, then no stone must be left unturned, or your company risks losing its foothold on its competitive advantage. That’s worth praise!
“A prudent question is one-half of wisdom.” – Francis Bacon
Rossina Gil, MSOD, MAIS, is a Leadership and Organization Development Practitioner, cultural integration expert, and the founder of Corporate Looking Glass, LLC – a diverse consultancy of OD experts and strategic thinking partners. We increase retention. Visit CorporateLookingGlass.com.
© Rossina Gil, 2016